(Warning: Some spoilers regarding Season 2)
If there is something better that has been made for the screen (large or small) than Stranger Things–at least since the final movie of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy came out in 2012—I have certainly missed it. And yet, it’s not as if Stranger Things is second best in some weird contest of mediocrity. It is, from start to finish, extraordinary. It’s extraordinary in its imagination, in its plot, in its making the unreal real, in its embrace of nostalgia, but, most of all, in its full acceptance of the human condition–at once mysterious and full of awe, comprised of beautiful individuals, each deeply flawed. While Stranger Things Season 2, is at once better and weaker than Season 1 in its constituent parts, it remains a thing of glory and beauty.
When thinking about the excellence of the show, one might very well wonder, just who are the Duffer Brothers, and where on God’s Green Earth did they come from? Twin brother creators, writers, and directors, they brought Stranger Things to life. Crazily, they did not even enter this whirligig of existence until after Season 1 took place. They were in utero! Somehow, though, they absorbed the culture and deeper meaning of the decade, grasping the nuances of the early Reagan Era–full of tax cuts, unmatched economic growth, acid rain, middle-class pride, the death of Spock, The Thing, Blade Runner, Sixteen Candles, Rush, Yes, Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, the eminent if unseen collapse of the Soviet empire, entrepreneurial genius, California ascendency, Commodore 64s and Macintosh 128s, John Paul II, Stephen King, Steven Jobs, Milton Friedman, and, of course, that greatest of all nerddom games, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
Just as important, the Duffer Brothers could only have emerged at the moment that internet had almost fully decentralized the music and the television industries. Try as they might, the Duffer Brothers found little success with the mainstream channels. In their unrelenting drive for success—never tempered by any desire to compromise their art—they turned to Netflix. Netflix, thank the good Lord, took a chance with the Duffers. The rest, of course, is history. A match made in eternity, but manifested in time.
Being exactly the same age as the female protagonist of Stranger Things, Nancy, last year’s Season 1 re-immersed me into my life in Hutchinson High School in ways I never could have expected. Yes, I listened to the pensive early New Order, I played Dungeons and Dragons, I loved Reagan, Jobs, and Friedman, and I never stopped reading science fiction or Batman comic books. As with the younger male protagonists of Stranger Things, I had but a few very close best friends, and my mom let me ride my bike—free-range parenting in those days—from one side of Hutchinson, Kansas, to the other, from dawn to dusk. As long as I was home by dinner time, no inquiries about my day were made. Was I mischievous? Oh yes. Did I head to the library as often as I caused trouble? Equally, yes. I might very well have been the local king of trouble-making nerds, amazed, to this day, that I didn’t kill myself or cause more property damage than I actually did.
While Season 1 of Stranger Things brilliantly introduced us to the wildly imaginative and yet comfortably familiar bright and dark worlds of that decaying autumn of 1983, with the government’s unleashing of hell upon an unsuspecting Indiana town the day after Guy Fawkes’ Day, Season 2 begins on October 28, 1984, a little less than a year later. Critically, the second season begins on the eve of the 1984 presidential election, the election that solidified the Reagan Revolution, clearing out the political control of technology, industry, and community, and positioning the free world to destroy the tyrannical one. Reagan/Bush signs appear prominently throughout the first several episodes, offering surety and hope.
In Season 1, the heroes were outcast kids, confused teenagers, and broken adults. The enemies were societal conformity, peer pressure, and the U.S. government, especially the Department of Energy. For Season 2, the Duffer Brothers brought the heroes together, still separated by age, but much more aligned in purpose. The new government bureaucrats are not quite heroes, but—lead by Paul Reiser—they are on the side of right. Reaganism has replaced Johnson-Nixon-Carter era corruption, if not the incompetence.
Though the Duffer Brothers might have taken the easy route with the new season, offering us into all-new adventures their X-Files-like Hoosier funhouse of horrors, the twin brothers wisely tackle the far more difficult issues of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The show is never merely about monsters, it’s about nightmares, all too real and all too cumbersome for the human condition. In the first season, the adults—and especially Police Chief Hopper, having served in Vietnam and endured the taunts of the New Left, lost children, and seen his marriage destroyed, now surviving only by crusading against injustice and popping anti-anxiety medication—suffer from their pasts. In this season, we see the boy, Will, abducted by the monster experiencing not only depression but also possession, and the girl, Eleven (Jane), wondering if her new father is holding her back as oppressively as the government once had engineered her. Depressed and confused, neither can find happiness, though each is surrounded by love. These two must enter into the unknown on their own, only coming to realize, penultimately, just how vital they are, not just as individuals, but as friends.
Indeed, if there is one thing that ties together the best of what’s humane in the second season on Stranger Things, it is the necessity of friendship and community to overcome adversity, no matter how demonic or depraved or bureaucratic. At one critical moment, as a new student named Max arrives from California and living with an abusive older brother asks Michael why he opposes her entrance into their intimate friendship, he loses his temper.
Taken as a whole, Season 2 is every bit as great as Season 1. Yet, despite its many successes, its weaknesses make it slightly uneven and even a bit troubling. In the first season, we were treated to something done exceedingly well that is usually done very poorly in the various dramatic arts of the last hundred years. Very few artists can capably create good characters who actually strive to be good and still remain interesting. Most artists—especially in fiction, movies, and television—bander to the easy, bad decisions or they make the good characters one dimensional and cheesy, usually armed not just with powerful weapons but with cringe-worthy one-liners.
Season 1 of Stranger Things introduced deeply flawed heroes, but those heroes struggled mightily against those flaws, always hoping to do what’s right, even when hindered by their own individual sins, flaws, and failings. As such, even the most troubled of the heroes earned our profound love by remaining, at some fundamental level, innocent. Of course, there was no better character for the viewer than Eleven, the little girl stolen by the U.S. government from her parents, tattooed in the manner of the Jews in the Holocaust, and used brutally as an experiment to further national interests. She killed when necessary, but she strove to find her humanity, despite never having had a good example in her life. We cheered and cheered for Eleven to succeed because she wanted to succeed, but only by doing the right thing and by wanting to love and be loved. Season 1 ended, correctly, with Eleven seemingly sacrificing herself for her friends, the first persons who had ever treated her with respect.
In Season 2, Eleven is understandably angry at the way she’s been raised, and she now wants, again understandably, to be with those she loves and to find out why she was abandoned by (stolen from) her parents. Her quest, though, goes all wrong, as she becomes involved with a bombastic, nasty gang of scuzzy misfits. Though she walks away from this gang, she had changed, becoming sleek and cool, rather than innocent and loving. Frankly, I hated to see this change in her, and it made me less sympathetic to the second season. The same thing happens, though, with far less screen time, to Mike and Nancy’s mother, who has gone from a powerfully concerned mom to a bored, sex-craved kitten. It’s neither funny nor helpful to the story.
These, however, are minor points in the big scheme of things, and, whatever its faults, Season 2 is still the best thing on any screen at the moment. Those characters we loved in Season 1 are every bit as interesting in the second season, if not more so. Joyce is still the best mom in the world, Hopper is still the best cop in the world, the four boys are the best nerds in the world, and even Steve, so sleazy in Season 1, has become the “good guy,” a true leader in the best sense of the word.
And, for those of us who actually grew up in the early 1980s, we get to enjoy all the nostalgia, yet again, of the decade that so shaped us. The demogorgons, the mind flayers, the new wave music, the arcades, the free-range parenting, the best president of the twentieth century that so shaped our childhood are now manifest for all to see and enjoy.
Ave, the Duffer Brothers! Yes, Ave. Pure and simple, Ave.
Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.