Stranger Things…about me?

Let us start with the easy one.

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But first, if you have not watched—and still plan to watch—all 25 episodes of the gobsmackingly-excellent Stranger Things, then I strongly advise you not to read further until after you have done so.

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In Episode 2 of Season 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) invites Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to come to “Tina’s party” on Halloween with her and her boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). The introverted Jonathan demurs, noting he has to keep an eye on his younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp) while he trick-or-treats with his friends.

Nancy, brushing past this transparent deflection, notes he would still be home fairly early in the evening, at which point he will simply “read Kurt Vonnegut while listening to the Talking Heads.” Jonathan ultimately attends the party, allowing him to be on site to drive a very drunk Nancy home after she effectively dumps Steve and sets a new record for use of the word “bullshit.”

The episode takes place over the last days of October 1984, when I was a freshman at Yale. This makes me one year older than Steve, two years older than Nancy and Jonathan, and five years older than Will and his friends; I am roughly Jonathan’s age. And it was in the spring and summer of 1984 that I read the only three Vonnegut novels I have ever read: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick. Moreover, back then I listened to a lot of Talking Heads—there is no “the”—even seeing them live in the summers of 1983 and 1984. That July, when I created a two-cassette mixcalled “Interstate Survival,” two Talking Heads tracks made the cut: “Take Me to the River” and “Stay Hungry” (one of my 25 favorite tracks of all time), both from the excellent More Songs About Buildings and Food album. That November, I created another two-cassette mix called “Paxton Mix,” the last name of my then-girlfriend. Making the cut were not only the two aforementioned Talking Heads tracks, but also the live version of “Once in a Lifetime” from the recently released Stop Making Sense soundtrack, “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” from Speaking in Tongues and “Artists Only,” the latter also from More Songs.

So, when Nancy told Jonathan he would just “read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to the Talking Heads,” she could easily have been talking to me. And while this is the most obvious way in which I strongly identify with some aspect of Stranger Things, it is not the most important.

Not by a long shot.

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I previously noted my contrarian resistance to watching, reading or listening to something simply because it is popular. I prefer to discover cultural works for myself—though I must admit the only reason I started reading Vonnegut is because my closest friend at the time suggested it.

This is why I did not watch any episodes of Stranger Things until this past October, My wife Nell and I started watching the show almost on a lark—but we were permanently hooked once the cold open of Episode 1 of Season 1, “The Disappearance of Will Byers” faded into the now-iconic theme music. And over the next five or six weekends—weeknights are reserved for MSNBC—we eagerly watched all 25 episodes.

Nell and I reveled in the show’s obvious literary and cinematic homages, most notably Stephen King[1] and Steven Spielberg—the first season is basically E.T. the Terrestrial meets Firestarter; it is merely a coincidence both films star Drew Barrymore. We spent Season 2 debating whether to trust Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens, the new director of Hawkins Lab. Nell had seen him in Aliens, a clear influence on the season, so she did not trust him at all; I have not seen Aliens. His redemptive arc is a season highlight; Nell conceded I had been right—or, at least, lucky.

Bringing my own cultural influences to our viewing, I detected the perhaps-unconscious influence of David Lynch, particularly in the pulses of electricity and flashing lights which signal the presence of the show’s various monsters from the “Upside Down.” The scene in Episode 6 of Season 3, “E Pluribus Unum,” when first Jim Hopper (David Harbour) then Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) try to call Dr. Owens, only to reach a man sitting in front of four yellow telephones who answers “Philadelphia Public Library” could have come from Mulholland Drive, while in Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper and three fellow agents work out of the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After watching all 25 episodes—and I am 50/50 whether “the American” is Hopper, though I believe he did not die when Joyce blew up “The Key”—we debated whether to let our almost-10 and almost-12 daughters—watch the series. The show’s youngest characters—Eleven (“El,” Millie Bobby Brown), Will, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and, as of Season 2, Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink)—are 12 years old at the start of the series, which takes place in November 1983. This helped us to decide they could at least watch the first two seasons, which are not nearly as over-the-top gory and, frankly, ridiculous as Season 3; I agree with Jonathan when he asks Nancy, “What part of any of this makes sense?”[2] Or with Steve’s perplexed look as he confirms the giant fleshy spider thing that wants to kill El is a machine made not from metal and screws, but from melted people.[3]

We feel your pain, Steve.

