In the summer of 2016, Netflix released a new original series that would go on to become one of the biggest pop culture sensations of its era, and would make stars of many members of its cast. Stranger Things is the story of a small town in the American Midwest in the 1980s where, as the title suggests, some very strange things begin to go down. Over the course three seasons and counting, the residents of Hawkins, Indiana have been through a lot. They’ve been through so much, in fact, that you might not even remember just how much went down in the show’s very first episode.
The first chapter of Stranger Things, "The Vanishing of Will Byers," has to do a lot in just an hour. It needs to introduce us to the town, the time period, and the characters inhabiting it, but it also needs to raise the stakes by establishing a supernatural threat. It has to pull off the vanishing hinted at by the title … and it has to do it all while also making a lot of pop culture references. So, unless you’re a super-fan, you’d be forgiven for missing some stuff.
Here are some key things you may have forgot happened in the very first episode of Stranger Things.
The first episode of Stranger Things had a brutal opening
The very first episode of Stranger Things is called "The Vanishing of Will Byers," and as such, it puts a lot of emphasis on introducing us to the kids who will remain at the heart of the story for the show’s entire run. The series premiere spends a lot of time with Will (Noah Schnapp), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), showing us their world, setting the stakes for the story, and building up to Will’s disappearance and the resulting fallout.
There’s so much focus on the kids that you might actually forget what the first scene of the series actually is.
While the first piece of character building in the show focuses on the quarter of boys playing Dungeons & Dragons in Mike’s basement, before that happens, the series opens with a look at Hawkins Lab, where an unnamed scientist is running for his life through the corridors. We don’t yet know what he’s running from, or what’s gone wrong to cause him to run, but we do see the results. Just when he thinks he’s safe, something reaches down from above and pulls him up to his death. It’s a brutal, unsettling moment that helps set the tone for Stranger Things. Yes, this is a show about young people on joke-filled adventures, but the threats they face are very real.
Stranger Things begins with a peek at a monster
When we first meet Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas, they’re playing a rousing game of Dungeons & Dragons in Mike’s basement, and Mike has a very nasty surprise planned for them. Just when they think they’re about to face a group of relatively low-stakes monsters, Mike reveals that he’s actually springing the dreaded Demogorgon on them. The scene marks the first time we hear the eventual name — bestowed by the boys — of the creature that terrorizes Hawkins throughout the first season. However, "The Vanishing of Will Byers" actually gives us more than just a name.
Later in the episode, Will Byers is stalked by the creature, and we tend to think that his disappearance is left rather mysterious, and you might even recall not really seeing the Demogorgon itself until later in the season. As Will attempts to hide from whatever is chasing him in the Byers house, though, the series does give us one brief glimpse of the monster. When Will looks out the window to see if he’s been followed, he sees a dark silhouette that seems to change its shape a little as he stares at it. We didn’t know it yet, but that was the now-iconic creature’s first appearance in the show.
Joyce Byers is seen in happier times
Stranger Things spends much of its first season examining the fallout from Will Byers’ disappearance and how it affects various people in Hawkins. Of course, no one is more impacted by Will’s loss than his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), who is convinced that the official explanation for what happened to her son is a lie.
As the saga of Will’s disappearance goes on, Joyce sees and hears things around her house that convince her Will can communicate with her from some other realms, which of course leads her to famously create an alphabet for him on her wall using Christmas lights and paint. Even as Joyce digs deeper into trying to understand Will’s messages, though, the rest of the town is convinced that losing her son has broken her. There’s even some implication, judging by the way certain people react to her, that Joyce wasn’t too far from losing her mind to begin with.
Because the first season is so preoccupied with Joyce’s reaction to Will’s loss, you might not remember that one scene in particular shows us she wasn’t always someone on the brink. In happier times, in a flashback sequence, Joyce not only proves she’s a great mom, but shows a genuine interest in Will’s life, by crawling into his clubhouse and revealing she got them tickets to Poltergeist. It highlights not just how hard she’s taking the loss of her son, but how devoted she is to fighting for him.
Benny the diner owner plays a surprisingly major role in Stranger Things
After spending quite a bit of time introducing us to the various main characters who inhabit Hawkins, Indiana, the first episode of Stranger Things reveals the other key piece of the ensemble, with a major role to play, is a girl with a shaved head, known only as Eleven.
A lot of the first season is devoted to the other characters learning to understand Eleven, and coming to terms with her various telepathic and telekinetic powers, but what you might not remember if you haven’t watched the episode in a while is that Eleven’s journey actually begins with a one-off character. The first person to be kind to her after she escapes Hawkins Lab is not Mike, or Dustin, or Hopper, but a diner owner named Benny (Chris Sullivan). Benny takes Eleven in, offers her food, and even does his best to make sure the proper authorities will come along and take care of her. Sadly, Benny’s call to child protective services is intercepted, and he’s shot by government agents, as a loose end that needs to be tied off. Benny may only be in a few scenes, but his legacy of kindness to Eleven lives on, because it’s the thing that allows her to believe other people might be nice to her.
