This article is presented by Quibi.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Quibi’s The Stranger.]
The menace of access is ever-present on Quibi’s The Stranger, hailing from series creator, director, and writer Veena Sud (The Killing). Access through ridesharing apps, security cameras, phones, facial recognition software, and even the level of access people allow when face-to-face. All of these mediums are utilized to explore one possible answer to the question, “What happens when the wrong person suddenly has access to every part of your digital life?”
It’s an unsettling question, to be sure, and one which has likely crossed your mind at one point or another. In this day and age, it’s not uncommon to live as much of your life online as you do offline. Updating your status, sharing photos, commenting on others’ posts, making videos, and even sharing intimate details of your own experiences — these all provide the world with windows into who you truly are. And, sometimes, the wrong person decides to look in, poke around, and attach themselves to you. This, The Stranger eventually reveals, is where it can all go wrong.
Taking place over the course of 12 hours, The Stranger follows Clare (Maika Monroe), a recent Los Angeles transplant chasing dreams of being a screenwriter. Until she gets her big break, she’s choosing to earn her dough as a rideshare driver. With less than a week on the job in a new city, Clare makes a pick-up which she assumes will go the way it always goes. Why wouldn’t it? Instead, her passenger, Carl E. (Dane DeHaan), immediately creeps out Clare and proceeds to completely unnerve her as he reveals he murdered the family at the house where Clare picked him up. Clare manages to get away from Carl but soon discovers her tormentor has serious plans to expose her for the person he believes she truly is, rather than who she appears to be.
Over the next nine hours, Clare finds herself in Carl’s crosshairs as she tries to stay safe. What makes The Stranger so watchable — and so terrifying — is that it uses the trappings of the thriller genre as well as the genius of Quibi’s shortened episode structure to ratchet up the suspense through every stage of Carl’s attack plan. Aided by the conventions of the thriller genre, the show builds the sense of dread you feel for Clare’s safety as she is cut off at every juncture and cornered by this predator. Every cut to black at the end of an episode puts you on high alert. Every reveal of Carl pulling the strings behind another dastardly trick only upsets. And even though The Stranger takes us across L.A., there is a distinct sense of claustrophobia as we feel Carl’s grip over Clare’s life continue to tighten from minute to minute. For example, what should be perhaps the biggest violation of all —Carl finding out where Clare lives and entering her apartment without her knowledge — is just the first step. Carl violates a sacred space early on, showing he has no qualms in doing so and possibly has even more life-threatening plans for his victim later on.
As The Stranger continues, we see Carl repeatedly violating any sense of personal boundaries or space Clare is rightfully entitled to. After sabotaging her Orbit driver employment status and leading the cops to believe Clare is lying about her initial encounter, Carl proceeds to hack security camera footage to track her and sole ally, JJ (Avan Jogia), get the two pulled over by a highway cop after planting a gun in JJ’s car and making a call about said gun, and track the pair in person through the abandoned tunnels of L.A. in an effort to close the physical gap once more between himself and his target. Even worse, it becomes clear over the course of the night Carl has severe disdain for women and now, Clare specifically. Every move Carl makes against Clare is made in an effort to degrade her, to make her feel unsafe around men, and to punish her for reasons which become clear in later episodes.
When Carl finally reveals his true motives behind devoting hours to terrorizing Clare and JJ across Los Angeles, The Stranger‘s thesis crystallizes. The reveal happens in Episode 10, “4 A.M.,” which begins with a phone conversation between Clare and Carl as she walks her dog down the 2nd Street Tunnel. Carl’s initial explanation for why he’s doing this seems a little too pat. After egging Clare on with knowledge about her past, wherein she made false allegations against a high school teacher which have followed her into the present, Carl teases that “all you people are algorithms in the end.”
Later, while in police custody, Clare is given the chance to call Carl again and force him to explain himself. Now, getting a villain to monologue about their evil plan can be taxing stuff, and listening to that reply is even more taxing. But with the combined power of Sud’s writing and DeHaan’s acting chops, Carl’s motivations for tormenting Clare, a total stranger, are shown to be deeply unsettling. He tells Clare, “Why do I do this? Because whoever figures out the mathematical formula determining the losers and the winners in life will rule the fucking world. I mean, seriously, who needs God when I’ve got an algorithm?”
After a night of leeching all of the energy and will to keep fighting out of his victim, Carl’s vampiric plot is now out in plain sight. A man thoroughly repulsed by the way society chooses to interact online, Carl believes he’s earned the right to play judge, jury, and executioner to any person who catches his attention on social media. He chooses his victims the way a predator stalks their prey in the wild. His answers imply he’s done this numerous times before, attempting to use his toxic God complex to expose the people he loathes but, ironically, cannot tear his attention away from; social media is addictive, after all. The sense of access and closeness social media fosters only feed Carl’s sense of entitlement and moral superiority. His inclination to break down boundaries, to violate the social contract we maintain with strangers which is to not violate actual personal space despite there being little of it online, is only further validated the longer he continues down this path. His own sense of what is right and wrong is warped the longer he targets, tracks, and destroys the life of any person he chooses. Carl is a product of his time, a man who believes he has the right to access whoever he wants, whenever he wants, simply because the tools are there and nobody has tried to stop him, even though his behavior is inherently wrong.
And so, The Stranger is ultimately a thriller dedicated to exposing the ways in which toxic male entitlement and misogyny manifests in an era where we (sometimes unthinkingly) grant full access to others through our own digitally-curated lives. The Stranger‘s thematic thesis works so well because it is terrifyingly relevant to feel targeted or have your words used against you by a stranger online for seemingly living your life or sharing your feelings in an attempt to foster a closer relationship with others. For women, this rings especially true as they simply try to exist in a space free from entitled men attempting to possess any part of them they can — something far more common than we might realize. The Stranger perfectly illustrates that every time we log on, the boundaries blur, and reality blurs with it.
The Stranger is now available to stream on Quibi.
Allie Gemmill is the Weekend Contributing Editor for Collider. You can follow them on Twitter @_matineeidle.