Revealing Heart: 4 Ways Stranger Things is About Friendship

Stranger Things has a rare quality you don’t often see in TV and film — it feels alive. There are many things that help create this quality, like its overwhelming love and appreciation for the 80’s, the small town setting that allows us to experience the events on a small scale, the desperate, frantic desire for a Mother to find her son and for a police chief to finally save a child after losing his daughter, and the phenomenal soundtrack. But I think the heart of Stranger Things is the friendship between the boys and Eleven.

Here are four ways in which Stranger Things reveals friendship as its heart. (Please note: I will be discussing the series as a whole, so if you haven’t finished yet, please do not read until you are done. Major spoilers ahead.)

1. The Dungeons and Dragons Game

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The game of of Dungeons and Dragons the boys play at the beginning of Stranger Things establishes the core relationships between the boys and their characters. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the leader (because he’s the Dungeon Master and it’s his house), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is the aggressive, foolhardy one (because he tells Will not to be a pussy and cast a fireball spell), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is the flighty one (because he tells Will to cast a protection spell and he panics for his fictional character’s life when the dice fall of the table), and Will (Noah Schnapp) is the pure one (because he admits to Mike that he rolled a seven and not a thirteen).

Most importantly, because we are seeing much of the show through the boys’ eyes, this scene makes us a part of the group. Dungeons and Dragons (and other various realms of geekdom) are how the boys view the world, and by starting off the show with this Dungeons and Dragons game we are essentially being told that we are “playing” with them.

 

2. Mike’s Definition of Friendship

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Making Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) a blank slate in terms of socialization forces Mike to explain to Eleven the concept of friendship. However, what this really does is allow the filmmakers to define what friendship means to them and how it will be used as a device throughout the story.

And what does Mike teach her? Mike’s understanding of friendship is endearing and heartwarming because it isn’t muddied by the experience of age — it is absolute. “A promise is something you can’t break — ever,” he tells Eleven. He goes on: “A friend is someone that you’d do anything for … and they never break a promise … that’s super important because friends tell each other things; things that parents don’t know.” Then later: “Friends tell each other the truth. And they definitely don’t lie to each other.”

To Eleven, the concept of a promise is something she treasures because she has no experience with trust. And that’s what Mike’s lessons with Eleven are about: Trust. So as their relationships develop and the boys and Eleven repeatedly betray and reconcile with each other, there’s a purity about the exchange that draws us in because breaking the rules of friendship is a big deal to them. It makes moments like the scene where Eleven saves Mike in the quarry more powerful because she’s doing what Mike taught her to do. First, shows that she’s willing to do anything for a friend by saving Mike, and second, she tells Mike she’s the one that opened the gate and that she’s the monster. In doing so she’s revealing a truth to Mike she didn’t want to admit to herself. When Mike embraces and accepts Eleven, she (and the audience) can feel Mike’s promise of friendship being fulfilled.

 

3. Lofty Examples of Friendship

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Stranger Things goes beyond defining and working with Mike’s definition of friendship by showing actions that demonstrate it. When Will first goes missing and the parents tell Will’s friends it is too dangerous to go out looking for Will, they ignore them and look anyway. When Eleven tells the boys that in the Upside Down there is a monster, the boys try to follow their compasses to the dimensional gate anyway.

The most intense example is probably Mike jumping off the quarry because Dustin is in danger. We are specifically told when we are first introduced to that quarry that a fall from that height would break every bone in your body. Even though Mike doesn’t know this, it’s clearly a life-threatening height. But Mike jumps anyway.

And it’s not only the boys that demonstrate the lengths they’re willing to go for friendship. When Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are looking for Barb, Nancy crawls into the gooey, scary hole in the tree. As I saw her do this I asked out loud, “Why would you do that?” But the reason is that her friend might be in there and Nancy will do whatever she can to find her friend.

We also get to see a moment of bravery from Steve when he sees the monster for the first time and has the option to run home, but instead decides to stay and fight (and actually helps). Why does he do this? Because Nancy matters to him and she is teaching him how to be a better friend.

 

4. Friendship Wins the Day

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In the final showdown with the monster, when the government and Nancy and Jonathan fail, it is down to the Dungeons and Dragons group of friends. It is here we see the friendship that has been developed pay off. As the boys are attacking the monster with “The Wrist Rocket,” Eleven sees that Mike and her friends are going to be killed so she intervenes and attacks the monster. And it is her collective experiences and growth with them that has encouraged her to do so.

In flashbacks we see Eleven clinging to her beloved “Papa,” but just prior to monster’s attack we see “Papa” holding her again and Eleven instead cries out for Mike. Because Mike has taught her the value of friendship. Facing the monster is also something we know Eleven is scared to do because when she encountered it before she became so overwhelmed with fear she created the gate between The Upside Down and our world. We’ve also seen her actively avoid the monster, like when she changes the directions of the boys’ compasses so they can’t find the gate.

Part of the newfound bravery she has to face the monster is due to the previous sensory deprivation scene that acts as a focal point for all the other storylines. By agreeing to explore The Upside Down in a sensory deprivation pool, she is pursuing the goals of a mother looking for her son, a cop looking for a missing child, Nancy looking for her friend, and Mike and his friends’ hunt for Will.

She’s essentially becoming braver because a collective group of people are trying to help Will and Barb, which is a concept Eleven is learning herself. We’ve seen her protect Mike before, but never against something she fears. She’s afraid of the sensory deprivation tank and she’s afraid of the monster, but in that moment she learns that we must do anything for a friend, even if that means facing our greatest fears and sacrificing ourselves.

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