Fangirl Friday: The OTHER Winona and Stranger Things

HEY, peeps! Holy freakin’ moly, here we are, Friday again. WOO HOOO!

This week, I want to give a shout-out to someone who was part of my pop culture milieu back in the day before I kind of lost touch with her and then BOOM she comes roaring back in a stellar, nuanced performance in Netflix’s ode to the 80s, Stranger Things.
stranger-things

I’m talking here about Winona.

No, no. Not Wynonna Earp. We already fangirled over her and her show (and we will again, but not today). Rather, Winona Ryder.

There are no doubt people reading this here blog who are all, “what do you mean, ‘back in the day’?”

I mean, friends, one of the major Gen X pop culture faces in the early 90s. There was a time — here, let me get my corncob pipe and rocking chair for reminiscing — when you couldn’t spit without hitting a media story about Winona Ryder and her movies (and yeah, we walked to school in the snow barefoot both ways and we liked it because at least we got to see Winona Ryder movies at the one town theater, dammit).

She’s been around a while, playing often edgy, dark, and carefully layered roles since I first developed a slight crush on her when she was a moody emo-gothish girl with a silly streak in 1988’s deliciously kitschy-macabre Beetlejuice.

Ryder as Beetlejuice's Lydia Deetz, the adolescent tortured goth girl I totes crushed on.
Ryder as Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz, the adolescent tortured goth girl I totes crushed on.

The late 80s and early 90s seemed to be a veritable boomtown of Ryder, as she was in several movies during those years, starting with her debut in Lucas (1986), then went on to do Heathers (cult fave), Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Mermaids (Golden Globe nomination), Edward Scissorhands (she was linked romantically with Johnny Depp for a time), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress for her role in Age of Innocence (1993), for which she was also nominated for an Oscar. She scored another Oscar nomination in 1994 for best actress in Little Women.

Some of you may remember her in Reality Bites, a Gen X WTF do we do now after college movie; Alien: Resurrection, and Girl, Interrupted (1999), based on the life of writer Susanna Kaysen, who spent 18 months in a mental hospital in the 1960s. Ryder’s portrayal of Kaysen was riveting, brutal, and heart-wrenching. She also served as the executive producer of that movie and in 2000, got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Since then, she’s been nominated for a couple of Screen Actors’ Guild awards and she clearly continues to take roles that I consider off-the-beaten path.

Her personal life, however, was the stuff of tabloids in the late 90s and early 2000s. There was, for example, the shoplifting arrest in 2001 and her battles with anxiety and depression. Years later, she would talk about that incident and open up about her personal demons. Kudos to her for owning that.

Anyway, Ryder has thus been a fixture of sorts in my life and in the lives of a bunch of us Gen Xers who came of age about the time she was putting out her first movies.

So imagine my surprise when I heard she was in the creepy-cool Netflix original series Stranger Things, which debuted on July 15th.

Winona Ryder? Seriously?

So I watched. And watched. And watched some more. And holy 1980s cigarettes and cheap beer, she’s mesmerizing.

Stranger Things, for those not in the know, takes place in Indiana in 1983. Winona Ryder plays Joyce Byers, a hassled single mom with two sons. Jonathan is in his teens, and he seems to have taken over some of the parenting roles in the house for his younger brother Will, who’s in middle school. And, frankly, for his mom, who carries damage that local townspeople hint about but never fully reveal.

Will runs with three other boys his age and they are the quintessential geeks. They play Dungeons and Dragons, contact each other on ol’ skool walkie talkies, and have a bond with the school’s science teacher, who lets them noodle on the school’s A/V equipment after hours.

Geek squad from Stranger Things. Mike, Lucas, Dustin (from left) source
Geek squad from Stranger Things. Mike, Lucas, Dustin (from left) source

Well, Stranger Things takes off in the first freaking episode, in which Will disappears after an evening of D&D with his buddies (no spoiler, kids — it’s all over the webz). He’s riding his bike home and stranger things are indeed afoot. Strange and freaking hair-raising scary, as we see what causes Will to disappear and we know right off the bat that shit is gettin’ real in this small town.

