The Netflix original series Stranger Things is one of our favorite shows this summer, combining elements of sci-fi and horror with ‘80s homages to Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, The X-Files and even some John Hughes-style teen romance. While mystery and nostalgia are certainly key components to The Duffer Brothers’ (Matt and Ross) success, we can’t forget about the Stranger Things characters who ground the show’s supernatural aspects in realism. Who among us didn’t hold our breath as the kids were being chased by the big, bad pseudo G-men? Or feel Joyce’s (Winona Ryder) anguish when she found out that Will (Noah Schnapp) had disappeared (and ended up buying all of the Christmas lights to communicate with him)? We end up caring for these characters through their complex backstories, humor and most of all, heart.
Here are our five favorite characters from Stranger Things.
Mr. Clarke is the Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson of Hawkins, Indiana. As the junior high science teacher, and a mentor to the boys as they’re trying to rescue their friend Will from the “upside-down,” he’s inadvertently saved a lot of lives by breaking down scientific concepts—alternative realities, building sensory deprivation tanks—in ways that the boys (and the television audience) can understand. While we weren’t sure at first if Mr. Clarke had nefarious intentions toward the boys, or even if he’d stick around (the government has a tendency to take care of people who know too much), he won us over with his nerdy charm. We’re hoping that Mr. Clarke makes a comeback in Season Two, to help vanquish Gorgons, quasi-governmental agencies or whatever the thing is incubating in Will’s body.
Finally, Winona Ryder gets a role that allows her to stretch her acting chops. She was queen of both indie and bigger-budget films in the late 1980s and ‘90s—the period that Stranger Things emulates—starring in now-iconic titles like Heathers, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Age of Innocence, Reality Bites and Little Women, among many others. Ryder was everywhere onscreen, until she wasn’t. A series of personal setbacks seemed to steer/relegate Ryder to smaller films, roles and and cameo appearances through the aughts. But none of that matters now because Ryder is back as super mom Joyce Byers. She refuses to believe her son is dead, and Ryder doesn’t hold back the crazy in this character. The whole town thinks she’s gone mad with grief, but she knows that there’s something… beyond. Ryder transforms her from mom to monster hunter. We know that Ryder’s range is even greater than we saw in this season, so we only hope that S2 allows us to see more nuance in Joyce.
Veteran actor David Harbour (The Equalizer, End of Watch) is perfectly cast as the damaged Chief Hopper, a former big city cop now stationed in a small Indiana town. When urged to look into Will’s disappearance ASAP, he has a fantastic line in the first episode that establishes exactly who he’s become—”Mornings are meant for coffee and contemplation.” But Hopper is so much more than the chainsmoking, Schlitz-swilling washed-up lawman. Harbour takes his character on the quintessential hero’s journey, and the audience watches the chief transform from a lazy, apathetic detective, to a relentless investigator who doggedly uncovers the truth. As the show progresses, viewers are slowly given glimpses into Hopper’s backstory, from a daughter he’s lost, to the breakup of his marriage, which explains his willingness to take chances with his own life. Harbour adds the gravitas to scenes with the supernatural; he might not necessarily understand what’s going on, but he’s willing to take a leap of faith and investigate anyway.
“El,” the mysterious young girl who joins the boys’ quest to find Will, is a bonafide badass. At first, the boys (and the audience) aren’t quite sure what to make of her. Is she an alien? A science experiment? Both? Her powers are slowly revealed over the show’s eight episodes. She starts small, switching off a fan telepathically and culminates with an epic battle against the monster from the upside-down. But El’s a reluctant superhero—and not just because each time she uses her power, it drains her physically. Ultimately, she’s a scared little girl, who suffers from PTSD, caused by years of experiments from “Papa” (Matthew Modine). Brown, the young actor who brings Eleven to life, manages to convey the depth and layers of the character with very little dialogue. Her facial expressions and eyes speak volumes, from pain and anger, to the sweet surprise when she shares a first kiss with Mike (Finn Wolfhard).
One of Stranger Things’ greatest assets is the camaraderie among the youngsters. While Will, Mike and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) have their moments, it’s scene-stealer Gaten Matarazzo who’s thoroughly entertaining as the tooth-challenged, floppy-haired Dustin. He’s funny and smart, as well as a total charmer and mediator. He tries to broker a peace deal between Mike and Lucas after their fist fight over Eleven’s allegiance. And he challenges and debates Mr. Clarke with aplomb, such as when the teacher complains that it’s 10PM on a Saturday when Dustin calls him for instructions on building a sensory deprivation tank for “fun.” Dustin wins the argument (and our hearts) with this line: “You always say we should never stop being curious, to open every curiosity door we find… Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?” The kid’s got heart and humanity, which is Stranger Things’ secret ingredient.
Steve, the BMOC, redeemed himself from being the show’s teen bully/jackass when he helped Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) fight the monster. But that’s not the only reason why we’re giving him an honorable mention. It’s for his rad ‘do throughout the season. The hair and makeup department must have invested in a whole lot of Aquanet to get his hair to stand up the way it did. It seemed to reach new heights with each episode—a wonder to behold.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.