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By Alyssa Miller · April 5, 2023
There are a lot of mysteries in Hawkins, but there is one key element tying everything together — the identities of the Stranger Things characters
Identity is a pervasive and fascinating theme explored in many films and TV shows. We enjoy delving into what makes a character grow and shift from the beginning of a story until the end in this Stranger Things breakdown. From Vince Gilligan’s prestigious TV show Breaking Bad to David Lynch’s surrealist neo-noir Mulholland Drive, filmmakers find innovative and exciting ways to explore the rich and complex theme of identity.
While many films use identity to drive the plot, the Duffer Brothers excel at weaving it into a larger narrative. Through their mastery of mystery-building in their Netflix original series Stranger Things, the duo creates a story that connects concepts such as friendship, good versus evil, and alternate universes to explore identity through its many characters.
Stranger Things has a unique and captivating connection to its audience, much like the Mind Flayer to the townsfolk of Hawkins, Indiana. Its nuanced exploration of character identity amidst a supernatural and often terrifying world is what draws viewers in.
How did the Duffer Brothers craft such a complex world focused on identity? Let’s take a closer look at the key themes of Stranger Things and what each character represents in this larger universe.
For the uninitiated, Stranger Things is a sci-fi horror-drama set in the small fictional American town of Hawkins, Indiana, in the early ‘80s. The series follows the story of a group of kids around whom strange supernatural events start unfolding, as the result of an illicit science experiment gone wrong. This has torn a rift between worlds, unleashing a powerful evil force from another dimension which the kids call the “Upside Down.”
While the main plot focuses on the group of friends helping Eleven (Millie Bobby-Brown) to stop the alternate universe from taking over the real world, there are many ideas and themes being explored through the locations and relationships between the characters.
Let’s break down these themes and how they connect to the show’s central focus on identity.
Imagine a world like our own but twisted and distorted by space and time. Everything is familiar yet different, shaped by a lack of formality. This is the Upside Down of Stranger Things, a parallel dimension characterized by dripping membranes, endless storms, and eternal darkness.
Although we don’t understand much about the Upside Down early in the series, we do know that an evil force is lurking in a world that is frozen in a specific time – the moment that Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) entered the universe. The Upside Down represents the fear of the unknown and the dangers that lurk just beyond our comprehension.
By exploring the unknown, the characters are forced to confront their sense of self and to ask what makes them unique in the grand scheme of the story. This can easily create an existential crisis and prompt characters to re-evaluate their values, beliefs, and goals in life. However, the Duffer Brothers create a story that looks at this conflict through a childlike lens, asking the simple question of what makes a character want to be a particular version of themselves.
In a broader sense, the concept of an alternate universe represents endless possibilities and outcomes. This idea is explored through Eleven, who can explore different dimensions and manipulate reality with her powers. Each character could take many different paths, and each character can be changed by one person. Exploring the Upside Down allows characters to understand themselves better and gain a new perspective on their own identity.
Overall, the concept of parallel universes provides a rich and thought-provoking framework for exploring themes of identity in storytelling.
Friendship is a crucial theme in Stranger Things, which is vital to the show’s main theme of identity. The unwavering bond between the characters in the Party is evident even in the most perilous of circumstances, highlighting the significant role that friendships play in the development of a character. As essential components of character building, emotional development, and social skills, friendships are integral to the series’ portrayal of how a person can be empowered by friendship and how a lack of support can negatively affect a character.
The Party, consisting of Eleven, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), Will Byers, Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), exemplifies the power of friendship in the series’ battle scenes, both big (for example fighting the Mind Flayer) and small (for example confronting the middle school bullies at the Sattler Quarry). The Stranger Things characters’ unwavering loyalty and their adherence to the rule “friends don’t lie ” continually reinforce the value of the bonds they share. This sense of comfort allows the characters to evaluate who they want to be and how they want to be perceived in the grand scheme of things.
Eleven’s character development is a prime example of how friendship can influence one’s identity. The support of her newfound friends and chosen family enable her to embrace her differences and navigate life as a typical teenager. However, when this support is absent, characters often find themselves isolated from their communities, vulnerable to attack.
Max’s retreat from her friends after the death of her brother, Billy, leaves her open to Vecna’s (Jamie Campbell Bower) manipulations, emphasizing the devastating consequences of losing the support of friends. Vecna, on the other hand, represents the ultimate corruption of the soul resulting from a lack of friends and support. The Party’s bond serves as a beacon of hope, underscoring the importance of healthy friendships in navigating the complexities of life.
The Stranger Things characters are often pitted against all forms of evil. From the Demogorgon to the Mind Flayer, the morality of characters is always tested. The universal theme of good and evil is one of the most commonly used themes in storytelling. The symbolic meanings behind good and evil can be muddied as points of view or perceptions of self-change throughout the story.
