Stranger Things has reached the point in this episode where we have to acknowledge the genius of casting Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers.
In an interview earlier this year, her early performances in cinema were described as ‘doe-eyed, dark-haired [with] authentic cool’ and yet also embodying an ‘ingénue of sorts’, allowing those outside of the mainstream to identify with her ‘quirky angst’.
And all of this, despite its clichés, is correct. She did serve that role, and made it her own. And Joyce Byers began as an almost-cliché in the first episode of Stranger Things, a throwback to the kind of character that used to litter 80s and 90s films, typified by Dee Wallace’s Mary in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Often raising a family on her own, often unable to make ends meet or to find time in between multiple shifts to change out of her uniform, Ryder’s portrayal of this character type begins the series firmly entrenched in that tradition.
And yet to view Joyce as only that, as she first festoons the Christmas lights around her house and then loads up on a comical supply of more from the grocery store she works at, is to miss a larger significance of Joyce’s role in the story.
Joyce is exactly the same character Ryder played earlier in her career. From Beetlejuice to Heathers, Edward Scissorhands to Reality Bites, she still is Lydia, Veronica, Kim and Lelaina, only now she’s older, and she has two kids, a douchey ex-husband, and one of her sons is missing, presumed dead. The difference in her character isn’t a difference in personality, it’s in how she’s treated and viewed by others. These characteristics aren’t considered doe-eyed or cool or ingénue-like anymore. Her quirky angst is now considered crazy, or over the edge. Joyce is a character others have concern for, but are also concerned by.
And Ryder plays Joyce as someone who knows she is being pigeonholed as a type. She constantly tries to rise above being just a trope, even in the eyes of her older son. Considering we know that Joyce is right, that Will was on the end of the phone and was speaking to her through the Christmas lights, we’re now left watching the other characters navigate around their preconceived notions of her as crazy, until the truth – hopefully – catches up with them, not with her.
The sequence with Joyce and the Christmas lights is not only visually arresting, it also delivers this wonderful remix of early Spielberg without ever directly referencing a particular film. Aside from her Dee Wallace-ness, Joyce’s growing obsession over contacting Will feels akin to Roy Neary’s clay-modelling in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the flashing of the lights bring us back to E.T.’s own illuminated finger-tip. Only these visual and emotional resonances manage to become something wholly new rather than a cheap rip-off: the Christmas light-lit Ouija wall doesn’t say ‘ouch’, it says ‘run.’
Again we come down to the underlying idea of characters facing what they are most afraid of. Whatever this monster is that comes out of the wall, it doesn’t come to attack Joyce, but to drive her down the road to Jonathan. With the police sirens looming, Joyce’s fear is that she is wrong: the lights were a trick, she’s losing her mind, Will really is dead.
The visual tying of Joyce and Jonathan’s embrace to that of Mike and his mother is arresting. The cross-cutting between these moments is scored with Peter Gabriel’s version of Heroes, and closes the episode with an elegiac invocation.
These characters – Mike and Joyce – are the two most convinced in Will’s survival. And yet when faced with the reveal of Will’s body pulled out of the lake, the song challenges them to rise above this. We know Will is alive, but we also know how hard it is for these two to maintain that belief when everyone doubts them.
Mike has invested in Eleven, conceivably because she provides him with reason to believe he can find Will. When Will turns up in the lake at the bottom of the quarry, Mike takes it out on Eleven not because she was seemingly wrong about Will, but because she has served as Will’s replacement in Mike’s life. Will’s brief conversation with Mike before his disappearance bonded the two visually to the audience, and Eleven immediately fitted into that same role by the beginning of the second episode. His anger with Eleven isn’t for being wrong about Will, it’s for not being Will. It’s the anger of a child realising that his world can’t remain the same.
The opening scene with Barb brings us closer to the idea that was seeded in the last episode – that Will is hiding in some parallel world that is like Hawkins but not. Barb is clearly in a dilapidated version of Steve’s pool, and the set dressing suggests that it is very much the dark, blank world that hides underneath the playing board of the real world.
(How this might factor into the Wizard of Oz reference later, with Hawkins National Laboratory described at the Emerald City, is open for speculation. It leaves us to guess what the man behind the curtain is up to in his experiments with Eleven’s telekinesis, and whether Hawkins is colourful world of Oz, or the black and white world of Kansas. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into this.)
Somehow, though, this desolate version of Hawkins that Barb finds herself in has a parallel. The Byers house is repeatedly shown in a similar light, with the layers of mess in the living room not dissimilar to the overgrowth of Steve’s alternate pool. The Byers house is ground zero for Will’s disappearance, and it’s no wonder that the place serves as the closest point of connection to wherever it is Will is hiding. Joyce’s web of Christmas lights is her effort to literally light a path to Will’s location.
Will is right here, but for Joyce to get to him she needs to run. We’re only three episodes in, but the path is becoming clearer.
As is the case with all good stories, it’s not what happens that we tune in for, but how it happens. We know there’s further to run until we can get closer to Will, it’s no secret. But Will’s dead body heads us in an unexpected direction.
Furthermore, the macabre parenting of Eleven by Brenner in the Hawkins National Laboratory is cast against the embraces of Mike and Jonathan by their own parents, once again suggesting that for all the fear posed by the monster in the wall, the real terror is the physical and psychological violence inflicted on an innocent by another person.
Joyce and Mike and Jonathan and Eleven can all be heroes, but it’s the monsters in their town and their homes and their pasts that are the greatest risk to them.