July 24, 2019

“As You Like It” Comes to the Mall in “Stranger Things 3”

By Stuart Mitchner

During the first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers, Ross and Matt, waved a magic wand and gave us a once-in-a-lifetime character in Eleven, the fugitive child with telekinetic powers played by Millie Bobby Brown.

In Stranger Things 3, the Duffers have conjured up a white rabbit surprise in the form of a romantic comedy that blends screwball fun and creature feature clout. No need to worry about spoiler alerts and such because when the dust clears what makes the ride worth taking has less to do with why or how or who gets slimed, who dies and who doesn’t, than with the old boy-girl, man-woman, person-person scenario that’s been delighting audiences ever since Shakespeare dreamed up the star-crossed lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hollywood paired Katherine Hepburn’s scatterbrained Susan with Cary Grant’s hapless paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, where romance turns on the search for a lost dinosaur bone, a dog named George, and a leopard named Baby. The best thing about the spectacular doings of the Mindflayer in Stranger Things 3 is the challenge it offers the various amusingly human couples fighting, arguing, laughing and loving their way through life-and-death situations. When it comes down to choosing between human beings and special effects, it’s the human moments you hold close. Twenty-two years this side of Titanic, what stays with you, the sinking of a luxury liner or the romance between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack and Kate Winslet’s Rose?

Falling for Rosalind

After observing that “the greatest joy in the series at this stage comes from the way it’s evolved into a hangout sitcom with periodic monster attacks,” Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall notes, almost in passing, that Maya Hawke “effortlessly steals every scene she’s in.” That doesn’t begin to do justice to what Hawke does as Robin, Steve Harrington’s co-worker at Starcourt Mall’s ice cream parlor Scoops Ahoy. She doesn’t steal scenes, she lights them up, enlivens them, makes them shine. You might as well say Helen Hunt steals scenes from Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, or Julie Delpy from Ethan Hawke (Maya’s father) in Before Sunrise, or Uma Thurman (Maya’s mother) from John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

There’s a lot of truth in Sepinwall’s line about the evolution of Stranger Things, but at its best the show takes the “hangout sitcom” idea to another level, more along the lines of a shopping mall As You Like It with a sodium-pentothaled Rosalind and Orlando turning savage Russians into clowns. Surely the Duffer twins knew they were invoking Shakespeare when they gave the series a title echoing one of the most quoted lines in literature. At least that’s how I saw it when I wrote about the first season in August 2016. It’s like the brothers are saying, “Hey audience, there are more things on heaven and earth and Hawkins, Indiana than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Which is roughly what Hamlet says when a freaked-out Horatio cries “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange” after Hamlet comes back shaken and babbling from a meeting with his father’s ghost, risen out of the Shakespearean version of the Upside Down. Even before I saw the first season, and read all the reviews focused on Stranger Things’ celebration of 1980s pop culture, I was thinking, by way of Walter Pater, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of Shakespeare.”

The Bard’s version of special effects was the theatrical spectacular of the ghost (a part played by the author himself), but what lives on is the language and the characters speaking it, which is the truth behind the title of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Therein the great critic loses his heart to “the sublime Rosalind,” admitting that “falling in love” with her always makes him “wish she existed in our subliterary realm.” She’s “vital and beautiful, in spirit, in body and mind” and “has no equal in or out of Arden.” She’s “not a picnic of selves, as Hamlet sometimes becomes. Her changes unfold persuasively and only deepen the selfsame continuity of her nature.”

Robin and Rosalind

Agreed, Matt and Ross Duffer had no idea that they were fashioning an Indiana Rosalind when they imagined a high school girl named Robin scooping ice cream while blindsiding a redeemed douchebag with great hair named Steve (Joe Keery) at Starcourt Mall. But they had to know they’d found a very special actress, one they could actually learn from as they worked. In an interview with Time, Maya Hawke says that the Duffers “write the series as we’re filming it, and the character they had in mind evolved and changed as they got to know me better. Robin has a lot of walls with her dark sarcasm and her attitude, but as she gets more involved with Steve … she can be herself more. That mirrors the process of the Duffers; taking the initial sketch of a bored teenager and fusing her with my energy as a hyper, warm, excitable person. It was all shepherded by the Duffer brothers with me as a vessel more than anything else….In finding this new character, I had to put a lot on the canvas to make an image emerge… I think Robin has never felt at home in Hawkins, and if you don’t feel like you fit in, you work extra hard to get out. That’s where her knack for Russian and speaking four languages and being in a band comes from. I think it’s about her desire to make herself big enough to get free…. Women are just as capable of action-packed adventures as men.”

