It's really a wonder that any of the parents in Stranger Things have managed to get through three seasons without realizing that their kids are involved in some seriously messed up monster stuff. These kids are constantly finding themselves inches from the Upside Down and coming face to face with literal monsters, and somehow only Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) have caught on.
We get it. It's the '80s; parents asked fewer questions then; the kids' parents aren't really involved in any adventures, yadda yadda yadda. But what about one Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono), a.k.a Mike and Nancy's mom? The woman has been given a full character (unlike Mr. Wheeler, who could just be described as "Sleepy Old Guy") and a whole storyline, and still, she has no idea that something weird is going on in Hawkins until it's splashed across every newspaper at the end of Stranger Things season 3. Well, the actress who plays Karen has a few ideas about why Mrs. Wheeler might be a bit... distracted.
Yes, the most immediate reason is the hot lifeguard/possessed minion of the Mind Flayer, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), but it's more than just an opportunity for a fling.
"There's a kind of this feeling of being seen as opposed to, during the fall and winter, of being in school," Buono tells Refinery29, of Mrs. Wheeler's season 3 vibe. "I think when she opened the door to Billy, she opened the door to thinking about herself differently, maybe getting into shape and feeling like she matters more than [as] a wife and a mom. I feel like there's a sense of having a little more me time."
And while we all gathered that Billy is a bit of a distraction from the moment that teaser clip of him waltzing along the pool first dropped, for Buono, there's a lot more to Mrs. Wheeler — something we don't see much of, directly, on screen.
"I've filled in quite a bit [of her backstory]. I've tried to give her a sense of dissatisfaction; she's given up a lot of her dreams and aspirations. There's an edge to her," she says.
That edge, if it were to have a name, might include the word "wine." Buono says she made a slight judgement call about her character, when it started to become a little odd that Mrs. Wheeler had no idea her son was palling around with a telekinetic superhero and not just some nice girl named El. (Let's be real, Karen Wheeler definitely thinks that name is spelled "Elle.")
"In season 1, I asked [the props team] for a glass of wine and as many as possible, because I thought, 'She is really smart. How does she not know this is going on in her basement?' Eighties parents were definitely more oblivious than there are today, but I thought, well maybe to self-medicate and anesthetize herself a bit, she drinks," explains Buono. "So by the time things were happening, she's kind of passed out or checked out, so it justifies the cluelessness that we see in her."
She had to give up some of her dreams or whatever she was pursuing herself and wasn't encouraged, so she wants to do the opposite for her daughter.
Cara Buono on Mrs. Wheeler
That backstory for Mrs. Wheeler seems to be something series creators the Duffer brothers took to heart, evidenced by her season 3 arc. Not only does the matriarch find herself weighing the risk of having an affair with Billy, starting deeply into a mirror with a fresh coat of lipstick on before darting down the stairs of her home to find her husband and youngest daughter (the forgotten Holly) asleep in front of the TV, she also enjoys a heart-to-heart with her daughter.
After Nancy (Natalia Dyer) suffers a setback at the newspaper — also known as Hawkins' local cesspool of misogyny — she feels defeated and has allowed the brash men at her workplace to gaslight her into disbelieving her own (correct!) instincts. Mrs. Wheeler comes in the perfect mom response, one that betrays exactly what Buono saw in the character back in season 1:
"It's hard out there, Nance. People are always saying that you can't or that you shouldn't, that you're not smart enough or good enough. This world, it beats you up again and again until eventually, I... most people, they just stop trying. But you're not like that."
It's clear that Mrs. Wheeler might be drinking the Kool-Aid that took her down this path in the first place. Nancy has to remind her that she gets her strength from one person: her mother.
"When she's giving that speech to Nancy, she's really talking about herself, talking [about] people being discouraging, and you can tell that she's going through the roster of her whole life," says Buono. "She had to give up some of her dreams or whatever she was pursuing herself and wasn't encouraged, so she wants to do the opposite for her daughter."