When people ask me if I enjoyed Stranger Things, my response has to be “Well, it wouldn’t usually be my thing, but somehow I watched the entire thing almost in one sitting, found myself gasping or shouting at it more than once, and will be haunted by that menacing synth music for years to come… so I guess it’s doing something right.”
One of these somethings has to be the character writing, which creates fictional people compelling enough to keep you hooked even if the story itself is based heavily on tropes we’ve seen many times before and probably wouldn’t make the show stand out on its own. Most of the main cast are interesting and layered in their own ways, and are put together with what I think is a very neat amount of technical skill, chiefly surrounding that age old writing mantra Show, Don’t Tell.
For instance: at no point do we ever need to be told that Jim Hopper is a human disaster with a tragic past, because this information is handed to us on a silver platter of visual coding. He has the neatest establishing character moment in the series, I think, which paints a picture of his basic personality and contradictions and hints to his backstory, light-handedly enough to be intriguing and plain enough to demonstrate all the details the audience needs to know about this guy to progress headlong into the story. We see a child’s drawing pinned in pride of place on the wall, which is then panned away from to show a messy kitchen, even messier living room, the TV still on, and a scruffy, displaced looking man sunken into the couch. There’s no dialogue, just Hopper peeling himself off the sofa, completing his morning routine interspersed with sips of beer, deep “pull yourself together man” sighs, and about fifty cigarettes. And then this addiction-soaked splatter of a man who conked out without even having the energy to turn the TV off puts on a sheriff’s uniform.
In that short sequence, we know that he’s dysfunctional and a little self-destructive, is embedded in a haphazard bachelor lifestyle despite having a kid’s picture on the wall (how strange), and his job is to enforce the law. We don’t need to get any of this in words, the show just lays it at our feet in almost textbook Show, Don’t Tell demonstration. We do hear in dialogue that he had a daughter who died, but again, it doesn’t need to be spelled out to us that this is the reason his life collapsed. Do we need to be told that his marriage deteriorated somewhere after the child’s death, and his wife has moved on and is aware and resentful of his bad habits? No, we just need to hear a sigh down the phone line, the question “Have you been drinking?” in a knowing tone, and a baby crying in the background. Hopper’s face tells us the rest, and the audience is trusted to put the situation together long before the somewhat sappy (but nevertheless effective, because I’m a sap) tragic flashback in the final episode.
Although we’re given well-known tropes to lean on as starting blocks (the Funny Fat Kid, the Jerk Jock and his Bitchy Girlfriend, The Glamour Housewife) the characterisation doesn’t spoonfeed the audience and you effectively infer most of what you know about the characters and their relationships from just observing them. An extreme example is obviously Eleven and the scary government agent she calls Papa, which, in itself, is a telling detail about how skewed her perceptions and relationships are—that and the completely bare, clinical and almost prison-like room where she lives at the facility, stark white and terrifying but for a single plush toy and a drawing on the wall. The drawing itself is a very loaded visual clue, in that it shows Eleven’s view of the normal world: where other little kids would draw Mommy and Daddy and their square house or whatever, Eleven’s ordinary world consists of the looming figure of Papa, a white room with a camera observing, and a cat on the table, which we see in flashbacks she was being encouraged to torture as practice for her telekinesis.
On the subject of the cat, we get the biggest insight into her relationship with “Papa” Brenner when she, possessing some basic compassion, refuses to hurt the cat, and is dragged away to be locked in what we can only assume is a solitary confinement cupboard (which she has flashbacks to later when she hides in Mike’s wardrobe, and looks overwhelmed, confused and joyous that he actually comes back to let her out… another telling detail about the experience she’s had with humans, and that being locked in there was probably a regular thing), and when she defends herself by using her psychic powers to straight up murder the men putting her there, then Papa comes over, no longer the stern and scary scientist, but someone who cradles her adoringly, calls her “Incredible”, and carries her away like a dad would carry a sleepy child from the car to bed. Eleven looks terrified, but validated, and it becomes pretty clear that this back and forth of torment and reward is the basis of their dynamic.