Will Byers, who goes missing in Stranger Things
Will Byers, who goes missing in Stranger Things

Throw in a secretive lab in the community, even more secretive scientists, a bunch of cover-ups, a strange young girl who clearly has escaped from the lab, a local police chief who is sorely tested by all the sudden random violence in a town where generally nothing happens, Will’s disappearance, and you’ve got a recipe for some gripping TV.

The entire cast is strong, but Ryder is brilliant as Will’s mom. She’s struggling with money, struggling with her life, her ex-husband is a douche, the chief of police doesn’t believe her wild tales that she’s communicating with Will (I’m not going to spoil anything for you; go watch it) and that she’s seen “something.” We watch her sitting in a darkened living room clutching the phone, trembling fingers holding a cigarette as it slowly burns down toward her flesh and we totally get why people think she’s nuts.

Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers in Stranger Things. source
Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers in Stranger Things. source

This is a woman haunted, and she moves with an abrupt kinetic energy, slightly hunched over, like someone who has had to keep her head down and bull through whatever is in her way. And you get the feeling she’s spent her life with something in her way. But goddamn, she doesn’t care. Her freaking SON is missing, and she will do whatever it takes to bring him home. So underneath her demons, there’s a down-to-earth scrappiness about her that you root for. You want Joyce to tear down heaven and earth to find Will, and you want her to finally get some recognition for how damn hard she works to keep it together for her boys.

And yes, this is indeed an ode to the 80s and an ode to that era’s creepfests. It was developed by Matt and Ross Duffer, twin brothers out of North Carolina who love them some horror and sci fi films (you may know the Duffer Brothers from their work on Wayward Pines).

Here, in ST — well, imagine if the original Poltergeist was hanging around with ET at ye olde movie night and then got picked up by another ode to the 80s (okay, ode to 1979), Super 8 and Stand By Me and they all got drunk in the woods and then…bad things happen. That’s Stranger Things.

For me, ST is also a walk down memory lane for those of us of a certain generation. The sets and clothing and the material culture of the 1980s — ah, the good ol’ days. When nobody walked around with a damn smartphone attached to their hands and kids actually WENT OUTSIDE AND RODE THEIR BIKES TO SCHOOL OMG STOP THE MADNESS DID THAT ACTUALLY HAPPEN.

Yes. Yes, it did. And I was one of those kids, who ran in a group and we rode our bikes everywhere and spent practically every waking moment outside. I actually like being the age I am, because I’m an immigrant to the digital divide rather than a native. It means I speak two languages: pre-device and device, and I think because I didn’t grow up with devices or the interwebz, I know there’s a world beyond that, and I actually still interact with people FACE TO FACE and ON THE PHONE OMG NO FREAKING WAY. Like people do in ST. Like they have to.

So I’m loving Stranger Things and trippin’ on my own nostalgia (though I have caught a couple of anachronisms). I love the Twin Peaks and 80s feel, injected with the energy and earnestness of a group of kids that I probably would have hung out with, as they try to find their friend and figure out what the hell is going on in their normally mundane small town.

And of course, Winona. Every time she’s on screen here, you can’t look away because she so deftly pulls you into her life and her character. Ryder is so freaking comfortable in Joyce’s skin that holy shit, I don’t even recognize her as anything BUT Joyce Byers, hardscrabble single mom searching desperately for her son.

Every character in this series is well-cast, and you get some super-strong performances, well-paced narratives, great lines, and major high creepy quotient and escalating tension. The kids in ST are superb, and if you don’t find yourself remembering your middle school and high school days, then I think you need to check to see what happened to your soul.

This one’s a keeper, friends. I recommend you have some buddies over and do some binge-watching. Season 1 (eight episodes) is now streaming at Netflix.

Tell Joyce I sent you.

Happy Friday, happy fandom!

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8 thoughts on “Fangirl Friday: The OTHER Winona and Stranger Things

  1. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the show when my roommates watched it but I haven’t had time to watch the whole thing yet but I plan to once I get at least my first run through of Mankind Divided done after it comes on out on Tuesday, because as much as I love TV, it just can’t compete with my video games, especially not Bioware games and the Deus Ex franchise.

