MARCH 9, 2018
IN 2017, I couldn’t help but feel that mysterious, toxic roots had taken hold of my once familiar community and grown at an ever-increasing rate, carving infinite tunnels beneath the surface of ordinariness, until what once felt like a firm foundation now feels like fragile latticework. This place looked familiar, but it was more sinister — a haunted, gory semblance of a reality I once thought I knew. Or it simply was the reality I once knew — I just hadn’t really looked at it before. That reality wasn’t gentle or easy or safe. Still, I knew my way around it, or at least I thought I did. But this new stuff of nightmares — I had a lot of nightmares in 2017 — all too often has continued to leave me feeling at once full of rage and totally hopeless, like I am trapped in the Upside Down possibly forever, that those roots will wrap tightly round me, squeezing me until I cannot see and cannot breathe.
So what better way to escape the Upside Down than to watch it on my laptop for three straight days? I found a sleepless comfort in seeing the terror of contemporary life reflected in the town of Hawkins, Indiana, in Stranger Things 2. Season one had been the perfect summer antidote to the impending doom of 2016 — a reminder of some favorite movies of my youth — The Goonies, E.T., Stand by Me, Firestarter. All of that felt especially poignant during a year when so many childhood icons had passed away. The innocence from the first season is now gone, and with it, any sense that kids can and will save the world, that destroying evil is even possible. Kids get older. Their relationships change. New feelings of desire and jealousy enter the picture. That lack of innocence finds its greatest expression in Stranger Things 2’s simple, structural lack of confidence in heroism.
What I most appreciate about Stranger Things 2 is not only how it reflects 2017, but also how it argues that heroes won’t rescue us. If fathers (and cops) protect, the father figure here, Hopper (David Harbour), protects to a fault. He has more edge this season, but it turns out that his extreme defensive instincts as he steps in as a parental figure for Eleven are the result of his grief over the death of his own daughter: “Sometimes I feel like I’m just some kind of black hole or something.” “I’m just scared,” he admits. If doctors save lives, the doctor here, Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser), sincerely tries to help Will, who has become possessed from his time in the Upside Down; he just does not understand fully the forces that oppose him. If journalists speak truth to power, the journalist here, Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), is more a conspiracy theorist than an investigative reporter. These characters are “good guys,” more or less (the show is careful not to make a villain of science and journalism, in particular, this go around, though both the government and the military-industrial complex remain suspicious) — they’re just not heroes. They need others to do work with their knowledge and instincts. The idea of evil as an antihero, or a single villain, is replaced in this season by a system, and so is the idea of hero. I mean hero here colloquially, as a kind of protective demigod who fights off Demogorgons with relish, an exaggerated idol who will rescue us in dark times. Believing in such heroes is dangerous. Embodiments of unchecked optimism, of belief in individual power, they imply some clean organization of good versus evil that just does not accommodate reality.
Replacing optimism in Stranger Things 2 is an exquisite kindness in the face of the most impossible cruelty; at the expense of ease or happiness; in the form of persistence, loyalty, forgiveness, trust, trustworthiness, self-sacrifice, and, maybe more than anything else, slow dancing. Hand in hand, these things get us through, help us make new friends and love them even when they eat first the Halloween candy and then the family cat. Even as rivalries arise between the boys, and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) has to manage some very grown-up feelings of love lost, they take care of each other. I keep replaying Tina Turner’s 1985 “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in my mind as a kind of addendum to the show’s already excellent soundtrack (because there is never a wrong time to cite Tina Turner): “Looking for something / We can rely on / There’s gotta be something better out there / Love and compassion / Their day is coming / All else are castles built in the air.”
When I asked a student of mine what I should discuss if I were to write about this season, she said, without hesitating, “Steve. It’s all about Steve.” She’s right, if we might think of Steve (Joe Keery) as synecdochic of the representations of masculinity in the show broadly speaking. Where Stranger Things 2 seems especially 2017-timely is in its treatment of gender, or rather in some of the models of gender that it proposes. Male characters on the show are tender with each other, supportive, and nurturing. Female characters are independent, defiant, and self-reliant. While everyone in the show has their low moments, they also all find redemption. Steve was a rich, cocky, teenage jerk in 2016, right out of a John Hughes movie, so in Stranger Things 2, I feel some victory when Nancy (Natalia Dyer), dumps him with flourish for nice (if boring and misanthropic) Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). His reaction? Decidedly not vindictive. He lets her go: “It’s okay Nance,” he says. Instead, Steve forms an unlikely alliance with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who mimics Steve’s pompadour for the winter dance and also learns from Nancy how to pull up his britches (just as did Steve). Like Steve’s acceptance of Nancy’s choices, Dustin accepts that his crush chooses Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) over him. He too lets her go, fails repeatedly at love, but still learns to dance, and with a grin. Really, “Dusteve” might just be the greatest love affair of Stranger Things 2. I switch sides: Team Steve!