To be fair, a moment early in Season 3 cautions viewers not to take the season too seriously. Early in Episode 1, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”, Steve, now working at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall, lets Will, Mike, Lucas and Max sneak into the mall’s movie theater to watch Day of the Dead, which is a pure “popcorn movie.”

Actually, Season 3 is not so much bad as it is analogous to an album with one or two truly incredible tracks and a lot of mediocre, or worse, filler. If Seasons 1 and 2 are The Cars and Candy-O, then Season 3 is Panorama; not bad, but nowhere as absurdly good as the first two albums by The Cars. The incredible tracks are the evolving relationships between the show’s characters[4]—especially the classic boyfriend-girlfriend-BFF triangle that forms between Mike, El, and Max; after all, it is Max that feeds El the immortal words “I dump your ass.”[5]  Our eldest daughter wholeheartedly agrees, as she has just begun to pay attention to boys as BOYS. While both girls fell in love with the show as quickly as Nell and I did, it was the older one, after seeing El and Mike finally attend the Snowball Dance together[6]—then have one of television’s great kisses as they slow-danced—who stood up and did the cookie dance. Which is apparently something she saw on LankyBox.

To be fair, we had literally just watched six episodes in a row, wrapping up Season 2. We all should have gotten up to dance.

This also explains their gifts for the first night of Chanukah. El is supposed to have a blue barrette, but it accidentally got knocked off her head and needs to be glued back on.

Eleven and Mike FunkoPop

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I first started seeing a psychotherapist when I was 11 or 12 years old, after what I laughably call a suicide attempt: I mashed a bunch of random pills into a wooden salad bowl, poured in some grape soda, took one or two tentative sips—and left the bowl for my mother to find while I attended Hebrew School. That lasted a little over one year. Then, during my junior year of high school, a B in trigonometry on semester—among other far more serious things—led me to decide to swallow 32 Contac decongestant pills. After three days of torment in which nothing happened to me physiologically, I broke down and told my mother what I had done. This led to psychotherapy round two, which lasted only a few months. On the evening of January 20, 1989, I was struck by a speeding car as I crossed 16th Street in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan; having just watched the inauguration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, my first thought was “so much for kinder and gentler.” As part of my healing process—and because insurance covered it—I started my third round of psychotherapy; this lasted until I moved to Philadelphia four months later. Finally, for all of the reasons I list in the Introduction to the book I am writing, I started seeing my fourth psychotherapist in the summer of 2016.

A few weeks ago, I did something in therapy I had never done before.

I cried.

I was trying to describe the closing scene of Episode 7 of Season 2, “The Lost Sister,” and I could not get the words out of my mouth.

Just bear with me while I explain. Three episodes earlier, El, while cleaning the cabin she shares in secret with Hopper, discovers a box containing his research into children possibly kidnapped so their psionic abilities could be tested by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) in Hawkins Lab. Realizing Hopper lied when he said his mother had died, she runs away to find her, using her ability to locate someone from a photograph. In so doing, she discovers she had a kind of “sister” in Hawkins Lab—numbered 008, just as Jane (her real name) was numbered 011. El runs away again to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), what 008 now calls herself, in Chicago, where she and four societal outcasts live in an abandoned warehouse and hunt down what El calls the “bad men” from Hawkins Lab. Kali does her best to get El to join their quest to kill their former torturers, but El, after “seeing” the two people she most loves—Hopper and Mike—are in serious danger, decides to return to Hawkins (a fictional Indiana town) to help.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, El realizes that while “her policeman” (Hopper is Hawkins Chief of Police) may not be able to save her, she can save Hopper, Mike and the rest of her newfound friends. In the process, we have cycled through a series of places labeled El’s “home”: the cabin she shares with Hopper, the house belonging to her now-catatonic mother Terry (Aimee Mullins) and her sister Becky (Amy Siemetz), and wherever Kali and her crew happen to be squatting.

In one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series. Kali’s stricken face looking through a van window morphs into El’s forlorn face looking through a window of the bus taking her back to Hawkins. An older black woman (Avis-Marie Barnes), seeing a young girl traveling alone, kindly sits with her. When she asks El where she is going, the latter softly responds, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.”

These were the words I struggled to articulate through my tears.

I am still trying to understand why that particular moment turned a show I greatly enjoyed into something far deeper and richer, something resonating with me the way only the most compelling works of art do.

Yes, I was thrilled for El that, after “living” in Hawkins Lab for 12 years, she was fortunate enough to find Mike, Dustin and Lucas within 24 hours of escaping. Or as our wise younger daughter said while watching an early episode, “Mike is taking such good care of El!”

