A personal tribute to Dustin Henderson, the Master Planner of Stranger Things

Contributed by
Aug 25, 2017

I was a late adopter of Stranger Things.

While everyone else was freaking out about the Netflix supernatural series, reveling in the nostalgia and the story and Barb, I was left in the dust a bit. I watched the pilot, and I really enjoyed it at the time, but then I just kind of ... fell off. It wasn't that I didn't want to know what happened next. It was just that sometimes you need the right show at the right time, and I guess it just wasn't the right time.

Then my best friend started to binge the show, and I began getting texts like this:

"You remind me SO MUCH of Dustin," she said. "You should finish watching this!"

At first, I honestly wasn't sure what to think. I felt like I was just being conflated with The Goofy One, and if you don't know me very well, that's an easy comparison to make (seriously, just look at my silly-as-all-hell Twitter account). But my best friend? Someone I'm so close to we're practically siblings? Why was she saying something so shallow?

Well, it turns out she wasn't. She was just telling me I needed to watch the rest of the show.

Now I'm a massive Stranger Things fan, and I'm proud to be mentioned in the same breath as Dustin, the show's Master Planner and Top Nerd.

Because the first season of Stranger Things leans so heavily on four young actors (Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Millie Bobby Brown, and Dustin himself, Gaten Matarazzo) and because said actors clearly have real-life chemistry in addition to their fictional adventures, it's easy for fans to pick one. Think "Which Sex and the City Girl Are You?" but for sci-fi. You could be Mike, the Leader and the Driving Force. You could be Lucas, the Beating Heart. You could be Eleven, the Fierce Enigma. Or you could be Dustin, the Overthinker and UberGeek.

That basic, two-word description of Dustin also absolutely describes me, but there's something deeper to the character, something I don't know if I quite realized until the Comic-Con trailer for Season 2 emerged earlier this summer. One of that trailer's highlights is Dustin, clearly in the midst of a crisis, yelling "Abort! ABORT!" to his friends and fellow adventurers. It's a very, very brief moment, but somehow it clarified just how special that character is to me.

Yelling "ABORT!" at the top of your lungs when you're a little kid is the kind of thing you'd do during a playground game. It's inherently silly and not easy to take seriously. Dustin's the kind of kid who would say it during a playground game, to be sure, but he's not on the playground. He's in the middle of an actual life-or-death story, and instead of losing his head, he's yelling a word that all of the movies, TV shows, and comics he loves taught him to say.

Which brings us back to me, and something about myself that's a little hard to admit.

Fiction is, much of the time, how I make sense of the world. I'm not quite at an Abed from Community level, but some days it doesn't feel like I'm that far off. It's not a substitute for real life, but fiction has structure. I don't just love Star Wars because it's awesome. I love it because I can analyze it, turn it over in my brain a thousand different times, and figure out what makes it tick. And I can do the same thing with Stephen King novels, Skyrim, The Sopranos, Dracula, and Batman comics. Crowds very often freak me out, and even basic social interaction can exhaust me, but turn on the right episode of The West Wing and I'm able to feel like I'm completely in control of the whole world for 45 full minutes.

The good news is that I understand this about myself now, but for a long time I didn't, and it caused me real problems. As a teenager, I watched romantic comedies and tried to replicate them in my real life, thinking that's what the people I was attracted to would want. It wasn't, and it wasn't fun for either of us. I recited whole monologues from screenplays, made references to the most obscure things I could think of, and generally carried myself as an insufferable pop culture Know-It-All, only to find that most of the time I really didn't know much of anything. It took years for me to find the right distinction between reality and my obsession with the fictional. Doing this for a living helps, and so does having friends who are into all the same stuff, but what became an essential rule is this: Your obsessions are in your utility belt, and you should only pull them out when the moment requires it.

Which brings us back to Dustin.

As Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are heading out on their quest to try and find Will Byers, Dustin dumps out his backpack to reveal that he's packed nothing but snacks. Lucas scoffs, but Dustin reminds him: "We need energy for our travels." When Eleven is mentally and physically drained, Dustin is the one who remembers a stash of chocolate pudding so she can replenish. As Hopper questions the kids about Will, Dustin is the one who makes it very clear that they're not referencing The Lord of the Rings but The Hobbit. When we first meet the boys, playing Dungeons & Dragons in Mike's basement, Dustin is the one who first fears that they're about to face the Demogorgon. His fears would prove prophetic in more ways than one. When the stakes are really high, Dustin is the one who leads the way, because it turns out he's the one who knows how a compass works.

Dustin is, like myself and so many other nerds (perhaps even you, Dear Reader), obsessed with stories. He wonders if Eleven was born with her powers like the X-Men, or if she was given them, like Green Lantern. He makes Professor Xavier references, and at times treats the story like a dungeon map he's trying to navigate with a few careful rolls and a good character sheet. He's also an inherently emotional boy. He cries when he thinks Will's body has been found, and drapes himself over Mike and Eleven as they embrace after a confrontation with bullies because he's not sure what else to do. He's not just a cold, cynical geek, and he's not just a hormonal, overcharged kid. He's a marriage of both.

So ... he's me.

Stranger Things is both a very obvious homage and a very obvious attempt to play to our collective sense of nostalgia. It is, in many ways, a story about stories. The Duffer Brothers set out to weave a story through the pop culture they grew up with, and what we got was a marriage of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, of John Carpenter and John Landis. There's an argument to be made that such a thing is very easy to do, and that anyone could replicate the formula. Where Stranger Things sets itself apart, aside from the relentless attention to detail in the production, is its heart.

In many ways, Dustin sums up the success of the show. He's read all of the stories. He's seen all of the movies. He knows all the angles. And yet here's this situation creeping up on him that he never imagined would actually happen. So he reacts, often very emotionally, but also with that sense of nerd obsession that we see in his decision to bring snacks, or to make sure his compass is working. But he's also emotional, full of love and humor and a sense that everyone will get through this if they just work together. When we first meet Dustin, he's The Goofy One. By the end of the first season, through a combination of good decisions and as much bravery as he could summon, he's become the show's stealth hero.

I'm not facing any literal Demogorgons in my life anytime soon. Neither, I suspect, are you. The world of Stranger Things is not our world, and it's not often that we get to apply our in-depth knowledge of a fantasy role-playing game to our real lives. What characters like Dustin prove, though, is that it's still worth it to keep those things in your utility belt. You may not be fighting monsters, but you might be able to diffuse some tension in a room, or make a new friend at a party, or even start a new relationship. The trick is knowing when and how, and Dustin is a good example of an awkward kid who's learned to wield his nerdy utility belt at an expert level.

We talk about stories here at SYFY WIRE. All the time. Every day. When you dig that deep into the world of the fictional, there are moments when you might wonder why it matters. What I've just told you is a story about why it matters. Fiction can inspire you, it can save you, and it can even help you hunt monsters.

Dustin's one of the best examples of that I've seen in recent memory. His story is not your story, or mine, but you can learn from him. You can learn, once again, that we can all be heroes ... just for one day.

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