The Duffer Brothers present good and evil in an overt way. On the side of good, there are the main characters, including the Party, their families, and their allies, who strive to protect their loved ones and their town from the supernatural threats that emerge from the Upside Down. They are motivated by love, loyalty, and a desire to do what is right, even if it means risking their lives. This is the series’ identity of what is considered to be “good.” On the side of evil, there are various entities, including the Demogorgon, the Mind Flayer, and Vecna, who seek to destroy the characters and their world. They are motivated by power, domination, and a desire to spread chaos and destruction. The evil characters often manipulate and exploit others, using fear and violence to achieve their goals.
Throughout the series, the themes of good and evil are explored in various ways. The Stranger Things characters must confront their own inner demons and fears, as well as the external threats posed by supernatural creatures. They must make difficult choices and sacrifices, often at great personal cost. The themes of good and evil are also connected to broader philosophical questions about morality and human nature. The characters must grapple with the idea that there may be no clear dividing line between good and evil, and that even those who seem to be on the side of good can be corrupted or compromised. They must also confront the reality that evil is not always easily identifiable, and that it can sometimes be hidden behind a facade of normalcy or even benevolence.
Overall, the exploration of the themes of good and evil in Stranger Things adds depth and complexity to the series, creating a rich and nuanced narrative that engages viewers on both an emotional and intellectual level.”
There are a lot of Stranger Things characters that highlight how the series is concerned with its characters’ mental states, but the show’s main friend group, the Party–as I have been referring to it–is constantly growing and struggling to find their place in a world while trying to save it.
Let’s break down how each of the main characters, along with the series’ big bag Vecna, explore different identities in the world, and why each matters to the overall story.
Will Byers is a character whose significance in Stranger Things is often overlooked despite being the catalyst of the entire series. As the quietest of the group of friends, Will is transformed by his experience in the Upside Down, which leaves a lasting impact on his character development.
In Season 2, Will is possessed by Vecna, who uses him as a spy. Despite being under Vecna’s control, Will communicates with his friends using Morse Code to help stop Vecna and close the gate. This experience, combined with surviving abduction and possession by the Mind Flayer in subsequent seasons, leaves Will with a connection to the Upside Down that causes him to struggle with his identity and relationships.
As Will grapples with his friendships, sexual identity, and isolation, he finally finds the courage to confess his feelings for Mike near the end of Season 4. Although Mike fails to understand Will’s confession, Jonathan reminds Will that he deserves love and care too.
Throughout the series, Will’s character transforms from a scared kid hiding in the Upside Down to a hero ready to protect those he loves. He becomes a pivotal spy in the final fight against Vecna, a testament to his strength and resilience. Despite Vecna’s underestimation of Will’s power, Will overcomes his fears and fights against the evil that threatens him and his loved ones.
Will’s journey in Stranger Things is a poignant exploration of character development and the themes of overcoming fear, finding courage, and standing up against evil. Noah Schnapp delivers a powerful performance that elevates Will’s character from an overlooked figure to an integral part of the series.
Mike Wheeler captures the hearts of viewers with his unyielding loyalty to his friends. He may not possess the intelligence of some of the other members of the Party, but his unwavering courage and devotion make him a natural leader. Mike embodies the archetypal young hero of ’80s adventure films, like Michael “Mikey” Walsh (Sean Astin) from The Goonies or Gordon “Gordie” Lachance (Wil Wheaton) from Stand By Me.
However, as the series progresses, Mike’s role as leader of the Party is tested by his own selfishness. As Vecna’s threat to Eleven increases, Mike becomes overprotective of his own feelings, prioritizing his self-preservation over the well-being of his friends. This growth is a natural part of his coming-of-age journey, as he navigates the perilous world of the Upside Down.
While Mike may falter at times, he still rises to the occasion and demonstrates his capability as a sensible leader. As the Party prepares to face off against the heartless puppet master, Vecna, Mike will need to dig deep and find the heart to match his unwavering loyalty. His evolution as a character is a testament to the complexities of growing up and learning to balance one’s own desires with the needs of those around them.
Dustin Henderson is a standout character in Stranger Things and a true representation of the ‘80s archetype with a unique twist. He embodies the spirit of beloved characters such as Chunk (Jeff Cohen) and Mouth (Corey Feldman) from The Goonies, yet sets himself apart as the smartest and funniest member of the group.
Dustin’s wit and intellect prove to be invaluable to the Party’s success, and his compassionate and understanding nature make him the glue that binds the group together, no matter who joins or leaves. While the other characters struggle to find their identity, Dustin confidently embraces his quirks and proudly embraces his status as a misfit.
One of Dustin’s greatest strengths is his acceptance of others’ “otherness,” much like Eleven’s powers, which are shunned by society. He is a direct foil to Vecna, who seeks to manipulate people to fight the good fight and instead encourages the Party members to embrace their unique abilities and be the heroes they need to be.
Overall, Dustin’s compassion, intelligence, and accepting nature make him a beloved character and a crucial member of the Party in the fight against evil.
