[Spoiler Warning for “Stranger Things”]
“Stranger Things” (2016) is a cultural artifact, and “Stranger Things 2” (2017) is close behind it in terms of instant classic appeal. The series is an idealized homage to a previous iteration of film culture that existed most notably in the 80s and it draws on many sources from film, literature, and music to create an atmosphere thick with nostalgia. The 80s being a seemingly specific era of inspiration is one of the reasons why it’s amazing that this series is so popular with seemingly every demographic imaginable. This includes groups who wouldn’t be nostalgic for the 80s because of their age, whether they be too young or too old, everyone loves this show. I just finished the second season at the time of this writing and I’m using this blog post to digest my thoughts.
Regardless of how powerful the spell “Stranger Things” weaves, this is a distinctly modern show with themes and ideas that transcend the 80s or even the genre that it commonly finds itself placed in, though that genre is difficult to pin down. “Stranger Things” is a hodgepodge of genre tropes and concepts, though most notably science-fiction and horror. However, it also feels like a Stephen King novel and “The Goonies” (1985) had a baby, and that baby was lovingly delivered by John Hughes. It feels like certain scenes were inspired by “Aliens” (1986), while others feels like they were ripped directly from “Stand By Me” (1986) or even the “It” mini-series (1990).
Despite the retro sensibilities of “Stranger Things”, this is a show that exists in 2017. With Netflix quickly taking over as the king of home entertainment, their attempts at original content have had mixed reception though they continue to improve, probably due much in part to the wealth of meta-data they have on their audience’s behavior. “House of Cards” (2013) was their first bonafide hit, with mature audiences flocking to view a show they could only see on the aforementioned streaming platform. If you didn’t already know, a family show “House of Cards” is not, and therein lies the problem. Enter “Stranger Things”, a show designed from its very core to be something that the entire family can enjoy. While still a family show, the Duffer Brothers remember a time when family films had cursing and sex, i.e. the 80s. The Duffer Brothers also know that kids don’t want to watch things marketed to kids, and that’s why “Stranger Things” is drenched in adult trappings, while still being a fundamentally straightforward and child-like show.
Cliches make up the DNA of “Stranger Things”, and while that might sound like a criticism I would have to disagree. Cliches are the language of story and narrative. If you break a cliche, you’ve told a subversive story. If you play with cliches, you’re being smart or you’ve tried to make a point, and if you execute cliches extremely well you will tap into the collective cultural consciousness of your audience. We may have seen this before, but we love the story, and I really enjoyed “Stranger Things”.
True to form, like most films in the 80s and 90s made for kids and families, there are themes and ideas that might go over the heads of the young ones in the room, and I want to talk about them. Firstly: Communism. There’s a hilarious joke I’ve seen floating around the internet about how everyone in college is talking about communism and that you can’t escape from the conversation. I think this applies to a lot of media made in the last couple of years, and “Stranger Things” is no exception.
In S02EP07 Eleven meets a side character who is holding up a gas station mart and she says something along the lines of “We’re not stealing from you, we’re stealing from the war-criminals who own this place.” Talk about a woke statement. The implications being that no laypeople were hurt financially in this robbery, which is a very Marxist way of justifying ones actions. The show leaves you with no direction as to the morality of this character’s actions, though it doesn’t frame these specific actions as being particularly misguided. The group robbing the gas station is also primarily people of color, and secondarily female. Furthermore, the group is stealing from the gas station to fuel and fund their quest for revenge against a group of primarily white male scientists who experimented and tortured their leader, who is a female of color. In my opinion, while this episode is the weakest in the entire series, it has the most to say about the meta-narrative of “Stranger Things”. It serves to contextualize the socio-political nature of the events from the first and second season as being a class and gender struggle. Interestingly, this is the point where most examples of Liberal Western media would reveal the group and their leader to be radicals who are misguided by revenge, and while “Stranger Things” goes there by having Eleven spare the life of one of her torturers, it doesn’t paint the group of budding Marxists as being lost or wrong in their thinking, it just isn’t the path that Eleven is going to join them in at this time, which reveals her white privilege in a subversive way. Eleven has a choice to go back to her primarily white suburban friends and her white suburban provider, whereas these characters can go nowhere and do nothing about their current situation.
The second interesting theme in “Stranger Things” is the sexual autonomy of the female characters. While I still think Nancy is a jerkface, she chooses her lover and the males involved don’t treat her like a prize to be won. She’s a person who they are attracted to for her mind and her personality, and she is attracted to the two main male love-interests for various non-superficial reasons as well. The character called “Mad Max” also chooses the boy whose affections she desires, she is not won or conquered. Furthermore, in this line of feminist talking points, there’s an emotional conversation about how to channel psychic powers that is had between two females, something you don’t often see in modern science fiction. This show definitely passes the Bechdel test, though there are some criticisms I still have about the way the show handles feminism. Firstly, Eleven channels her rage against Max because she potentially flirted with Mike (Eleven’s crush), which encourages the tired trope of women fighting over men and only serves to distract from the fact that she’s angry about other more meaningful and personal reasons including but not limited to: her mother’s mental degradation at the hands of evil men, her own torture and experimentation at the hands of those same men, her surrogate father’s authoritarian punishment, and also… a girl she saw with Mike? I’m not what most people would call a feminist, so I don’t really care about these things, but I just want to remind people that while this show has some interesting ideas, it’s still a show made primarily by straight while males, and it's not as woke as some people who try to claim.
