We begin the sixth episode of Stranger Things in the world of the monster.
Having only introduced the concept of the Upside Down in the previous episode, the audience is now thrust headlong into its murky gloom, giving us our clearest look at what it is. We follow Nancy as she finds herself fleeing the monster that – as far as we can tell – is responsible for Will and Barb’s disappearances, and the incessant hauntings on the Byers household.
What is immediately apparent is that the Upside Down is almost a darkened mirror of Hawkins, echoing perfectly Dustin’s words from ‘The Flea and the Acrobat’. It’s an alternate Hawkins, a parallel world, but as we see in this opening sequence and the earlier one with Barb, it’s almost like a memory of Hawkins. It is desolate, and dilapidated. A place of decay and death, but possibly also memory.
Stranger Things has been suggesting it will explore the concept of the monster since the beginning of the season, but this episode is where it gets the extended treatment. By opening with the obvious and direct acknowledgement of the literal monster, the rest of the episode is more concerned with its iterations, its echoes and mirrors that exist in the real world, not just the Upside Down.
After their flight from the monster in Mirkwood, Jonathan and Nancy take comfort in the safety of her bedroom. There’s a tenderness to the scene, present when Nancy invites Jonathan to sleep beside her, as they find sanctuary in each other’s presence. Jonathan reassures Nancy that the monster can’t get them there, and he seems certain in this. It’s worth speculating why.
The monster has come and gone from the Byers house, seemingly ripping up walls that are repaired immediately after. The hole that opens in the tree to the Upside Down seals shut as if it had never been there. The monster can seemingly come into our world as it pleases, as it needs to and, as Nancy and Jonathan worked out, as it feeds. And then when it’s done these doors close as if nothing had ever been there.
By exploring the symbolic representations of the monster in this episode, Stranger Things is telling us exactly what the monster is. It feeds off blood, off wounds and vulnerability in people. It comes when it’s not invited, but only to places where fear has been allowed to thrive, unchecked. Nancy’s bedroom in the Wheeler’s house is safe, because their house is safe. As another character describes it, it is the princess’ castle. The Wheelers have a stable, happy family, contrasted regularly against the Byers struggling to move on in the wake of Will’s disappearance and Lonny’s abuse.
In this way, the monster is like the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, it only goes where it is invited. And the only place where passage to the Upside Down is made permanent is the gate in the Hawkins Lab, the scene of the absolute betrayal of a child by an adult. And not just any adult, but one who – in a parental role – has physically and emotionally abused a child and cast her into a void to face more of the evils of men.
Eleven confronts her own fears of monstrosity in this episode, feeling guilt for lying to the boys in keeping them from getting too close to the gate, as well as the burden she bears for being the one to bring the gate open and allow the other monster into the world.
None of this is her fault and yet she is given no other opportunity to define herself. But in her moments of shedding the wig – the trappings of how boys perceive girls – and taking food from the scared customers at the supermarket, Eleven takes steps towards reclaiming her girlhood. She is afraid of being a monster, but as Mike tells her at the end, she’s not. She may be telekinetic, but this is just another part of her personality that allows her to be a friend.
And as Dustin mentions to Mike, there is a rule of law to friendship. It involves loyalty, kindness, trust and most importantly, not breaking promises. This is what binds them together, and defines them against the monsters in their path. When all looks lost, Dustin reminds them:
‘Do you even remember what happened on the Blood Stone Path?’
The friendship split. They lost the rule of law. They allowed the monster to separate their bonds. And it’s friendship that allows Eleven to come back to them.
Her defeat of the bullies is crowd-pleasing success, which is then undercut by the emotion of the friends’ reunion. The hug is cheesy, but honest. And – I’m not even getting sick of saying this – testament to the work of developing these characters from the beginning, so that these cheesy story moments come from them, and not the other way around.
Amongst all the nostalgic details of Stranger Things, the more important feature is how much this reminds us about how stories used to be told. Stories that took care with their characters, and took time to develop connections between them, and with us.
Between Eleven and the boys, Jonathan and Nancy, and Hopper and Joyce, these three strands are forming their own plans and trying to tackle their own monsters. Hopper and Joyce meet with Terry Ives, and realise the connection between her life and Joyce’s, and the empty kid’s room Hopper saw in the Hawkins Lab. The threads are starting to converge, even if the characters can’t quite work out the bigger picture just yet. Terry Ives’ sister asks them if they’ve read any Stephen King, and this kind of plotting is typical of some of his larger stories – ‘Salem’s Lot and Under the Dome come to mind particularly – where a long time is spent developing characters and their individual stories, until the time comes to let them go and run free. The threads start to intersect, and tension mounts.
And so we see who the real monsters are. From Lonny and Dr Brenner, to the bullies and their continual tormenting of Mike and Dustin, the idea is clearest in Steve’s arc. He finds himself on the outside of Nancy’s window looking in, replicating Jonathan’s position from the first episode. But where Jonathan understood who he was and how he was seen, Steve pushes against it (again the contrast between those who face the fears, and those who run away). After shaming Nancy with his misogynistic entitlement, it’s almost as if Steve finally realises the monster he became, and he can’t continue that anymore.
It’s rare for a story to show such knowing treatment of a character who goes bad, for Steve to regain his clarity so soon. But in doing so, Stranger Things allows us to recognise that there are monsters everywhere, outside and inside, but we don’t have to let that define us or anyone else. After all, where would we be if we didn’t remember what happened on the Blood Stone Path?