I'm going to try something a little different with this review and while most of my reviews are on the show overall, I'm going to focus this one a bit more. (Spoilers will be involved, you have been warned.)
Originally when I glanced at this series, it was because I watched a review from Chris Stuckmann talking about how the show evoked exactly the type of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King stories I'd grown up with. That done well enough is enough to keep me interested - but as I watched and dove further into this world, I noticed not only an homage, but a deeper exploration into the world of death and grieving. And that exploration was highlighted by how each character approached the disappearance of Will.
In the beginning of the story, we're introduced to four children, who are firmly implanted in this early 80's world with all the hopes and dreams that I, as an 80's kid, know all too well. Movies like The Goonies, E.T., Carrie, The Neverending Story ... they all hint at this magical world just before adulthood and this series fits in perfectly. After a late game of D&D the kids head home, and one of them doesn't make it.
Early on we're told by the 'sane' adults, throughout the story and the exploration to find out what happened to Will, that he is dead and to move on. Each character the series focuses on refuses to believe that, for their own variety of reasons and what unfolds before us is a manifestation of their grief in unique forms and that's what I want to focus on, because I found it very interesting.
The children, friends of Will, take it exactly as children in this sort of story world. Exactly how movies just like this have taught children for years to deal with their world as they grow. A world of magic and mystery is relied upon, refusing to believe he's dead and that maybe, if only they could find the right clues and the right power, they could 'free' him from the monster that took him away. Classic movies are guilty of perpetuating this world view and when I was growing up I distinctly remember a large number of books, cartoon shows and Disney movies telling the same lessons, because the harsh reality of death is a bit too much to take in when you're that young. Instead these movies try and empower children by telling them they have a small extent of power over this force and the world around them. We all know that death is merely a monster waiting to be slain, and good friends never leave. Even when they 'die' they can always still be reached if the right tools and powers are tapped.
This isn't a bad way of looking at death, but it can backfire horribly. By teaching children that they have some sort of power over it, it gives them a bit more stable ground to stand on. Yes, from the outside it may seem like a lie, but children that young need to believe they have some sort of power and hope. Because if you are presented with the reality of being powerless when you're young and not given tools to deal with it (even magical, imaginary ones) there's a sense of wonder with the world that is crushed and it can burn through your life long after that moment with lasting consequences. The downside of this coping mechanism is that when the attempt ultimately fails, many children believe it's their personal fault. They didn't try hard enough, they didn't roll the right dice and they lost the battle - and their friend isn't coming back because of it. When you're that young, death feels like a monster that took away someone close as a personal strike and it's that much more ravaging, because you haven't learned how to cope.
The magic and power is integral, because at that age, you're so small and young, you don't understand why you're actions and life would matter so much in the face of such an unmovable force.
In this movie, Winona Ryder plays Will's mother Joyce, who can't quite handle the loss. As a single parent with two children who don't fit in normal society, she does everything she can to give them a normal life. But when she's confronted with this death, it tears her world apart, as you would expect.
What's interesting about her case, is that we clearly see that she is actually the one tearing her world down. In a fury to connect with her 'dead' son and try to save him, she tears apart their house, spends all her money on frivolous lights and even uses an ax to tear holes in her walls. She's wholly consumed with doing everything she can think of to bring her son back, even when she seems to realize that there really is nothing she can do. Somewhere in the middle of the show it becomes a race not to save Will, but to reach out just one more time to make sure he's safe. In that moment, we see the sadness of her character and the deep cracks that make a mother's grief over a lost child so heart breaking. She can't save him, she can't bring him back, but she will destroy the world to try and no one can stop her, even if she knows in the end she will have nothing.
The Sympathetic Friend
The Sheriff in the town, Jim Hopper, is brought in to search for the missing child and try to give the family and friends some closure as to what happened. Initially a skeptic in the case, we see him progress in the story from having a place on the outside as one of the not affected, to being fully tied into the story with potentially just as much to lose. On account of the loss of his own daughter, he initially is hesitant to step into that world of pain again, but eventually does it to 'get to the bottom' of the case.
