As we eagerly anticipate season two of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things, can we just take a minute to appreciate how great the moms are? One of the running themes of the show is the necessity of mothers and mother figures for kids, but we don’t talk about that enough! And yet it was one of the best aspects of the first season.
But first, let’s back up. If you haven’t seen Stranger Things (in which case, why are you reading this?), there are two main moms on the show: Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono).
Joyce is the mother of Jonathan, an artsy outsider, and Will, whose disappearance is the inciting incident that sets the first season into motion. Joyce is equal parts nutcase and badass. An overworked single parent, she still provides a supportive and loving home for her two sons. But she kinda loses it when Will disappears—understandably so. She’s shaky and bug-eyed the way only Ryder can be; and in her grief and confusion, she refuses to believe that Will is dead, even when she sees his body with her own eyes. Joyce even figures out a way to communicate with Will through the famous alphabet light wall. It’s Joyce’s stubborn determination to find Will that gets police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) involved. She doesn’t give a shit that people think she’s crazy or bothersome; she’s finding her son, and that’s that. By the end of the season, she’s in another dimension getting Will back from a creepy monster. That’s what moms do.
Her foil—or more accurately, her counterpart—is Hopper. We see in flashbacks that his young daughter contracted an illness years earlier and, despite all his fatherly love and care, she died. Now, I’m not suggesting that dads aren’t as strong as moms or that cancer and being sucked into the Upside Down are somehow comparable. Nor, I think, is the show. But the pairing of these two parents of “lost” children still sets up a situation in which Joyce, essentially through sheer force of will, did the impossible thing Hopper was unable to do, and it’s a powerful moment. Despite all the sci-fi equipment, super heroics, and technical knowledge of basically every other character, Mama Byers is the biggest secret weapon in Hawkins.
Then we have Mrs. Wheeler, a more traditional eighties housewife and the mother of popular and studious Nancy, AV club member Mike, and toddler Holly. Her husband is more or less just a guy around the house, and we find out from Nancy that they married when Karen was young and her husband was…not so young. Her whole thing is being a wife and mother, and she’s essentially a good person—Karen is sympathetic to Joyce when others aren’t, tries her best to deal with teenage Nancy, and is firm but not harsh with Mike and his friends. Sure, there’s a lot she doesn’t notice; most obviously, that her son Mike is keeping Eleven as a guest in their basement for, like, a week. And no, she’s not as overtly “badass” as Joyce. But her motherly superheroics are of another quality: The measure of a parent isn’t always the parent’s behavior; it’s the kids’, and Karen has raised incredible kids. Despite the rest of the town’s somewhat comic apathy, Nancy will not rest until she finds out what happened to her best friend Barb. And Mike doesn’t just let Eleven stay at the Wheeler house; he feeds, clothes, and comforts her. Mike and Nancy are incredibly caring and tenacious, and I don’t think they learned it from their dad. That’s all Karen’s doing.
In fact, Mike knows this. He knows that because of his warm and loving family—held together by his mother—he is safe, safe enough even to take risks and help others. When Eleven is hurt, he tells her, “Just hold on a little longer, OK? He’s gone. The bad man’s gone. We’ll be home soon, and my mom…she’ll get you your own bed. You can eat as many Eggos as you want.” He’s echoing what almost every young kid thinks at some point or another in their life: Everything will be OK because Mom will fix it.
Which brings us to Eleven, a case study in being unmothered. She’s skittish, deprived of human warmth and contact, and, with only her cruel “papa” figure (Matthew Modine) raising her, totally cut off from her femininity. Her hair is short—the first person she meets outside the lab takes her for a boy—and she’s enchanted by the sight of herself in a wig and dress. It’s not because, as some have interpreted, the show wants to enforce a rigid idea of what it means to be a woman. It’s because being a “girly” girl was never even an option for Eleven. She never had anyone to show her. To her, that dress means normality—even freedom.
Eleven is the third lost child of the series, and we get to meet the women who lost her: her mother and aunt. Eleven’s mom was told she miscarried the daughter in her womb but, like Joyce, refused to believe her child was truly gone. Eventually, it’s implied, that frustration, plus drug use and possible interference by the evil lab, drove her out of her mind. She now spends her days half-asleep in front of the television, while her sister takes care of her. (It’s female compassion all the way down on this show.)
Eleven never gets to meet the woman she was stolen from in season one, but she does, finally, get a mom. For her whole life, she has been subjected to traumatizing experiments in sensory deprivation tanks by men who see her as a powerful tool, not a little girl. But to help rescue Will, she agrees to go into another makeshift tank. This time, though, something is different: Joyce is there. As Eleven prepares to get into the tub, Joyce tells this silent, feral child, “You’re a very brave girl. You know that, don’t you? Everything you’re doing, for my boy, for Will…for my family. Thank you.” Then she takes Eleven’s hands and leans in close. “Listen, I am gonna be there with you the whole time,” she says. “If it ever gets too scary in that place, you just let me know, OK?” Eleven has never known a mother’s love in her young life—now she’s got one telling her she’s allowed to feel fear, that she’s supported and brave. When Eleven starts to whimper in the tub, Joyce whispers, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK. We’re right here, honey. It’s OK. I got you. Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. It’s OK, you’re safe.” It gives Eleven the courage to continue. Eventually, she delivers this message from Joyce to Will: “Your mom, she’s coming for you.” Can you imagine a more comforting message? When Eleven finally comes out of her trance, she cries in Joyce’s arms, who tells her, “I got you. I got you. I got you, honey. You did so good. Are you OK?” For the first time, Eleven might actually be OK because Mom is there. It’s my favorite scene.
So, as you dip into the wild world of season two, be on the lookout for incredible acts of maternity. They are there, tenfold, but I won’t spoil it for you. Just promise that when you finish, you’ll remember to call your mother. She’s worried sick about you!