Stranger Things season 1 recap

With season 2 arriving on Netflix this week, here's a refresher on the events of Stranger Things' first run. Spoilers...

It’s been over a year since the first season of Stranger Things burst onto the scene, an enthralling mashup of eighties pop culture iconography that garnered huge critical and commercial acclaim. The scale of the Duffer Brothers’ achievements in creating such a lovingly-crafted homage to a bygone era shouldn’t go unrecognised; here at Den of Geek, unable to wait until the end of this week for a return to this monumental ode to the eighties, we’ve tried to replicate their success through scientific means, but thus far, our tactic of placing a DVD of E.T. atop a tattered old copy of The Shining in the hope that they’ll mate hasn’t yet worked. Not even with Barry White blaring in the background. Whilst it’s surely only a matter of time before natural instincts kick in and our foolproof experiment spawns a successor to the mighty Stranger Things, we’ll use the time in the interim to recap the major events in season one of Netflix’s breakout hit of 2016.

Whilst glimpses of season two thus far promise an Empire Strikes Back vibe (a darker, widening conflict that paradoxically becomes more personal), season one was definitely A New Hope, presenting us with an unfolding world full of both wonders and horrors, whilst positioning us primarily alongside characters on a journey of discovery… and whose ideologies were turned upside down with each fresh revelation they encountered. Let’s deep-dive into a few of the interconnected mysteries that propelled the plot of Stranger Things’ first season:

The Vanishing of Will Byers

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This particular enigma served as the major narrative arc for the bulk of season one. Whilst cycling home late on November 6th after a particularly intense game of Dungeons & Dragons (you know you’ve truly earned the mantle of ‘geek’ if you can read that line without a shred of irony), Will is mysteriously abducted, kickstarting a series of manhunts that lead the characters down some pretty twisted rabbit holes. Hopper, the grizzled town Chief of Police, channels his best Harrison Ford and organises the locals into search parties for the missing boy, eventually leading him to the imposing gates of the secretive Hawkins National Laboratory, a shadowy subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Energy with more than a touch of The Mist’s Project Arrowhead about it.

Meanwhile, frustrated by the cops’ lack of progress, Will’s band of loyal pals, Mike, Lucas and Dustin begin a search of their own. Although, the plucky trio don’t find Will, they instead encounter Eleven, a young, shaven-headed fugitive from the Hawkins Laboratory. Eleven is ‘gifted’ in the Charles Xavier sense of the word, meaning she has some pretty amazing powers (think of Stephen King’s Carrie crossed with the X-Men’s Jean Grey) which she’s been raised to use primarily for the purpose of cold war state-sponsored murder and trolling the Demogorgon, a scary inter-dimensional demon that fell out of the Nightmare Tree and hit every branch on the way down. But we’ll get to that shortly.

Not to be left out, Joyce, Will’s wild-eyed mother also mounts a desperate search for him after receiving a couple of strange, static-ridden phone calls that she believes are from her missing son. With telecommunications proving inadequate, Joyce realises that lights are somehow the key to Will making contact, so she transforms her entire living room into a sort of festive ouija board to try and reach him. If that wasn’t weird enough, Will’s outsider older sibling, Jonathan, resorts to looking for his kid brother by sneaking through the woods where Will disappeared whilst secretly taking pictures of his more popular classmates as they shotgun beers and frolic in the pool. Yeah, looking for Will. We all believe you Jonathan.

One not-so-popular schoolmate at the party is Barb. When things get frisky between Nancy, Mike’s older sister and Steve, the school charmer, poor Barb is left out in the cold. In standard horror conventions, the virgin is usually safe and it’s the sexually-promiscuous teens that pay in blood for their rampant hormones. Not this time though. Barb is whisked off by the Demgorgon to join Will in the Upside Down, a strange parallel dimension that runs counter to our own. Think of it as a sort of dark mirror of our world, terrorised by monsters and utterly bereft of hope, kind of like what will happen to our reality if the government continue to cut public spending.

