If the precision-spliced ’80s nostalgia was what kept viewers with Netflix’s Stranger Things, Winona Ryder — Winona Ryder! On TV! — was the lure that brought them there. The Duffer brothers’ rendition of a very specific type of vintage blockbuster — a wholesome small town, a group of precocious children, a supernatural mystery — is Ryder’s second major TV role inside of a year, and her first lead role in anything since … well, since Girl, Interrupted. In 1999.
No performer, at least no performer who’s still alive and (technically) working, has managed to stay an icon as long as Ryder has without producing much to feed that iconography. The Saks incident put her career in limbo, her subsequent roles kept it there, and yet her image remained intact. Neither an Adam Sandler movie, nor a Star Trek cameo, nor Frankenweenie voice work has managed to tarnish the legend of Winona, a one-woman zeitgeist of all things Gen X. No wonder her presence so dominated the early buzz around Stranger Things. There was Ryder herself; there were the neat parallels to Matthew McConaughey (don’t call it an -aissance); and there were the downright uncanny parallels to Heathers costar Christian Slater, also enjoying a showcase role on a televisual homage to a very specific era of cinema. The hype created itself.
A sad thing about Ryder’s semiforced hiatus: We’ve never actually gotten to see Ryder be an adult. We know what Ryder the teen and 20-something was, thanks to Heathers and Edward Scissorhands and Reality Bites: precocious, intense, quiet, but mostly because she doesn’t care to share what she’s thinking, which is a lot. We don’t really know what Ryder is after 30, and we didn’t have the chance to find out until the past couple of years. Now well into her 40s, she’s still a teen idol.
At least initially, Ryder’s Joyce Byers, the struggling single mother who spends most of Stranger Things in a frantic search for her missing son Will, is not typical triumphant-return material. For the first couple of the season’s eight episodes, Joyce is more or less a stock Concerned Mom: Worried and persistent, she’s essentially gaslit by the powers that be as the real work of the investigation mostly falls to Will’s friends. The kids meet a mysterious little girl with magic powers who stokes their wide-eyed sense of wonder; Joyce gets stonewalled by the chief of police.
As the supernatural element slowly ramps up, though, Joyce comes into her own — as does Ryder’s performance. (Really: hang on until Episode 4.) Her anxiety ramps up into a frenzy, then crescendos with wordless terror, even as she supplements her emotion with resourcefulness. Constructing a makeshift Ouija board out of Christmas lights, some paint, and her living room wall — arts and crafts as sci-fi rescue — Ryder gives a one-woman show of panic, elation, and loss. The character takes on extra depth when we learn, in passing, that she’s had mental health issues in the past. A potential stereotype of hysteria becomes an actual portrait of borderline (understandable) madness, ground Ryder’s tread — and tread extremely well — before.
"WILL!" becomes to Ryder what "JUICE!" was to David Schwimmer or "FUCK" was to That Scene from The Wire: a single word, shaded by repetition with infinite pathos and meaning. It’s also indicative of what Ryder’s able to do with Joyce as Stranger Things goes on: start with monotony and camp, then expand outward. By the time [spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen literally any movies] she rescues Will from danger, we’re fully invested in this iteration of the timeless bond between mother and child.
As a character who’s firstly and fundamentally maternal, Joyce is almost the perfect entry point into Grown-up Winona and a logical follow-up to Vinni Restiano, the city councilwoman she played in David Simon’s Show Me a Hero. For most Hollywood actresses, shifting into mom gear is a de facto demotion; see the collective eye-rolling at the news that Mila Kunis, a sex symbol barely in her 30s, is now getting typecast as a deeply unsexy suburbanite. For Ryder, it’s virgin territory — and a signifier of maturity. Both roles feel specifically grown, like promising steps toward breaking the fixed image we’ve had of Winona Ryder for the past 20 years.
If Stranger Things is the Winona Back announcement it certainly seems to be, there are any number of places Ryder could go from here. The ending seems relatively fixed, so it’s possible the show could convert into an anthology, with Ryder the Jessica Lange to the Duffer brothers’ sane, meticulous Ryan Murphy. She could also return to the movies, where her intensity would fit relationship dramedies and blockbuster thrillers equally well. What better place to solidify Grown-up Winona than the place we met Winona 1.0?
Or she could keep at this television thing, sticking with a medium that’s increasingly willing and able to craft more complex, interesting roles for women in their 40s than the rest of Hollywood. Take the prickly crime protagonist wrestling with her own trauma, à la Gillian Anderson in The Fall or Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake, about as good a use for Joyce’s nervy determination as any. The choice might seem obvious — but when was the last time Winona Ryder did the obvious thing?