Yes, I spent the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 23, so there is a powerful element of bittersweet nostalgia in Stranger Things for me—and for Nell as well.

Yes, I was…well, not quite a nerd like the Dungeons-and-Dragons playing Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, but certainly President of the Math Team and in no way athletic—with the odd exception of gymnastics, in which I did well.

Yes, I attended brutally awkward dances called “mixers” in 7th and 8th grade, though unlike Mike and Lucas I did not slow dance with the girl I “liked” and share a romantic smooch. I did not have my first girlfriend until 10th grade, when I also had my first kiss.

Yes, just as the four boys form “The Party,” two other friends and I started the short-lived Bibliophiles and Explorers Club in 6th grade, while in 8th grade, the six of us who every lunch sat at the same places at the same cafeteria table decided to secede from said cafeteria to form The State of Confusion. We drafted a constitution, elected a “dictator” every week whose only power was to mouth off at anyone he chose (again, all boys), and wrote a letter to then-Secretary-of-State Ed Muskie requesting foreign aid in the form of the total cost of six school lunches. We never did hear back from Secretary Muskie.

All of those identifications and connections are true…but it was something about being 13 years old and “going home” that hit me. I have two possible, if ultimately unsatisfying explanations.

First, three years ago I began to search for my genetic family, so I strongly identify with someone searching for her/his “true” family. Like El, while I met some goof people, I quickly realized my “true” family was the one I was with all along. Just as El was incredibly lucky to happen upon the boys after escaping from Hawkins Lab, I was just as lucky Lou and Elaine Berger adopted me, sight unseen, in the summer of 1966.

Second, I lived in a comfortable split-level house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown until my parents separated in March 1977, when I was 10 years old. My mother and I then moved three times in three years, and I enrolled in a new school district twice. After the second moves, we lived in somebody else’s house for a year. Four years after the third move, I went to college, then lived in DC and the Philadelphia suburbs for a year before moving to suburban Boston in September 1989. Over the next 18 years, I lived in seven different apartments before marrying Nell and settling into a suburban Boston apartment with her; we lived there 11 years. By then, however, my father and mother had long since died, and whatever tenuous “home” I had in the Philadelphia suburbs of my youth went with them.

I thus have not been able to go “home” in a very real sense since I was 10 years old—or maybe not since college, when my mother moved out of the apartment we shared while I attended high school. And while I very much have a home now with Nell and our daughters, that is my adult home; my childhood home is long gone.[7]

These explanations are part of why I broke down in tears at that scene, but they only scratch the surface.

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That is not the only scene to induce waterworks, even granting my heartstrings are easily pulled, particularly by father-son stuff, broadly speaking.

At the end of Episode 8 of Season 2, “The Mind Flayer,” continuing into the start of the next episode, “The Gate,” we finally get the reunion, after “353 days…I heard,” between El and Mike, inter alia. It is then Mike realizes that Hopper—with the (mostly) best of intentions—has been “protecting her.”

Actually, let us back up one second to revisit one of the most badass entrances in television history.

Following the tearful embrace of Mike and El is an explosion of emotion, as the former—simultaneously irate, relieved and extremely hormonal—literally pummels a remarkably patient Hopper while shouting “I don’t blame her, I blame you!“ and “Nothing about this is OK!” His screams of impotent young teenage rage quickly fade into the uncontrolled sobs of a boy, however, as he collapses into Hopper’s arms, the latter soothing and comforting Mike with “You’re OK…I’m sorry.”

This is one of a handful of scenes I regularly revisit, primarily because it is the perfect encapsulation of the boy both angry at, and requiring comfort from, a father figure. That Hopper later formally adopts El, making the former Mike’s girlfriend’s father—a very different form of fraught relationship—is less relevant here.

More to the point, however, it distills into one nearly-flawless scene a moment I needed to have with my father at some point, but never did.

As I said, my parents separated on March 2, 1977. I knew it was coming; my mother and I had been poring over apartment floor plans for weeks. Nonetheless, the night before the separation, my father did something he had never done before: he sat down at our kitchen table to type a school assignment for me, a two-page report I had written on George Gershwin for my 5th grade music class.

When he had finished, he set the papers aside and asked me if I knew what was happening tomorrow. Yes, I said. But before I even had the chance to yell at him that “I don’t blame her, I blame you,” he did something else I had never seen him do before.

