It’s actually quite incredible that Stranger Things pushes us so close to the unknown so early. Where it easily might have led us astray, or kept secrets hidden, the show actually allows us to follow Hopper right into the holy of holies in the basement of the Hawkins Lab – the Emerald City – and allows him to actually touch the gate.
Again, it’s worth reflecting on the question that earlier episodes left us with: do we embrace our fears, or run away from them? That motif has been repeated in various forms, from Joyce confronting the horrors in Will’s empty room, to Hopper opening up Will’s ‘body’, to Mike’s readiness to accept Eleven as a normal part of his world. The show has judged these choices as good, and so we need to applaud Hopper’s roughshod infiltration of the Hawkins Lab, despite his eventual failure to learn anything.
In fact, it is Stranger Things’ readiness to accept the science fiction aspect of the show that colours this episode most strongly. Mike, Dustin and Lucas sit down with Mr Clarke at the wake for Will and ask him point of fact about alternate dimensions and parallel universes. Not only doe he gives us a folded paper diagram akin to Event Horizon’s wormhole example (by way of Interstellar), but the show provides us with just an inkling of science fiction to ground the story’s reality in.
And this is the wonderful nature of science fiction. It doesn’t need to be scientifically accurate, it just needs to fit a plausible realm of possibility, if certain factors are at play. And if they are at play – as they certainly seem to be from the opening scene of the first episode – then the show can embrace the alternate constraints of this fictional reality. Mr Clarke explains, through his metaphor of the flea and the acrobat, how a parallel universe might exist, and by inference how Will might still be alive but hiding.
Once again, the show manages to connect the domestic with the fantastical, without jarring the audience. When Nancy slides into this parallel universe at the end of the episode, its only because of the groundwork the show has done earlier that this feels plausible, and natural. Of course a portal can open up in the side of a tree, and of course Nancy will go through it.
This parallel universe is labelled the Upside Down by Eleven, to explain her conceptual understanding of where Will is in relation to them. The black canvas backing to the playing board is real, and it’s right there, they just can’t see it or get to it easily. It is, as Dustin says, the Vale of Shadows,
‘a dark reflection or echo of our world, a place of decay and death, a place of monsters. It is right next to you and you don’t even see it.’
And suddenly Stranger Things’ thematic concerns come sharply into focus. As Dustin describes the Upside Down, elsewhere Lonnie has moved back in to the Byers’ house. Ostensibly here’s there for the funeral, but as Joyce discovers, he’s interested in claiming some compensation for Will’s death along the way. There may be a monster lurking in the walls and woods of Hawkins, but it’s clear that the Duffer Brothers are setting this up as a manifestation of other monsters. Lonnie gaslights Joyce, and threatens to undo all the emotional work she and Jonathan had done in getting to the place where both believed Will to still be alive (albeit independent of each other).
Joyce has broken a hole in the wall so she can see clearly, Lonnie puts a tarp over it. He tells Jonathan to take down his Evil Dead poster, lest anyone continue to think the dead can come back to the world of the living. He is literally there to destroy their hope, and their connection as a family unit. The domestic scene, with a physically and emotionally abusive father returned from a long absence, is the dark reflection of our world. It is the place of monsters, right next to us that we don’t see until something nudges it into outline.
Similarly, Hopper awakens on his couch, unsure how he got there but certain the shady figures at the Hawkins Lab set him up to look out of his mind should he try and blow the lid on what he’s seen. He too has found his home life corrupted, just as Joyce has with Lonnie. But in this case, his trailer is bugged. Dr Brenner and his team are all about infiltrating domesticity from afar, tuning in to people’s private lives to see what they can glean.
Hopper’s agonising conversation with his ex-wife over the phone continues this theme: how much the loss of their child and the breakdown of their marriage was Hopper’s fault in uncertain, but he’s clearly aware that by calling her he’s negatively affecting her new life. His presence isn’t needed or wanted, and the longer he talks to her the worse he will make it.
Lonnie’s presence in the Byers’ household is the same. He blames Joyce for Will’s loss, even though we know it had nothing to do with Joyce and everything to do with bad men doing bad things. Jonathan describes to Nancy what his parenting was like, taking him out hunting and forcing younger Jonathan to shoot a rabbit. He cried for a week.
Bad parenting, bad men, and running away from fearful truths. All of these are lurking around the edges of Stranger Things’ philosophy. This comes to a visual head in Eleven’s flashbacks.
The show has made much of its visual and tonal call-backs to other stories through its episodes. Most have been time-appropriate, in that they are visual nods to stories created around the time Stranger Things is set (such as the Stand By Me shot in this episode), with a couple of minor exceptions. Eleven’s trip to the void via the sensory deprivation tank stands out for its boldness in directly replicating its source material, Under the Skin.
In that film, Scarlett Johansson’s alien lures men into the very same void, seducing them and then leading them to drown in the inky black depths of the void. It’s possible to read this as a revenge against predatory male behaviour, isolating and condemning men who treat women purely as objects, purely as what they see on the surface of their skin.
Stranger Things places Eleven in this void, literally the haunted nothingness of bad men. And she’s here, abandoned here, at the insistence of Dr Brenner. It’s clear that Brenner and his team are using Eleven for their own devices, attempting some Cold War-era espionage utilising experimental techniques right out of science fiction. By leaving her there, Brenner is leaving Eleven to deal with the monsters that lurk under the skin.
It’s no wonder Eleven tries to misdirect the boys by leading them away from the gate. It’s not a question of running away from her fears, she’s already faced them. She’s been through the gate to the other side and knows that they don’t need to find the gate. The monster from the Upside Down will find them.
And so we’re left with Jonathan and Nancy, wandering through Mirkwood with a baseball bat and a gun, hunting a faceless monster. This is the culmination of the work the show has done before this point, allowing these two characters to leave behind the schoolyard and bullying and sneaking boyfriends into bedrooms, to Nancy climbing through a hole in a tree in search of a monster.
The preposterousness of the Upside Down is rendered organic in this episode, the void Eleven encounters is part of the fabric of Stranger Things. What characters encounter symbolically becomes the reality they face literally. The science fiction aspect of the show is an extension of its own narrative, and of the character’s lives. Stranger Things depicts a world where themes determine the boundaries of our reality, and a compass can lead us to our greatest fear.