The third and final modern/adult theme that “Stranger Things” strangely has, though it avoids, is race. While I’m not a fan of Salon, their article on race in “Stranger Things” is more comprehensive than anything I could write, so I won’t add much, but there is something they didn’t hit on that I think is worth talking about. I had an interesting conversation about how Lucas’ relationship with Max was handled, and while I don’t pretend to have the answers, I can at least transcribe the basic outline of the conversation and what was discussed. My question was this: “Was the Lucas and Max pairing a racially positive move, was it lazy, or both?” At first, every friend I’ve brought this up to has responded by saying “No it was great, don’t be a racist.”
In a world of science-fiction monsters and smoke-demons, the one thing the town of Hawkin’s doesn’t seem to have is any other people of color besides Lucas and his family. Personally, I’m glad to see that his sister had a role in season 2, as it painted a family of color in a positive light and served to illustrate a Cosby-esqe black suburban family, but why does the height of racial progress always seem to be an interracial pairing? I’m not against interracial relationships, I just find it odd that the only way white people seem to be able to celebrate black relationships is if they are assimilating into white culture. Lucas and Max are extremely compatible from a narrative standpoint and while it doesn’t feel forced, it might be lazy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but future filmmakers should take note and try to celebrate black culture more than “Stranger Things” and “Stranger Things 2”. The height of every black boy’s life in media should not be when they get the white girl at the end of the movie. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it reflects poorly on white assumptions about what a progressive view on race in media looks like.
With those heavy ideas out of the way, let me tell you about my personal experiences with “Stranger Things 2”. This section is just going to be flow of consciousness, and I’m going to write how I feel with little to no organization.
Like I mentioned before, Nancy is a buttface-jerkwad and I’ve been yelling at her and the TV for two seasons now. The way she handles boys is beyond me. Steve is so much better than the crack-head she ends up with. Steve and Billy were my favorite characters this season. Billy was complex and interesting, and he didn’t overstay his welcome. I also don’t want to believe that Billy is actually racist, and apparently the actor who played him doesn’t want him to be either. They didn’t push him too hard, and he felt more 80s than most of the actors besides Dustin. His mullet rooted me firmly in the hair metal era that I had been missing in the first season, and his style was on point. Furthermore, the brief Fabio reference in the last episode on the cover of the romance novel that Mike’s mom is reading before she answers the door to a similarly dressed Billy was a wildly entertaining comparison. Much of “Stranger Things 2” is entertaining without being substantive. Despite the themes I talked about in the previous section, “Stranger Things” is mostly character building and narrative, but even those elements felt weak this season. Mike didn’t feel like he had anything to do besides be moody and act like a jerk to Max. There wasn’t a clear main character. Dustin almost felt like the core of this season, but he wasn’t very compelling beyond his relationship with d’Artagnan, which was the true emotional gut punch of the entire series for me. When we see d’Artagnan next to the nougat candy wrapper, I almost cried. Nothing else in the show got me like that shot. “Stranger Things” might as well be called “Let’s Torture Will” because that’s all his character had this season, same as season 1. The whole “Zombie Boy” element didn’t work for me. Justice for Barb was a wonderful way to end the second season (though again, not as impactful as the d’Artagnan arc), as it felt grounded in its own world, and it was satisfying as hell. There wasn’t enough D&D. The nerd stuff felt toned down, but maybe that’s just my nostalgia for the first season. I really liked Steve a lot. Nancy does not deserve him. The music was really good, again. The soundtrack and the score were both fantastic.
Finally, regardless of my praises or criticisms of “Stranger Things”, I highly recommend that you stop everything and binge the two seasons that are out if you haven’t already. “Stranger Things” is one of the best shows not on television right now, and if you can steal a Netflix login from your roommate I would strongly suggest you do so. Aesthetically, “Stranger Things” is an accomplishment. It goes from Steven Spielberg small-town idealism to Ridley Scott grunge in seconds and it does so flawlessly. There’s nothing like it (besides everything it pulls from) on TV or on Netflix for that matter, and I can’t wait to see what comfy goodness the Duffer Brothers cook up for season 3.
P.S. I couldn't find the artist of the image featured at the beginning of this article, and I would love to credit them and/or get their permission to use it. If you have any information please comment.