What's really interesting about the Sheriff is how much he mirrors Joyce in a calmer fashion. He's her reflection in a steady stream, after the rapids and storms have passed. We see similarities in his broken marriage, his occasionally not acknowledging his daughter is dead and even his home which is set so far away from the town it's his job to take care of. You get the sense that he also destroyed his world and after the destruction, slowly managed to pick up the pieces. As a sad parent he never managed to save his daughter and he feels her death was partially his fault. He sees himself in Joyce and takes up her fight silently. He doesn't tell her he believes her, instead he wraps it in logic and keeps investigating to get to the answers. And somewhere, inside that investigation, he's reassuring himself that he's not a failure. Because if he can find out what happened to Will, maybe that will make up for his 'failure' with his daughter.
Will's older brother, Jonathan. is the standoffish person in the town and while his world is separate from his brother's and the children, his journey mirrors theirs just as the Sheriff mirrors his mothers. Initially he's there for his mother, trying to be her voice of reason and trying desperately to keep his life together.
Unfortunately she can't hear him and there's a point where he steps back, letting her just work through her grief because he knows he can't help her. So what is he to do? Well, he goes on a journey much like the children, also finding out there's a monster and working just like them to find the same magic to stop it. However, the adult world is seeping into his magical one, incorporating itself in his adventure with a love interest, sexual hintings and even adult weapons such as a gun.
Jonathan's world is stuck in the middle, one foot as a child and one as an adult. You can tell he's afraid to be an adult, perhaps because he's afraid to leave his mother behind just as his father did, and he can't make himself do it. But you can also see that his self imposed home imprisonment keeps him one foot in his childhood. Around his mother and his brother he's allowed to be that protected child who doesn't yet have to be a man. And when his brother disappears, he's given a quest of his own, to leave his mother and prove himself, finally acknowledging that he's no longer a child. His journey is also mirrored in the story of Nancy - the girl he falls for - both of their stories weaving together to tell one complete story of entering adulthood.
Eleven is the final character that turns the story that much more interesting and cements my thoughts on this. And while I use the term, damsel, she is not just that. Eleven is not a girl to be saved and won, though she's presented as that in the beginning. In contrast to everyone else above Eleven is not a character dealing with death, she is in fact dealing with life. Growing up she was locked in a lab so different from our world and never allowed to have her own thoughts and actions. Now, out in our world, she's given the ability to live.
As the other characters deal with the disappearance of Will, she walks in the opposite path, learning how to talk, live, eat and think for herself. She truly mirrors their journey's as a whole, tentatively grasping at the life she suddenly has. She IS life, the very thing that all the characters saw disappear and that many of us have no idea what to do with until it's gone.
She also personifies our terror at the idea of death. We see very clearly her fear when she's confronted with going back to where she came from, even if it's to save a friend. That fear is compounded when she's forced to stand up against the Demogorgon, the strange shadow creature that has taken Will and that Eleven herself brought into our world. The very act of being alive creates the inevitability of death and Eleven is both that reality and our fear to tread into the world of death when someone we know is exposed to it. We know what death looks like, we know how much it hurts and when a friend of ours loses someone close, we want to help, but we're also terrified that it'll touch us too. She's the perfect depiction of that awkward moments are funerals and wakes where people say the traditional "I'm so sorry" because they have no idea how to safely comfort those in pain and yet at the same time want to help more then they can ever say.
So what is the point of all of this? Am I saying the Will is actually dead throughout this whole story, even with the outcome in the final episodes?
No, that's not the point at all. What I'm saying is that within this magical and strange story, we have a character study of how death and grief ripple throughout many personal worlds. On top of that, this series takes the bold step in showing all of these characters deal with their grief in their own way and not a single character is treated as if they are damaged or crazy for their reaction. Not once are they called insane by the story as a whole. Instead we're given a collage of reactions that show, in the end, that grief is something we will all deal with differently and all of those reactions are valid in that moment. Even Joyce, who is called crazy by a couple minor characters, is treated by the show with a kind of respect that is rarely given to grieving parents, especially mothers.
In the end it doesn't really matter if Will is alive, if he's saved or if he comes back. What matters is that each character is allowed to work through the pain and challenge in front of them and come out on the other end as they are. There is no happy ending in this, instead we're given an ending where things seem to have returned to normal, yet all the characters have changed and grown from their experiences. The world is the same, but the world has also changed forever - which is exactly what death does.
The ultimate reality is that death changes people and worlds and its not a bad thing, it's just a part of life that we don't talk about, so when it happens, people's perfectly normal reactions might seem a bit, well, strange.