Stranger Things, an eight-episode miniseries now available on Netflix, is being discussed mostly in terms of its inspirations, and that’s fine. Everything from the show’s logo to its spooky synth score are meant to tell you, loudly and with great clarity, that you are about to watch something that feels as if it might have come from an old VHS tape from your parent’s house.
If the show’s timeline doesn’t make a lot of sense, and you’ll get a bit confused if you try to look up the release date of many of the show’s songs and movie references, rest assured that the feel of the era is intact. This is when young folks rode bikes everywhere they went, The Clash were cool and interesting and the nerdy kids in school were getting very excited about ham radio.
And perhaps the most successful aspect of the show is its use of Dungeons & Dragons to help the kids make sense of what’s going on around them.
The Spielberg and King formula, if you can boil down the kid of pop culture essence of what Stranger Things is trying to lift from either man, is an often grim look at what happens when normal people, and perhaps kids especially, deal with incredible things. In this case, the kids find a very specific way to cope with the inexplicable.
They go back to their source books
Stranger Things never provides a moment when a character sits down and explains what’s going to an audience proxy. We know a few things: There is another dimension that some people can enter. There seems to be a single demon-like creature that lives there and is hungry for blood. The children don’t know how to deal with the fact their friend has disappeared and may be communicating with them through an uncanny young girl.
So they go back to Dungeons & Dragons, the same place the story began.
Their friend has been lost in the fictional Vale of Shadows, a shadow world from the game, they decide. They now have a way to make sense of the mystery in which they find themselves. They also have an emotional well from which to draw from when they need to fight back.
"The Vale of Shadows lies only a few hours northeast of Kuldahar — the Vale is a great canyon of crypts and tombs, some of them dating back centuries. Shadows cling to the walls of the canyon, even in the brightest day, and some of the shadows walk, carrying their burden of hatred and hunger with them. Beware this place."
It’s possible the scientists are just as lost as the rest of the characters when it comes to defining and describing the shadow world of the show’s monster, so this works as well as any other description. The children’s actions are also informed by the game itself; they don’t give up on Will because he didn’t give up on them; he threw a fireball when he could have cast a spell of protection. He put the safety of the group above his own. They are honor-bound to do the same.
The show is striking in how much it seems to love these characters. There are no easy jokes about their dorky pursuits, and they have at least one ally in a teacher who encourages their pursuits in role-playing and science. (He has the description of the Vale of Shadows memorized, in a fun character beat. He’s into Dungeons & Dragons as much as they are.) "The non-athletic kids really go for this stuff," a character says at one point, looking at a ham radio. Will’s mother is shown as nurturing and sensitive to his needs in flashbacks. They may have been bullied, but they had a support structure.
The first Dungeons & Dragons sequence helped to set the entire tone of the show. "The first scene we shot was the first scene we ever wrote for the show: the Dungeons and Dragons scene," showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer wrote for Entertainment Weekly. "We held our breath, called action, and … it clicked. Our boys flew through the scene effortlessly and energetically, and their chemistry was electric; they felt like they had known each other their whole lives. Other than when we sold the show to Netflix, this was the single biggest moment for Stranger Things. We slept pretty well that night."
That affection for the children and their pursuits is part of the magic of the show; what could have been a judgmental aside became instead a way for the show to explain why the children found this game so enjoyable. It helps that the young actors cast for this role throw themselves into every scene; the Dungeon & Dragons sequences are shot in a way that spreads the joy of the game for young people, and the children return to the source books for hints about what to do next in their real-life adventure with the gravity that Gandalf would open an ancient tome.
The children see this fictional world as real, and important. It’s the only map they have.