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The upside of the Upside Down

When Len and I found ourselves in the empty nest, we knew chances were good we would get odd…er than we already were. Add “self-employed writers” to our profiles and you have two grown ups living in pajamas, making a 7:30 bedtime seem more reasonable.

Last year our boys suggested we stay awake and watch the Netflix original series, Stranger Things. I’d like to think they were motivated by this great adult relationship we have with them now…you know, peers more than parents.

But something tells me our forward-thinking sons were throwing their weirder-by-the-minute folks a cultural bone for us to dig up at the annual neighborhood Christmas Eve party we attend together. They might call it “saving face.” I call it “love wrapped in keeping-us-relevant.” Potato, potaato.

Stranger Things (This post contains spoilers. You have been warned!) takes place in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in the 1980’s. The Duffer brothers nailed the unique angst of middle school so perfectly that before the end of the first episode, Len and I were spraying our bangs and tearing the house apart for our biology notes.

The trouble starts when the geniuses at the Hawkins National Laboratory conduct experiments into the paranormal and supernatural (using human test subjects), and unwittingly open a portal into an alternate dimension called, the Upside Down.

Mike, Will, Luke and Dustin are the audience’s Dungeons and Dragons-playing alter egos. They’re thrown into chaos when Will goes missing. Around the same time, a telekinetic, Eggo-loving girl named Eleven escapes from the lab and is found by Mike and his fellow misfits. With Eleven’s powers and the boys’ naïve chutzpah, the kids join forces to find Will.

To round out the cast, you need to know: Steve, the jock; Nancy the cute, studious girl; Barb, Nancy’s loyal friend who gets dropped like a hot rock when Steve hits on Nancy; Joyce, Will’s traumatized mother who goes full-on crazy while looking for her son; Jonathan, Will’s quiet, outsider brother who is also sweet on Nancy; and Hopper, the emotionally broken, good-hearted chief of police.

Our tribe battles foes both human (El’s evil scientist dad) and supernatural (the Demogorgon). By the end of the first season, Will has been saved. Barb…not so much. Steve, Nancy and Jonathan have arrived at a kind of civil love triangle. And Mike and Eleven have taken tentative steps toward admitting their fondness for one another only to have El disappear in a puff of Demogorgon smoke.

In the last moments of the final episode, Will coughs up a souvenir slug from the Upside Down into his bathroom sink, Hopper secretly places Eggo Waffles into a box in the woods, and the Duffer brothers leave us like story addicts waiting for our next plot fix!

For all the immediacy of current entertainment platforms, Season 2 took an eternity to arrive (15 months and 12 days to be precise, but who’s counting?). It did not disappoint. We survived the continuing saga of the Upside Down, complete with Demodogs and a Mind Flayer using Will as a destructive, supernatural puppet—only to be taken down in the end by the Snow Ball.

As middle school dances go, this one was magical—a winter wonderland with twinkle lights. The gang looked spiffy in their suits and dresses…but a universal truth is that awkward looks the same no matter what it’s wearing.

Will accepts a backhanded offer to cut a rug: “Hey zombie boy, do you want to dance?” Luke pairs off with Max (a new Season 2 cast member and spitfire of a girl). Mike and El are reunited and move, hand in hand, out into the sea of vulnerability. A couple of brief, (sweat-inducing they’re so real) clumsy kisses later and our kids are making real strides toward adolescence.

Dustin takes his youthful optimism and Steve-inspired hair to a new level. He walks confidently into the room and wastes no time asking a girl to dance. The rejection is swift and ugly, but Dustin will not be deterred. He collects himself and asks someone else. Bang! Shot down again. As he turns to find another target, the crowd parts like the Red Sea leaving Dustin crestfallen.

Across the room, the older and wiser Nancy is serving punch but notices Dustin sitting in the wreckage of his self-esteem. She walks up to him and asks him to dance. In quick succession he’s embarrassed, shocked and relieved.

Nancy does two amazing things while they sway near the three-point line. First, she redeems this awful moment for Dustin, telling him he has always been her favorite of her brother’s friends. Then unexpectedly, she also redeems the snooty girls who’ve just broken Dustin’s heart. “Girls this age are dumb. But give them a couple of years and you’ll drive them nuts.” Nancy extends the grace as someone who has needed it herself in the past.

As if all this wasn’t enough to send us back to regression therapy, the clincher takes place in the parking lot outside the gym. Hopper and Joyce stand together sharing a cigarette. The music from the Snow Ball leaks out over their conversation, only it’s muffled and distant like an echo of their past. For an instant they aren’t the life-worn, former shells of themselves, just two kids skipping class for a smoke. The hard-earned shorthand of their long friendship is real world magic.

At its heart Stranger Things isn’t about monsters and alternate dimensions. It’s about relationships and surviving life. For all their trivial sniping, this Hawkins family of freaks pulled together when it counted.

We’ll all have to face our version of a Demogorgon at one time or another. But the upside of the Upside Down is what it reveals about our tribe and ourselves. We need each other and we’re capable of more together than alone. Misery (and awkward) loves company.

And now I have something to talk about on Christmas Eve.

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