Stranger Architectural Things

Chief Hopper , in  Stranger Things ; this can’t be good.

Chief Hopper, in Stranger Things; this can’t be good.

The 4th July 2019 has been and gone, but for me, this year was different. Maisie, the younger of my two daughters (and middle child) had been externalising the count-down for weeks, if not months. Although I may have feigned casual nonchalance, inwardly I was doing the same. While we were looking forward to Independence Day, with apologies to our friends in the USA, it wasn’t because of the opportunity to sing The Star Spangled Banner, but because we’ve been waiting for Season 3 of the Netflix flagship show, the return of Stranger Things.

I guess I’m a late-comer to the Stranger Things party, having been sold the story by Grace, my elder daughter (and eldest child)… “I think you’ll like it, Dad”.  I’ve managed to fit in three seasons of Stranger Things this year and while there have been moments in the first two seasons that were undoubtedly exceptional TV, it’s this third season where we’ve had long enough with the characters, for their respective story arcs to begin to languish a little longer on incidental moments; on conversations that don’t necessarily move the plot forward, but make us believe that we’re looking in to the lives of real people, which in turn means that we grow to care about what happens to them. In this latest season, there have been many such beats.

The intoxicated exchange between Robin (Maya Hawke) and Steve (Joe Keery) in a shopping mall rest-room, does little to explain more of the world of Hawkins, Indiana; instead, it helps us to understand these people as three dimensional characters - they’re not just a construct to help us explore the here and now as we’re streaming; they have a past, they have their own perspectives and they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye.

In the space of a few short episodes, a Russian character whose only exposition is relayed via a translator (albeit a very excitable and animated linguist), becomes a real person to the point where his fate is felt, perhaps because he has already tapped in to some of the self-awareness of the show (his laughing at the unreconciled relationship between Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Jim (David Harbour)), being part of a mechanism that allows us as the viewer, to speak in to and influence the scene, almost as if we’re rolling the dice in our own Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

There are so many examples of TV and film, where the ending isn’t earned - where the writers rely on a particular response from the audience to add weight to a scene. Stranger Things 3 definitely earns the right to call on the viewer, to bring the full spectrum of their emotions to bear in the final episode.

The recall of a letter from a father to his adoptive daughter, is one of the most intimate, relatable and moving things that I’ve seen on screen in a long time.

That’s all at the heart of Stranger Things. Character, relationship and story. A show that recognises the emerging talents of its young protagonists and allows them to fail as well as prevail; it allows them to experience the horror that we may have imagined surrounded us as we grew up, but also the beauty of knowing that we’re not alone in facing our fears. Without ridicule, the adults are often shown with the physical and emotional scars of the struggles of their lives. While the kids may act with their own agency, they look to the adults for their anchor, for guidance and for back-up. While the older generation may initially patronise the younger with off-the-cuff or short-sighted responses to their plight, the plot often returns to those moments and allows redress, where both older and younger are able to see that they need one another - being what the other needs to allow them to be courageous, but also to give them a reason to call on their own bravery.

It’s thrilling, but also a little bittersweet to look back to what we thought was the apex of cool, but should now be consigned to a museum. A contender for most-valuable-player has to be the uncredited nostalgia. The call backs to Back to the Future and The Neverending Story are obviously more impactful on the viewers that are experiencing these pop-culture events for the second time, but this also creates a talking point that allows adults to talk to the young people in their lives, about their own childhood; about the things that shaped us, those moments that we wish we could return to, even briefly, as well as those things that we were glad to leave behind.

The pain of Stranger Things is in that respect, quite real. We can’t move in to the lives that we’re supposed to lead, without leaving behind the things that belong in our past. Hopper’s letter to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) illustrated that beautifully.

The one thing that doesn’t change, is that deep call within us - a yearning to be part of a community - this is my tenuous link to architecture and my sole justification for writing this Journal post!  We don’t get to choose our family, but to some degree, we choose our friends. I remember those that meant a great deal to me in my formative years and one in particular that I loved like a brother and miss dearly. We all know, in our heart-of-hearts that Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, won’t ever forget one another - even if the events that have unfolded in Seasons 1 - 3 had never occurred, they were part of one another’s stories in the most raw years of their lives. As friends, as brothers and sisters, we explore together; we play, we fight, we compete and in greater or lesser ways, we all become part of one another.

That is what’s at the heart of Hawkins and every community, especially those that strive for purpose, despite their disfunctions.

The thing that drives Vicky and I as architects, is the belief that when we work on projects that allow strong communities to build on their relationships, to draw others in to their lives, it goes some way to making the world a little better, despite the horrors that may be unfolding in other places, both near and far. When we see communities coming together through our work, we know as architects that we’re doing the right thing.

At a stretch, I bet they even believe in the strength they draw from one another in their strange community, in the Upside Down.

Why is that light flickering again?…


Netflix - Stranger Things

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