He started to cry.

Which meant I started to comfort my distraught father, rather than the other way around. How could I be angry or sad at a man so obviously broken?

And this was not the last time I had to play comforting adult to an actual adult. My ex-Philly-cop grandfather once accidentally spilled steaming hot tomato soup down my chest; despite the pain, however, I ended up assuring my shattered grandfather I was fine. Meanwhile, I was 15 when my father died from his third heart attack, but after a short night of grieving, I was helping to take care of his girlfriend as we sat shiva; to my mother’s credit, she hosted the shiva despite her divorce being finalized seven months earlier. Finally, given that my mother spent so much time caring for her only natural child, a severely mentally disabled daughter—why I was adopted in the first place—there was little space in my childhood for that sort of cathartic outburst.

It is thus only natural that watching Mike absolutely unload on Hopper only to be folded into his arms in comfort provided a kind of catharsis by proxy. This works well as a first approximation to why I am so deeply moved by that scene.

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There are other scenes that provoke a similarly emotional reaction—again, that is what compelling art is supposed to do—including…

  • El reading Hopper’s undelivered speech, with Hopper—presumed to be dead—narrating over shots of the Byers family moving out of their house, taking El with them: Joyce-the-mother replacing Hopper-the-father.
  • Mike’s charming fumbling attempt to ask El to go to the Snowball with him, using a furtive kiss to replace the words he cannot speak. El’s small surprised smile of delight is a masterclass in facial acting.[8]
  • Mike and El saying the awkward goodbyes of teenagers just before reading Hopper’s speech, with El screwing up the courage to tell Mike, “I love you too.” (I would not hear a girl say that to me—if memory, that devious trickster, serves—until my freshman year at Yale).

But I will close with one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen on television: Hopper driving El to Hawkins Lab to close “the gate” just after El is reunited with her friends. As filmed, it is just a “father” and a “daughter” talking, quietly but with purpose, just as I have done hundreds of times with my own daughters, with the caveat neither daughter is telekinetic or has extrasensory perception, nor have I ever referred to myself as “a black hole.” The father sets aside his anger—mostly at himself—simply to listen. And in a gut-punch moment, we realize that in the year Hopper has taken care of El, he never told her about his own daughter Sara, whose untimely death from what we think is leukemia ended his marriage, drove him into alcohol and drug abuse, and sent him back to Hawkins from what we think is New York City. I love my wife and daughters, and I cannot fathom losing any of them. Meanwhile, the closest my father ever came to that level of honest self-awareness with me was the night before he separated from my mother—though even then he never truly took responsibility for it.[9]

But for all Hopper shows us how broken he really is (setting up his slow-burn breakdown in Season 3), El—who also admits having been “stupid” (“It sounds like we both broke our rule,” admonishes Hopper gently) by running away to her mother and Chicago—simply takes his hand in forgiveness.

Cue the waterworks—as a father of daughters, as the child of a father, as someone with no patience for cynicism and prevarication.

By the way, did I mention that Mike looks a LOT like me as a boy, sans braces, while El looks a good deal like Nell to me, except with brown hair?

Until next time…

[1] Nell has read everything Stephen King has ever written.

[2] Episode 5 of Season 3, “The Flayed”

[3] Episode 8 of Season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt”

[4] The awful tracks would be both the excessive gore and the glaring plot holes, such as 1) how the music from the Indiana Flyer could have been recorded over the transmission of the Russian code, 2) how the Russians knew anything at all about “the gate” having been opened in Hawkins Lab by El in November 1983—but were still trying to open their own gate eight months later, 3) how the Russians knew about “the gate” but not about what horrors lay behind that gate, and 4) why El refers back to Mike’s inadvertent admission he loves her but NOT to Mike’s charmingly inept attempt to tell her directly in the grocery store.

[5] Episode 2 of Season 3, “The Mall Rats”

[6] Episode 9 of Season 2: “The Gate”

[7] The house is still there, and I drive past it once a year or so, but the point stands.

[8] This was the first kiss in the lives of both actors as well, I have been told. Curiously, while I had my first romantic kiss at 15, the first time I kissed a girl in a remotely romantic way was also while “acting.” At the end of a 3rd grade play about the relative importance of intelligence and luck, Mr. Intelligence (yours truly) kisses Miss Luck (a female classmate whose name I sadly forget). As our eldest daughter would say, “so cringe.”

[9] Suffice to say my father liked to play cards and visit the racetrack.

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