In the opening of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, grown-ups advise the narrator to put his artistic career on the backburner, because they are unable to see his drawing for what it really is: a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. So he tries again, this time making it painfully obvious exactly what is going on in his drawings, because grown-ups “always need to have things explained.” This idea pretty much sums up why most films and movies dealing with the supernatural tend to draw a strong divide between the grown-ups (i.e. the realists) and the children (i.e. the dreamers): attempting to merge both worlds would prove to be a waste of time. It would simply take too much explaining for the dreamers to convince the realists.
When Mike and his friends find Eleven and are eventually led to the “Demogorgon,” they adopt the same philosophy and decide against alerting their parents, fearing they would put their theories down to childish fantasies. But the truth is, Joyce’s motherly instincts tuned in to the underworld beyond her walls, long before Will’s friends did. Whether it was her heightened sensitivity and anxiety that made her more susceptible to the dark forces at play, or whether she simply never lost the ability to see the boa constrictor digesting the elephant, the fact is, she’s on the same mission as her son’s friends and, in the show’s final two episodes, they all meet on the same path. This union between adults and kids defies the usual “us vs. them” format of shows like this, and further sets this series apart from what we’ve come to expect from the entertainment world.
As was already apparent from previous episodes, Stranger Things can almost be viewed as a series made up of three different subplots paying homage to particular eighties cinematic styles. The characters are divided between the adults, the teens and the children (who, by the way, are the absolute superstars of this show). While each group is on the same mission—to free Will from the Upside Down and destroy what the kids have dubbed the Demogorgon—they are all approaching it from different perspectives. Though they are fully aware of the direness of the situation, Mike, Lucas and Dustin treat their search for the Upside Down like an extension of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Their strong sense of loyalty, friendship and adventure is reminiscent of the close bonds between the characters in The Goonies and Stand by Me, with coming-of-age issues often manifesting themselves through seemingly immature quarrels and fits of jealousy and insecurity.
Amidst sexual explorations and an awkward need to solidify their adolescent personas, the teenagers Nancy, Jonathan and Steve are a mix of Breakfast Club stereotypes who are trying to come to terms with the darkness that has cast a spell on Hawkins. Unlike their younger siblings, Nancy and Jonathan initially set out on their respective missions on their own, too scared to confide in others. For Nancy, it seemed to be a matter of wanting to uphold her reputation in front of the “cool kids” Steve and his posse of bullying friends. But in recognizing Jonathan’s awareness of the mysterious things at play and his determination to eliminate the threat, she reaches out to him. Their search leads them back to the woods behind Steve’s house, where Barbara disappeared. When Nancy crawls through a placenta-like structure inside of a tree, she finds herself in the Upside Down and barely manages to escape the Demogorgon residing there. Having learned that the monster is drawn to blood, Nancy and Jonathan work together to hatch out a plan as to how to kill it once and for all.
Joyce, who was initially alone in her belief that her son was taken by a monster and is now communicating with her through lights, has finally gained Chief Hoppers’ support. Having connected Eleven to a former case of a missing child, they now know that they are dealing with two monsters: the carnivorous plant-faced monster of the Upside Down and Dr. Martin Brenner, the scientist who has been conducting awful experiments on Eleven for several years. It would have been easy to steer Joyce and Hopper towards a romantic subplot but, in avoiding it, their journey together takes on a deeper meaning guided by a mutual understanding and objective. Through flashbacks, we learn more about the type of parental figures both Joyce and Hopper were prior to the events that have shaken Hawkins to its very core, and we come to recognize that their deeply rooted empathy and broken spirits is what ultimately drives them to work together.
In the final two episodes, the divide between the independently working groups is broken down and they all pull together in their quest to find Will. By building a makeshift sensory-deprivation tank for Eleven, she is able to locate Will in the Upside Down. Joyce is fully aware of the emotional distress this puts Eleven under, but comforts and soothes her every step of the way, showing her the type of maternal love she has never before experienced. However, even though both Joyce and Hopper care about Eleven’s welfare and hope to keep her from returning to her “Papa,” her life and safety is reduced to nothing when the choice is between her and Will. As they set off to break into the laboratory grounds to enter through the portal of the Upside Down, the kids are left behind with Nancy and Jonathan at their high school gym.
Meanwhile, Nancy and Jonathan decide to return back to the house in order to finish what they’ve started: lure the Demogorgon into the home and destroy it with an assortment of booby-traps that put Kevin McAllister’s skill set to shame. Just as a remorseful Steve arrives at the Beyer’s residence, a strobe-light effect warns the teens of the Demogorgon’s close vicinity. Seconds later it comes bursting through the walls and they manage to set it aflame when it gets stuck in a bear-trap the teens set out for it. But it is Eleven who ends up killing the beast.
Eleven didn’t make it back with them, but that does not mean she’s been forgotten; she’s still very much present on Mike’s mind. While everyone else presumes her dead, Hopper takes off during his office Christmas party to leave a doggy bag full of snacks and a pack of Eggos in an animal feeder in the woods. Is it hope driving Hopper? Or does he know more about Eleven’s fate than he’s let on? These are the questions we’re left to ponder as he exits the woods to a frantic “Carol of the Bells.”
All seems to have ended well for Will, who is back at home with his family getting ready to enjoy a delicious meal of overcooked meat and runny potatoes. They’re ready to move on from their stint in the Upside Down and the experience has brought them even closer together as a family. But as Will excuses himself from the table to wash his hands, he lets us in on a dark secret: the Demogorgon may have been defeated, but it seems something else has found a host in Will. While staring into the mirror he coughs up a slug as the walls of his bathroom morph into the ghoulish Upside Down. And even though his mother has proven that she’s not lost the ability to see and believe strange things without further explanation, Will does not want to risk falling on deaf ears. Either that, or he’s trying to force a happy ending for the sake of his mother. It’s a happy ending that we know won’t likely occur, as Netflix has already confirmed a second season with even stranger things to come.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.