Over and over I saw articles discussing the wonderful manner in which Stranger Things subverted the “bad-boyfriend” stereotype with its character, Steve Harrington. Steve starts as the typical 80s jock who’s kind of a jerk, but still cute and popular enough for sweet and brainy Nancy to turn her back on what she cares about – good grades, doing the right thing, her best friend, Barb – in order to be with him. As the show progresses Steve seems to increasingly play into his archetype until…he doesn’t. Until he stands up to his nasty friends and helps both Nancy and his romantic rival, Jonathan, fight off the Demogorgon at risk to his own safety.
…But “Bad-Boyfriend” Steve isn’t the only stereotype subverted. In truth, the magic of the show lies, in no small part, in all the archetypes and tropes it sets up and then slowly tears apart across the episodes.
First and foremost it plays with its characters. At first glance nearly every character in Stranger Things is a cliche from popular movies, especially those from the 1980s. We’ve already gone over Steve, but girlfriend, Nancy, is equally set up as a cliche. She’s the sweet and brainy virgin willing to abandon her unpopular friend, Barb, in pursuit of popularity. Then there’s the typical “weird girl” from horror movies akin to Carrie in young Eleven a.k.a. El. Even the main adults start off as easily identifiable cookie-cutter models: Joyce Byers is the scattered (then hysterical) single-mom archetype and Chief Hopper the disinterested small-town cop.
Once you have all these cliched characters figured out, are sure you know who they are and where they fit in the story, Stranger Things truly shines. Because you’re wrong. As episodes unfold the show reveals that nothing about them is as it appears. “Weird girl” El isn’t the out-control-psychic girl like Carrie, instead she is (almost) fully in control of her powers and doles out punishment with appropriate measure — kid bullies get a broken arm, government assassins get killed. That sweet, virginal, Nancy just trying to be popular? First, she’s not a virgin for very long and, second, she’s not so sweet she lets anyone get over on her, be it her love interest(s) or her parents. In the end she won’t let others determine what’s right for her and downright kicks Demogorgon ass. Single-mom on the edge, Joyce, is similarly stronger than her archetype would suggest. While her behavior is considered “crazy” by others she acknowledges this, takes the verbal jabs from all sides (including her son), and carries on with a determination only a mother might have. She stands up to Dr Brenner (El’s villainous “Papa”) and both supports and comforts El when the girl goes into the Upside Down to try and find Will and Barb. Chief Hopper reveals himself to be an outright hero (leaning towards anti-hero) willing to do whatever it takes to solve the case including punching everything that moves, going up against the US government and the Demogorgon, and selling out El (hence anti-hero) to get Will back.
The next thing Stranger Things subverts is classic plot tropes from the films they reference. As mentioned prior Nancy the Virgin doesn’t stay a virgin for very long…By law-of-trope that would mean she has to die – sex equals death in monster/horror movies, especially for the females – but that doesn’t happen. She not only survives, but thrives. After losing her friend, Barb, to the Demogorgon she begins a mission to kill the creature and find her friend. Speaking of Barb, that she – the unpopular, but loyal, friend – is the one to die is a trope subversion onto itself and one that ups the tension. No one is safe when the normal rules of the horror genre no longer apply.
The entire ending of the first season is a bit of a trope subversion onto itself…Twice over and in multiple ways. First in the fate of El. If she’s not Carrie crazy, then it would be easy to set her into a gentler, E.T.-type, role meaning she gets to escape her bonds and “go home”…whatever that might mean for El. That’s not what happens though. From all appearances El sacrifices herself for the betterment of her newfound friends, destroying herself into black dust to defeat the Demogorgon. Yet that’s still not the end of it. The final scenes show Chief Hopper back to cracking jokes and grabbing munchies at a holiday party (trope) only to then drop them and El’s beloved Eggos in a box out in the woods (subverted) suggesting El’s not gone for good (doubly subverted). Nancy and Steve are together, which is a subversion itself – traditionally she’d end up with shy, arty, Jonathan – but that Nancy’s gift to Jonathan was likely Steve’s idea/purchase gives this love triangle its second twist. We see the core group of boys back playing Dungeons & Dragons with Will and the boy safely and happily back home with mom and big brother. At the end of any show or movie this is the happy ending we expect, but again not all is what it seems. After a coughing fit Will excuses himself to the bathroom where he not only coughs up a nasty black slug, but flashes back to the Upside Down. …Between El’s open fate and Will’s darker one alone this once tidy ending is no longer tidy in truly unexpected ways.
Ultimately, this is the magic behind Stranger Things. It both pays homage to and subverts the classic archetypes and tropes seen over and over to the audience’s benefit. The audience ends up feeling both great nostalgia and that traditional tension, even fright, they got from the originals.
(Photo: Curtis Baker/Netflix; found here.)