What’s amazing about the fourth episode of Stranger Things is that it’s actually taken this long for a direct reference to Stephen King. ‘The Body’ thematically ties itself to King’s novella of the same name – later adapted into Stand By Me – with the focus of the episode on confronting the reality of Will’s death.
And yet this is an inversion. While the kids in King’s story trek out across the fields and into the woods to see a dead body, to confront their own mortality, Hopper in Stranger Things pushes further and further into the conspiracy to discover that there is existence beyond mortality.
From the opening scene where Hopper offers muted comfort to Joyce about the discovery of Will’s body, suggesting that he fell by accident into the water at the bottom of the quarry, it’s clear that Joyce’s protestations are finally getting through.
Last episode was all about tying us to Joyce’s frustration that nobody sees what she sees – the lights, the wall, the monster – here we witness Hopper finally catching on. Joyce tells him that she needs him to believe her, and it’s clear he wants to. He starts up his truck but then turns it off, settling in to sleep outside the Byers’ house, echoing Joyce’s actions in the second episode. On the radio, or in our heads, Joy Division’s Atmosphere calls out:
‘Don’t walk away in silence.’
Hopper’s characterisation is vaguer than Joyce’s at this point. It’s clear there’s a past, and that the past is central to his arc in the season. His words to Joyce about dealing with grief, about nearly falling into a hole after his daughter’s death are the first clear portrait of what motivates him. For once though, this vagueness works. Hopper claims to have not fallen down that hole, but he wakes each morning to brush his teeth with a swill of stale beer. His trailer is a mess, and he doesn’t seem to be able to keep track with who is in his bed from one week to the next.
Hopper might say he’s over his grief, but his actions say otherwise. And maybe, by listening to Joyce and scratching the itch that nothing sits right with Will’s death, Hopper is seeing that bringing Joyce some resolution might do likewise for his pains over his daughter’s death.
His gruff bumbling police-work of the first few episodes gives way to concerted action in ‘The Body’. He takes out two different guards in different scenes. He shows a previously unseen guile and intelligence in learning of the cover-up with Will’s body, and tackles his own horror over a child’s death by plunging a knife into Will’s corpse to discover that everything he was believing was an illusion.
Will still lives on somewhere. Joyce was right. Bad men are doing bad things. Joy Division, again:
‘Your confusion, my illusion. Worn like a mask of self-hate, confronts and then dies. Don’t walk away.’
It’s not long into the episode when it’s confirmed that the body they pulled out of the water isn’t Will. Mike and Eleven hear Will singing on the radio, and this allows us to support Joyce’s accusations that the body is ‘a thing’ and not Will, rather than having us stew in her public breakdown. We can empathise, and then share her and Hopper’s journey, rather than feel exploited by a story questioning the sanity of its own protagonists. Stranger Things isn’t concerned with exploitative twists to shock the viewer, it’s much more interested in examining the strangeness of how and why people do what they do.
Further testament to this, is the show’s willingness to reveal what’s happening inside the Hawkins National Laboratory. That the sci-fi aspect of this show can sit alongside the domestic scenes in Hawkins itself, and the happenings at the school and the police station, is a credit to Stranger Things’ control of its tone. Soon Hopper and Joyce and the kids will need to confront the reality of what’s happening in the Laboratory – the two worlds will collide – but they will be unified by the show’s ability to jump from realism to sci-fi to horror and all the way back again.
The scene in the Laboratory once again underscores the corruption of family that Brenner oversees. Fresh from the horrible treatment of Eleven in flashback last episode, here Brenner sends Shepard into the womb-like portal, only for Shepard’s dying screams to be heard a little later, followed by the retracting of his bloodied, mangled safety cable. Brenner refers to Shepard as ‘son’, and one could have a psychoanalytic field day reading into this sequence and what Brenner is coming to represent.
The discovery of the monster in the photograph by Nancy is hackneyed, the stuff of bad fiction, but it plays better than it should. Part of this is that despite its clichéd reveal – lucky she kept those pieces of the torn up photo! – it comes organically out of the story thus far. Jonathan’s desire to find his brother sent him out to the woods, where he stumbled upon Nancy and the others at the pool, and then Barb was left alone because of Nancy’s actions, and so on and so forth. It’s hard to work out where the insertion of a cliché begins and where the story takes over.
Any one of these moments feels like they belong to a different story, but because they are moments supported by character motivation, it all reads as plausible causation. This is what is setting Stranger Things apart from other nostalgia-laden retreads: the story is generated through the characters, because of them and their desires. There’s no cynical exploitation of the viewers or the characters just to tick boxes along the way.
This is most notable in Joyce’s final scenes, where she talks to Will through the wall of her house, peeling back the wallpaper so she can see him more clearly. She takes an axe to the wall, echoing similar shots of another crazed parent from the 80s – The Shining’s Jack Torrance – but again none of this feels like nostalgic fan-service. Joyce marches to the shed (where Will disappeared), returns immediately with the axe, and opens a hole in the wall because that is exactly what her character needs to do at that point in time.
The tying of this moment to the scene with the boys and Eleven using the radio to tune in to Will’s location is reminiscent of Game of Thrones‘ episode ‘The Door’, and Lost‘s ‘The Constant’, in its ability to bend space and time logic to unite characters through emotion. It’s clever plotting, and again follows that organic process where the threads are so tightly woven that it doesn’t feel like plot for the sake of plot. That Eleven and the boys were able to bring Joyce closer to Will, albeit briefly, indicates that their cooperation will become essential if they are to ever find him.
So just as one parent sends a symbolic child through a hole to their death in the Laboratory, so another is trying to bring one back to life by opening a hole in her house. Stranger Things could not be making its point more clearly that the domestic setting is what is most at stake here. Joyce’s family and Hopper’s family – these are the locations of grief, tragedy, and fear. Brenner and his cronies are preying on this, exploiting and corrupting the family bonds for their own yet-to-be-articulated reasons, and the monster that Nancy saw is the manifestation of this corruption.
Halfway through its season, and its story, Stranger Things has established the stakes, and the necessary motivations for the characters. All that’s left is for the characters to find their way to Will and to each other, to restore what was lost and mend what was broken.