We can even just garner this from how he gives her a spectacular present, a potted flower, as pre-emptive reward for being sent down into a horrifying water chamber for psychic reasons (he gives it to her first, so now she feels she has to go and earn it and can’t back out, a subtle little manipulation). She’s uncomfortable in the lab, but really doesn’t realise that that’s not how people who care about you act until she stays with Mike and the others. Eleven, again, doesn’t say much, but it’s a testament to the way her situations are written and Millie Bobby Brown’s fantastic subtle acting that we can infer everything we need to know about her past and emotionally manipulative relationship.
It seems like nobody told Karen Wheeler about the whole Show, Don’t Tell thing though, because she repeatedly tells her children that they can trust her and tell her everything… and both children either roll their eyes violently or wince awkwardly away in ways that hint to the viewer, hmm, they probably feel like they can’t for whatever reason. The promise does come off as a bit hollow when Mrs Wheeler uses the ol’ hairpin lockpick to break into her daughter’s room, only to find it mysteriously empty because said daughter has gone monster hunting without telling her. And has also had a boy sleep over, which she didn’t tell anyone about, the same way Mike has been hiding Eleven in the basement for the better part of a week.
There is very clear domestic distrust on both sides of this parent-child relationship, even before we get to the supernatural stuff, and it’s also very clear that Karen is trying her best but the ways she’s going about bridging it are all wrong. I mean, offering your daughter some really pretty shoes in a consoling voice might seem like a sweet feminine bonding experience, but you are still going to a funeral. It becomes increasingly clear that the things she thinks will soften her kids don’t hit the mark and she has very little tact in finding out what things actually will. Compare this with Joyce Byers, who makes a conscious effort to be enthusiastic and interested in the nerdy stuff both her sons enjoy and seems to have fostered a genuine friendship with Will—Joyce earns, and remembers, the secret password to her son’s cubby house; Karen breaks into her daughter’s bedroom.
Not to say, of course, that Karen cares less about her kids—the contrasts between the two mothers are simply highlighted, again without a word, just laid for the audience as demonstration of character and relationships. Karen never has a hair out of place, dedicates herself to maintaining the kind of dreamy household where everyone has homecooked meals at the same table every night (and breakfast—does anyone really have breakfast together as a family every day? They do in this American Dream), and as for her relationship with her husband, Mike makes an offhand comment about how the Lay-Z-Boy chair is where his dad sleeps… whether that means he just naps there or is sleeping on the couch in the proverbial sense isn’t clear, but given the conservation of detail (i.e. everything featured is important somehow–another golden writing rule) I’m inclined to take it as implication of marital problems that add further depth to the picture of this family.
Joyce, we can infer from everything we see about her, is a frazzled, far less fashionable and feminine working single mother who cares deeply for her kids even if her version of domesticity is wildly different to the Wheelers’ rigid, preppy structure. Joyce is the Distressed Mother endlessly dedicated to her child, but she’s also allowed—and shown—to be so much more than that. She’s compassionate and fun, she’s resourceful, and she knows she’s fulfilling the Distressed Mother Goes Crazy cliché and it frustrates the hell out of her. She’s heroic, but isn’t turned into a badass monster-punching action heroine simply because it would be cool, and we’re okay with this as an audience because through what we’ve been shown we know that’s not what Joyce would do.
From set dressings, atmosphere, costuming, and the most basic characterisation we get an immediate sense that these two families are incredibly different. You only need to look at the first tiny scene with the Wheelers and the first tiny scene where Joyce and Jonathan discover Will is missing to learn all the ground rules you need to continue with the show, the same way you’re presented with all the ground rules you need to understand the basics of Hopper in his establishing character moment, and the same way you can put together what an emotional mess Eleven’s upbringing was in a few effectively dialogue-less flashbacks and her everyday behaviour. On a technical level I think Stranger Things is on a mission—successful—to push all the right buttons writing-wise, and a combination of scripting and acting creates a vibrant cast of characters and dynamics that we can read, understand, and get attached to very easily.