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  2. Omg I was hooked from the very beginning! Loved it, and yes a lot of nostalgia for me too 🙂 Can’t wait till the next season. And speaking of the other wynonna, I caught that on the SyFy channel and caught up on past episodes on demand. Loved that too. So I am curious on who the father of Waverly is (unless you know please fill me in, I might have missed it) Can’t wait for season two. 🙂 Juli

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  3. WHAT? I would never spoil anything for anyone! LOL

    Besides, we don’t know what’s going on with Waverly. Bobo sprang that on her at the end of Season 1 and we’re all, WUT????

    Glad you’ve been watching Wynonna and Winona. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. Just finished Stranger Things and LOVED IT. I see so much of what you mentioned and also Stephen King’s IT (the novel, not the movie) in it. SO GOOD. Everything you said about Winona and her character is spot on. The hunched over walk especially, her physical presence is so amazing in this movie, as well as her dialogue and facial expressions!

    Curious, what were the anachronisms you spotted? I noticed that their speech patterns are more modern, with some mild vocal fry and a few of the phrases they used, but that actually probably makes it more palatable to today’s modern audience.

    Also, loved your description of we GenXers as being immigrants rather than natives to the digital divide. What a great way of summing it up! I have often felt lucky to have grown up (and attended college) before smartphones.

    Also Andi, your blog posts are my new favorite jam.

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  5. Howdy!!

    The vocal quirks were one thing, but they’re not enough to make me go THIS SHOW SUCKS. Because yeah, you’re trying to make it work with modern audiences and for the most part, they didn’t stick out. One of the things I noticed was…episode one or two, I think, when Joyce presents Will with tickets to see Poltergeist (the original — and how meta is that, since Poltergeist also deals with another dimension?). Well, Stranger Things takes place in November, 1983. Poltergeist was released in 1982, and chances are, it would not be playing live at a local theater.

    HOWEVER! I did think about that and decided that it’s possible that I missed that Joyce was operating in a flashback while thinking about Will, but it wasn’t clear how long ago the incident she was remembering was. So that one might be a boo-boo on my part.

    I also wondered where Jonathan was getting the music for his mixtapes. I grew up in rural Colorado in the 1980s, a fan of British new-wave and punk, and the music Jonathan played on his boom box was not music that you would hear on local radio stations and probably not music you’d be able to find in local stores. Plus, if you made recordings off the radio then, there was always backnoise from the station and generally the DJ might talk over the music. I was lucky, in that I got my music from penpals overseas until I went to college and hit import bins in record stores. But I didn’t see a turntable in the Byers house from which Jonathan was recording his mixtapes. Maybe I missed it…? And he clearly didn’t have friends who would’ve helped him out in that regard. So it seemed that there was a presumption that he would have gotten this music easily like people do today, and then the showmakers just slapped it onto a tape to make it seem all 80s. LOL

    I’m willing to be wrong on that, too, however.

    Another thing (more a quibble than an anachronism) I wondered about was when Joyce goes to buy a new phone after the first got fried. In early 1983, Bell (AT&T) got busted up by the government because it was considered a monopoly. Back then, you basically “rented” your phone from the phone company. That is, the phone company came to your house and installed the service AND gave you the phone to use, which you gave back when you moved or took with you and ensured they knew about it. So yeah, you could go buy a phone, but it was probably easier to go to the phone company and get one, especially if something crazy happened to yours, like what happened to Joyce’s. She may have been able to get one for free. I grew up in a town of 3000, and we had a phone company building. Anyway, the price she paid back then for the phone was accurate, since the deregulation of the phone monopoly made it so that manufacturers could start putting more phones out, but it hadn’t been a year, so phones were still not as readily available, perhaps, and a little pricey. $20 for a phone for someone like Joyce in 1983 is a lot of money. She should’ve gone to the phone company. LOL

    Overall, the look and feel of the show definitely evokes 1980s and for the most part, is accurate for the time period. I really enjoyed it.

    Kudos to the showrunners and writers, because overall, historically, it seems pretty accurate.

    AND YAY! Thanks for reading my crazy!

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