Anyway, the mystery of what happened to Will Byers appears to be resolved in episode four when his body is found at the nearby quarry. Joyce however, refuses to believe that it is her son. The waters are further muddied by the appearance of Will’s no-good father, who refuses to believe Joyce and seems to want to cash in on some of that government compensation money. Frankly, it’s that kind of blinkered, sallow-faced pragmatism and unbridled self-interest that gives absentee fathers, who’ve left their families to buy sport cars and shack up with brunettes half their age, a bad name! 

Secrets of the Hawkins National Laboratory

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As Hopper digs deeper into the secretive Hawkins National Laboratory, it becomes clearer that all of the mysterious happenings in Hawkins are connected to the shady goings on there. The institute is run by Brenner, a cold, impassive man who acted as a father figure to Eleven before her escape, but boy does he seem to have bought into the whole ‘tough love’ approach to parenting. Seriously, the guy could even qualify as one of TV’s ‘utter bastards’ if once in a while he just seemed like he was enjoying all of the misery he causes. Only when Eleven’s powers go into full ‘Dark Phoenix’ mode, breaking a couple of abusive guards in half does Brenner show an ounce of compassion towards her. As the man himself remains something of a mystery, questions begin to pile up: what is the lab’s real agenda? Are they abducting kids with latent ESP powers? Where has Matthew Modine been all these years since Cutthroat Island? None of these questions have straightforward answers but when Hopper breaks into the morgue and finds that Will Byer’s body is a fake, he finally understands that he’s in the midst of a dark, far-reaching conspiracy.

In fairness to Hopper, he seems to have quite a talent for breaking into places. As well as the aforementioned morgue, he fast-talks his way into the Hawkins Laboratory once, and breaks in twice more throughout the eight-episode run. Having played the NES-style video game adaptation of Stranger Things, we can assure you with the highly credible weight of (video game) experience behind us, that this isn’t as easy as it looks. Hopper’s sheer chutzpah rewards his efforts though: as well as proving that the ‘body’ of Will Byers was anything but, his (kind of) covert first incursion into Hawkins Laboratory revealed the portal to the Upside Down.

Will’s friends, whose own investigative tactics consisted largely of bickering with each other and consulting Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks, do a fair job of finding the portal too, in a quest-style sequence reminiscent of Stand By Me, railroad tracks, fights and all. Fortunately for them, the trio had to contend with Eleven’s misdirection as she tried to prevent her new pals from encountering the Demogorgon and becoming its next meal. That dubious honour went to a poor deer, whose brutal mauling eventually led Nancy and Jonathan to the Upside Down. In another neat subversion of 80s tropes, Nancy, (also a better shot than her male counterpart) braved the shadow world alone, survived an encounter with the Demogorgon and discovered the incredible truth behind the laboratory’s dark web of subterfuge: barriers between the two dimensions have been breached, and portals between worlds open both ways. (Ooh, reading that line back got me going: feels like we should cue the theme music right there!) 

Turn it up to Eleven

Although some of the mysteries surrounding Eleven are left unresolved by the end of the first season, (including her whereabouts and the nature of her link to particular elements of the Upside Down), she doesn’t close out the season as a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma wrapped inside of a rage-monster in quite the same way she started it. Flashbacks revealing her tortuous existence within the confines of Hawkins Laboratory fill in many of the gaps and the Terry Ives subplot that Hopper and Joyce investigate hints at the true nature of her secret origin as an abducted baby, stolen from her mother because of her ESP-based ability to defeat the commies and win the Cold War. 

As the season draws on, we even begin to see the fuller extent of her powers: telekinesis, the boys’ walkie talkies being ratcheted up to eleven (in the inter-dimensional Spinal Tap sense), allowing them to communicate with Will, plus a sort of ultra-telepathy where she dresses up like Luke Skywalker in a bacta tank, submerging herself in liquid and travelling impossible distances. Of course, Luke went into one of those tanks to heal up after getting mauled by a monster; Eleven goes into them to find monsters with her mind. Conclusion? Total badass, wouldn’t be surprised if her midichlorian count was higher than even Master Yoda. After all, Yoda only levitated an X-Wing. Eleven levitated the entire Millennium Falcon! (So what if it was a toy? Symbolism, people!) 