Stranger Things offers an early look at the gate
Most of the action in "The Vanishing of Will Byers" unfolds out in Hawkins itself, as various residents realize something strange is going on, deal with a blackout, and conduct a search for Will Byers. The episode is so focused on the town, and the rest of the season is so devoted to various characters solving the mystery of what set all these events in motion, that you might forget that the premiere episode gives us more than one look at what’s going on in Hawkins Lab.
After that first scene in which we see a nameless scientist die, the episode takes us back to the lab as Dr. Brenner arrives to inspect the site of the accident, and to begin the search for his protege, Eleven. While he’s there, Hawkins Lab personnel show Brenner the aftermath of what happened, including a strange gap in the wall with black tendrils growing out of it. We didn’t know it at the time, but this is our first glimpse at the parallel dimension known as the Upside Down, and the gate leading to it — which won’t be properly closed until the end of the following season.
The littlest Wheeler is seen in Stranger Things’ first episode
There are two kinds of Stranger Things fans: People who watch the series a couple of times and love it, and people who watch the series over and over again and love it. If you’re in the former category, you might occasionally forget certain aspects of the show, and that makes sense. The series makes use of a complex mythology, numerous key locations, and a very large cast of characters that keeps expanding with every subsequent season. So, if you haven’t seen "The Vanishing of Will Byers" a lot, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the Wheeler family is actually a quintet, not a quartet.
The Wheeler family’s role in Stranger Things is largely focused on the adventures of Mike and his older sister Nancy, as they both come upon the mysteries of Hawkins in different ways. Their mother, Karen, has a larger role to play in later seasons, and their father Ted is mostly treated as an oblivious punchline, but the series premiere also reveals that they have a little sister. Holly Wheeler (Tinsley Price) is just a toddler when we meet her in "The Vanishing of Bill Byers," and she has no real bearing on the plot. Even in subsequent seasons, Holly has stuck around, but had no impact on the story. She’s worth remembering, though, because if Lucas’ sister Erica taught us anything, it’s that little sisters can be very important in the long run.
When Stranger Things begins, Steve’s hair hasn’t grown out yet
We’ve talked about how much Stranger Things‘ very first episode focuses on the core group of kids that will make up the heart of the cast for the rest of the show’s run, but "The Vanishing of Will Byers" also spends a healthy chunk of time filling out supporting characters who will later have major roles to play in the story. Mike Wheeler’s introduction leads us to the introduction of his sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Nancy’s introduction eventually leads us to her on-again, off-again love interest, Steve Harrington (Will Keery).
Though he’ll later become the stuff of Stranger Things legend thanks to his exploits on the show, the Steve we meet in the first episode is basically a typical high school "cool kid," less interested in school than he is in making out with Nancy. A lot about the Steve that fans later came to love isn’t present here, yet, including his eventual kindness. Something else is also missing, though, and that’s the legendary hair. Yes, while Steve certainly has a healthy head of hair in the first episode, it is not yet coiffed into the legendary look we’ll later come to love, a look so popular that revealing his secret to it becomes a major plot point in season two.
He’s still Steve, sure, but the Steve in this episode is far from fully formed.
Hopper’s distance in the first episode of Stranger Things
There’s a lot of evolution of the main characters over the course of the first season of Stranger Things, as very key residents of Hawkins come to terms with the new world they’re living in and realize what it means to fight to save their time. Everyone changes in some way, but perhaps no one changes as much as Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the head of the Hawkins Police Department.
When we first meet Hopper, he’s a hungover, sloppy, apathetic cop who’d rather be doing anything else, and he’s definitely not eager to dive into a missing persons case. He does his duty, of course, and wants to find Will Byers, but he doesn’t necessarily want to grow closer to his community while doing it. During an organized search for Will, while talking with the boys’ science teacher Mr. Clarke, Hopper proves how detached he is by claiming that his daughter lives with her mother in another city. Moments later, one of the police department employees corrects the story when Hopper is out of earshot, revealing that his daughter actually passed away.
Hopper’s daughter’s death, and the trauma he still bears from it, are a key plot point in the first season of Stranger Things, and it’s easy to forget how quickly that started. Even here, in the first episode, he’s presented as a haunted man who’s hiding the truth.
The legend of Barb begins
If you latched onto Stranger Things back when the show first premiered in 2016, you probably saw a lot of the early memes associated with the series building from the beginning. Many of them ultimately centered on Barbara "Barb" Holland, Nancy Wheeler’s cautious best friend who both supports Nancy’s love life and urges her to keep from going to extremes. The hashtag #JusticeforBarb became a key point of the show’s fandom at the end of season one, and the beginning of season two, because of the character’s ultimate fate: During a pool party she doesn’t want to go to in the first place, Barb is captured by the Demogorgon, and ultimately dies in the Upside Down.
That part is easy to remember, but what you might not remember is just how brief Barb’s legendary presence on the series was. The last time we see her alive on the show is in the beginning of the third episode, "Holly, Jolly," when it’s revealed she’s in the Upside-Down. That leaves her precious little time to make an impression, and in "The Vanishing of Will Byers," she does it with little more than a look in one scene, standing by Nancy’s locker while they talk about Steve.
Barb’s tenure on the show was brief indeed, but she burned bright, and her presence in the premiere is worth remembering.