I was glad for the excuse to go back to As You Like It with the exhilarating adventures of Robin and Steve in mind, Robin always the dominant force, even when they’re captured by the Russians, tied back to back and high on truth serum. Centuries before Harold Bloom fell in love with Rosalind, William Hazlitt was swooning: “Rosalind’s character is made up of sportive gaiety and natural tenderness: her tongue runs the faster to conceal the pressure at her heart. She talks herself out of breath, only to get deeper in love.” You begin to think Hazlitt must have been streaming Stranger Things with a 19th-century remote when he observes “how full of voluble, laughing grace is all her conversation with Orlando …. How full of real fondness and pretended cruelty.”

There’s a lot of talk online about Robin’s “coming out” when Steve is looking to take the romance farther. In spite of Hawke’s no doubt heartfelt admission to Time that “this moment is really important for kids and adults across the world,” I think Robin, like Rosalind, is far too rich a chararacter to be confined to so limited a reading or reduced to acronyms like LGBT or PC. If anything, her brief, almost offhand reference to having a crush on another girl is given so little play that Steve hardly has time to absorb it. Most of Shakespeare’s female characters (played by male actors at the time) have been here. Rosalind is passing as a boy, herself, when she tells Orlando (who has been posting terrible poems about her all over the forest of Arden) how she relieved one love-sick lad  of the curse:

“He was to imagine me his love, his mistress; and I set him every day to woo me: at which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles, for every passion something and for no passion truly any thing, as boys and women are for the most part cattle of this colour; would now like him, now loathe him; then entertain him, then forswear him; now weep for him, then spit at him… And thus I cured him…”

Of course Orlando doesn’t want to be cured and neither, probably, does Steve.

Embattled Couples

Couples are key to the pleasures of Stranger Things 3. Like the rough and tumble screwball-Shakespearean pairing of David Harbour’s full-speed-ahead Sheriff Hopper and wonderful Winona Ryder’s equally energized Joyce Byers, mother of Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), the other half of yet another battling embattled couple with girl reporter Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who is glad to be rid of the formerly loathsome Steve, redeemed as a leading man in the comedy romance with Robin. Meanwhile Eleven and Nancy’s brother Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are dealing with a typical adolescent disconnect thanks to Sheriff Jim’s unsubtle solution to the making-out-behind-closed-doors syndrome, which results in the couple formed when Max (Sadie Sink) enlightens Eleven about the battle of the sexes and takes her on a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” spree at Starcourt. As for the boy genius Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), he joins Robin and Steve and Erica ( Priah Ferguson), the nerdish ice-cream-crazy sitcom sister to Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), in a journey to the center of the Mall.

Finally, and what can you say — improbably, gloriously, beautifully — there’s the short-wave “Never Ending Story” duet between Dustin and Suzie Q (Gabriella Pizzolo), the girlfriend from science camp his friends had dismissed as imaginary. This scene is one of the Duffers’ most daring moves, the essence of the finale’s balancing of comedy, romance, and creature feature spectacle. Dustin tells Suzie he’s busy trying to save the world from monsters and Russians, but she’s insistent, so he sings, they sing, and romantics like myself who know there are stranger things “than are dreamt of in our philosophy” can’t help feeling a chill that has nothing to do with horror.

Meanwhile the pleasures of Stranger Things 3 have distracted me from the person who remains the radiant heart of the series, its secret weapon, its angel, its fallen superhero; though wounded and bereft, Eleven prevails in an incredible moment that can’t be described without a spoiler alert, so all I can do is say how gently and gracefully she plays the scene where she saves her life by saving a soul.