Lucas Sinclair is a crucial member of the Party in Stranger Things, serving as the analytical and level-headed counterpart to Mike’s emotional leadership. With his sharp mind and strategic thinking, Lucas is an essential asset to the team’s survival in the face of the supernatural threats posed by the Upside Down and its many dangers.
In addition to his intellectual prowess, Lucas is also a brave and loyal friend, always ready to make tough decisions and take the necessary risks to protect those he cares about. He serves as an invaluable source of information and guidance for the group, often questioning the motivations and actions of his peers to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.
Beyond his role as the Party’s backbone, Lucas is also a compassionate and perceptive individual, quick to call out insensitivity and defend the self-worth and identities of his friends. His younger sister Erica, who also displays her own wit and resourcefulness during the Hell Fire’s D&D game, is a testament to the strength and integrity of the Sinclair family.
Together with his fellow Party members, Lucas stands as a pillar of strength and hope against the dark forces that threaten their town and their world.
Maxine “Max” Mayfield is a standout member of the Party who shows incredible bravery and loyalty towards her friends. Her tough exterior and rebellious attitude stems from her tumultuous upbringing in California, but as she becomes a part of the Party, she begins to trust others and stand up for what is right.
Max’s character takes a dramatic turn after the tragic loss of her abusive brother, Billy, at the hands of the Mind Flayer. The trauma of this event causes her to retreat into herself, pushing away those she cares about and questioning her own actions leading up to Billy’s death.
Despite her struggles, Max is determined to overcome her grief and guilt, and her resolve is put to the test when Vecna threatens the safety of her friends and the world as they know it. Despite the danger she faces, Max does not back down and fights tirelessly to save those she loves. Even when faced with certain death, Max draws strength from her cherished memories of her friends and finds the courage to face her fears head-on.
Max’s journey shows that even in the face of great adversity and loss, there is always hope for redemption and the chance to make things right. Her unwavering bravery and loyalty are truly inspiring, and her determination to protect her loved ones is a testament to the power of friendship and the human spirit.
Similar to Will, Eleven’s journey has been shaped by the traumatic experiences she endured as a child. However, when she meets Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, they become a beacon of hope and acceptance for her, helping her transition into a more normal life. But with great power comes great responsibility, and Eleven’s powers are no exception. Her inability to process her emotions at times leads her to rely on her powers, causing chaos similar to Vecna.
Despite the challenges she faces, Eleven’s strength and resilience shine through when she embraces her power and uses it to do great things like closing the gate to the Upside Down, banishing the Mind Flayer, and even bringing her friend Max back from the brink of death.
In contrast to Vecna’s manipulative ways, Eleven’s power stems from the support of her friends and family. As they come together in Season 5, Eleven will have the strength she needs to defeat Vecna and put an end to his campaign of fear. While the Upside Down may continue to pose a threat, Eleven’s unique abilities allow her to jump between dimensions and take control of the creatures under Vecna’s influence.
With her determination and the unwavering support of her loved ones, Eleven is a force to be reckoned with, and she will stop at nothing to protect those she cares about and the world she calls home.
Vecna, also known as Henry Creel and as One, is a menacing force that reigns over the Upside Down. Inspired by the lich from Dungeons and Dragons, Vecna derives his power from the trauma of others, making him a formidable foe for the Party and the people of Hawkins.
As a child, Henry developed a deep resentment towards humanity, viewing it as a meaningless construct that requires order. His twisted philosophy serves as a justification for his violent acts and his belief that he is superior to others. He revels in inflicting pain upon his victims, exploiting their traumas and exploiting their weaknesses to further his own ends.
In contrast, Eleven faces a similar crisis of identity due to the trauma she has endured, but she has the strength to accept help from her chosen family. This is the key difference between her and Vecna. The latter is consumed by his own hatred, causing him to lose his sense of self and become a monster. In contrast, Eleven understands that her powers come with great responsibility, and she accepts the support of her friends and loved ones rather than trying to take what she wants from the world.
Despite Vecna’s immense power, he is not invincible. With the Party and the people of Hawkins coming together in Season 5, there is hope that they can defeat him and put an end to his reign of terror over the Upside Down.
From the terrors of monsters and death to the personal struggles of guilt, shame, friendship, loss, and love, Hawkins has faced it all. With unresolved storylines and a looming threat in Vecna, the characters’ journeys through their traumas still take center stage as they come to understand themselves and their place in the world.
Season 4 doesn’t just uncover these traumas, fear, and guilt of the Stranger Things characters, but it offers powerful solutions through the power of music, community, and most importantly, friendship. There is a way forward to heal those deep wounds and broken identities, and that’s a lesson worth paying attention to, even if you’re not in the Upside Down.
There’s so much to learn from analyzing great scripts. Hopefully this Stranger Things breakdown taught you more about the importance of identity in this series.