netflix house style

The Duffer Brothers’ MasterClass Kills All Hope for a Steve and Dustin Spinoff

Photo: Courtesy of Duffer Bros MasterClass

Spoilers for Stranger Things 4: Part 2 as well as guesswork spoilers for Stranger Things 5 and the rumored spinoff follow. 

People come to MasterClass for all sorts of reasons: to hone a skill, to deepen a parasocial relationship, to get jealous of Mariah Carey’s innate talent. I came to the Duffer Brothers’ class in TV writing with the goal of ruining Stranger Things for myself. Between an obsessive TV Tropes period and a deep well of free-floating anxiety, I have ruined linear storytelling for myself, either seeing plot twists coming or frantically scrolling plot summaries. (Case in point: While watching Parasite in theaters, I ran to the bathroom to read the film’s Wikipedia about halfway through, thus freeing the fiction-enjoying centers of my brain from the grip of uncertainty.) The result is that I experience stories like Jobu Tupaki, everything is everywhere all at once. Do I wish I could just let story happen to me? Not especially. So, if the official Monopoly for the show can spoil plot details, why not the MasterClass?

By mainlining the class, which dropped June 30, faster than I can watch the four-hour second part of season four, I was treated to one single spoiler for the finale, “The Piggyback.” But by then, it was midnight and the show itself had dropped on Netflix. If I was using MasterClass “correctly,” doing the homework assignments along with the lessons, I would be weeks away from learning that Eddie (Joseph Quinn) and Chrissy’s (Grace Van Dien) conversation in episode one was added to foreshadow Eddie’s big (guitar) hero moment. But for true Stranger Things completists, the class offers a lot to think about.

The Duffer brothers’ MasterClass is a multi-hour experience of two Nate Bargatzes teaching you the art of outlining. Like Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s book on screenwriting, the class is focused as much on selling your idea as getting it on paper. They use the actual Google Docs the bros used to plot the show and pitch it to Netflix as examples of how to do every step of their process. It’s a version of the show that never was, back when it was titled Montauk and based on the government experiments that allegedly took place there. Through them, you get a peek into their (poorly spelled) minds. For instance: The germ of the show was the desire to make something that was Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners combined with season one of True Detective. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) was initially described as just “fat friend.” Steve (Joe Keery) and Billy (Dacre Montgomery) were originally the same character. And Ross Duffer didn’t like the name Stranger Things at all. It is to those brainstorming docs where those also looking for spoilers should look. Many ideas that were generated in the brainstorming, a.k.a. the “blue sky” phase of writing the pilot, eventually made it to later seasons, like how Billy didn’t show up until season two.

To illustrate their stages of development, the Duffers create a fake spinoff for the show about Steve and Dustin. The brothers take great pains to make sure we (and Netflix) understand that this show isn’t real and never will be, which is a shame because it’s about treasure-hunting and — if Matt Duffer gets his way — would feature a giant lizard dude. The Fake Steve and Dustin Spinoff takes place between seasons three and four, riffing on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with Dustin’s currently offscreen dad in the Dr. Jones Sr. position. The Duffers have no qualms laying bare how much they are inspired by other media; they are true collage artists. Name-checked as pivotal to the development of Stranger Things are works and artists such as The Goonies, Needful Things, Under the Skin, Silent Hill, Poltergeist, True Detective, ET, Hellraiser, Scanners, Nightmare on Elm Street, H.R. Giger, Altered States, Guillermo del Toro, and Super 8, an especially funny one because it’s already a riff on Spielberg. They even write scripts in the style of comic-book narration with lots of ALL CAPS and font changes for emphasis. They tipped their hats to the musicianship of John Carpenter and the entire oeuvre of Sam Rockwell, even referring to the character that would eventually become Hopper (David Harbour) as “Sam Rockwell” in the brainstorming documents.

References to popular conspiracy theories were a major part of the Stranger Things planning phase and, later, execution. This has fallen by the wayside as the show goes on. Sure, the Hawkins Lab was pretty scary in season one, but it got softened and softened until Eleven had two semi-benevolent science papas. But season five could potentially bring that energy back. Hop’s monologue about Agent Orange in season four’s “The Nina Project proves that they’re not limited to what allegedly happened with the Montauk Project. And the fourth season takes place in 1986, which means we’re just a year away from the Iran-Contra. Plus, these boys researched the JFK conspiracy way too much for it to never even get mentioned on the show.

The Duffers know their shit, conspiratorially, and more of it could leak into the Stranger Things universe. If Stranger Things 5 has a spooky lady wearing a babushka or a giant lizard man, both of which appear in this class, don’t say I didn’t warn you …

The Duffers’ MasterClass Kills Hope for a Steve-Dustin Show