Steve takes responsibility, in more ways than one: “No one’s leaving anyone,” he tells Nancy, when she expresses concern that he might ditch the younger kids if she leaves with Will and Jonathan: “I might be a pretty shitty boyfriend, but it turns out I’m actually a pretty damn good babysitter.” Okay, so a long glance he gives Nancy through a window sometime after this moment makes me not entirely believe him, but it’s a line worth holding onto, at least for now. Yet Steve’s maturity does not make him a hero, per se. The show’s investment in his recuperation matters because it allows him (and Nancy, for that matter) to become a member of the team. The strength of the community prevails over tensions of one-on-one relationships and over individual potencies. The team replaces the hero.
As the team strengthens, strict gender roles continue to become exposed or break down. Steve’s evolution to friend and caretaker gives way for bad boy Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who terrorizes his step-sister Max (Sadie Sink), attacks Lucas, seduces Nancy’s mother (Cara Buono), and in all ways plays into base masculine stereotypes. He is not exactly Steve’s replacement villain, however. His behavior is a consequence of domestic violence, itself a systemic misapplication of social and cultural constructs of masculinity. Billy is what happens when masculinity remains unchecked and its abuses unpenalized. He replays his own trauma with a brutal attack on Steve, stopped only when the fierce and independent Max interferes.
The show still often suffers from a smurfette principle, but if male kindness is one focus of this season, so is female strength. Max — a smart, video game guru — is a kind of flame-haired new Eleven, the object of affection for both Lucas and Dustin. Her name, like Eleven’s, challenges simplistic expectations of gender. Max also serves as a foil to Eleven, and in a sense then also challenges stereotypes of girls in science fiction. Where Eleven was naïve, Max is savvy, her intelligence and her skills the qualities that make her so attractive to the boys. Thus, Max upends the trope of the naïve female object of desire, who falls for the first ordinary male she meets, typical in so many science fiction stories (what Jonathan McIntosh has called “born sexy yesterday”).
Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven also challenges this trope in the new season. Viewers and characters alike have come to rely upon her for protection, all the while drawn to her for her strange and vulnerable innocence, probably best embodied by her shaved head. But now, she has hair! Real, ordinary hair! She is — spoiler alert — not vanquished to the Upside Down but in hiding, full of anger and rage and frustration. Eleven’s budding romance with Mike has paused; her arc is discrete from the rest of the crew’s — hers is one of self-exploration and disappointment, of finding family and of learning how to be in a family. Then she comes back, stronger and more awesome and more fearful than ever. Eleven is naïve no longer (or at least a lot less so). Now, she’s “bitchin’.”
Winona Ryder’s Joyce is tougher than before too, and she is learning to connect with others as well. She is now dating a guy named Bob (Sean Astin), who seems so amiable I was convinced he had to be really bad, but then it turned out some good guys are actually just good; he literally sacrifices himself for the team. Lucas gets a sister, the sharp-witted back-talky Erica (played brilliantly by Priah Ferguson). Her character might slip into some race and gender cliches of sass, but her presence necessarily ups the count of central characters who are female and who are played by actors of color (one of the show’s notable weaknesses). I hope that her character is fleshed out in future episodes, just as I hope that the female characters can form the same strong bonds that the male characters have forged with them and with each other.
Stranger Things 2 is not, ultimately, entirely unlike the films to which its predecessor paid homage. The Goonies argued for banding together in the face of foreclosure. E.T. argued for protecting the alien when opaque forces come to take him away, and ultimately it argued for unquestioning, steadfast empathy. Stand by Me argued for finding the truth, however dangerous. Firestarter argued for the indisputable, glorious power of female rage. All of these constructs prevail. But those 1980s films seem quaint, their Cold War tensions a distant antecedent to the neoliberal rot of now, so Stranger Things 2 feels a new kind of anachronistic — less a tribute to those old films, less nostalgic, as nostalgia seems so reenact-y, so reductive these days — and more a cautionary historical fiction focused sharply on the near future. A small glimpse as to how Stranger Things 3 might examine this relationship between the now and the then comes in a quick foreshadowing glance at the very end of the final episode: as the kids sweetly dance at their Snow Ball, viewers are flipped into the gloomy Upside Down, and the cars parked on the street likewise change over from ’80s designs to those of the ’50s.
So as you face the rest of 2018, think of Stranger Things 2 as a kind of handbook for bending into the wind. Trust your Hopper. Clean the house. Ride your bike. Have confidence in the sanity of mischievous children. Band together. Listen carefully to the rumbles underneath. Believe in what you cannot see. In the more tranquil moments, take a deep breath, dance slowly, and hold each other tight. I mean, these days, don’t we all wish we could be at an awkward middle school dance with too much product in our hair, listening to “Time After Time,” staring at someone across the room with that kind of pre-sexual intensity that holds all the intimacy in the world? But let’s not forget that any reality that seems safe or familiar or promising always already has a darker, less familiar version of itself lurking just beneath the surface, crackling toward vitality, and that at any moment, it might swallow us whole.