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It’s also through Eleven that many of the show’s mysteries and conflicts are resolved. The boys’ science ingenuity (or constant pestering of their Science teacher (“Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?”) leads them to create a sensory deprivation tank for Eleven to not only discover the whereabouts of Will but also confirm Barb’s grisly fate. As well as paying homage to classic pop culture tropes, Stranger Things is also full of neat little subversions, Steve Harrington’s swerve from alpha male asshole to decent guy being one of them. Barb has become something of a cult character and there’s been a big push to somehow reverse her demise at the hands of the Demogorgon. Doing so would be one hell of a genre bait and switch: after all, the goofy, socially awkward best friend pretty much never survives through a horror movie, and having seen the state of poor Barb in the Upside Down, frankly, she doesn’t look like she’s coming back anytime soon.

Speaking of Barb, the same type of gross slug that crawled out of her mouth was also inside of Will when Joyce and Hopper finally found him in the Upside Down. The lasting effects of this creature’s incubation within Will have yet to be fully realised, but with him closing out the series coughing up baby slugs and uncontrollably shifting between the two dimensions, one wonders how much he’ll get to enjoy that Atari that he got for Christmas. Don’t forget that both Hopper and Joyce got a few good lungfuls of the Upside Down’s toxic air when they gave Will emergency CPR. Nancy too. Whether that holds any ill effects for them, we’ll have to see.

Going back to Eleven, her sweet and sudden kiss from Mike in the finale served as a catalyst for tragedy rather than romance. Her seeming sacrifice in destroying in destroying the Demogorgon may be fleeting (as both moments in the finale’s aftermath and promotional materials for season two suggest) and it’s likely she’ll be back sooner rather than later, but as we’ve seen with Will, protracted involvement with the Upside Down never leaves you untouched. Whether Eleven is still the same person though, remains to be seen.

Likewise, tragedy was also present, this time in the form of a spur for Hopper in the finale’s most emotional sequence as he used the devastating pain of his daughter’s death to drive him in his quest to save Will’s life. Whilst the exact terms of his ‘deal’ with the government to gain access to the Upside Down remain unknown, they’re sure to have consequences in the upcoming season. It seems that this arrangement with the ‘Department of Energy’ means Hopper is privy to certain information as his little forest food packages indicate. Only he seems to be aware that Eleven is alive, possibly in the Upside Down using the tree portal to walk between worlds, scavenging for food in the same way that the Demogorgon did. See, secret deals with shady government agencies? They’re not all bad! 

The Aftermath

So where did everybody end up? The Byers are as they were, reunited and enjoying a happy Christmas, with Will returned and their deadbeat dad off the scene again. Nancy Wheeler and Steve Harrington are an item, leaving Jonathan Byers out in the cold. Barb is dead. Hopper is still Chief of Police but seems even more aloof as the show concludes, changed by the things he’s seen and done. Much like the Byers, the Wheelers are enjoying a normal holiday season and the boys are back to playing Dungeons & Dragons, just like they were before everything went crazy. Eleven is gone, although sure to return. Brenner is dead, killed by the Demogorgon, which is also dead too. Probably.

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Well, that about does it then. Season two premieres this Friday so we’ll see you there friends. What interesting sciencey things the boys will build in season two? Last time we got an inter-dimensional ham-radio set and a dimension-hopping sensory deprivation tank. This time, who knows? The rather amazing trailer for season two suggests they might have cobbled together a working echo-containment unit (ghost trap to you and me) but that would be crazy… wouldn’t it? Speaking of science experiments, our own attempts to breed a Stranger Things successor with our little tryst between a Spielberg DVD and Stephen King book seems to be yielding little fruit. Would it be unscientific to just… fluff them a little bit? Just a little bit of external manipulation?

Ah, that’s better, look, they’re dry-humping. What’s that? Yes, yes, dear reader, you’re probably right. This is definitely a new low. 

Please hurry up and get here, Friday.

Stranger Things season 2 arrives on Netflix on Friday the 27th of October.