Apart from being a conglomeration of just about every classic hour drama and quintessential 80s movie (including Freaks and Geeks, Twin Peaks, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and The Goonies), the latest season of The Duffer Brothers’ visually and narratively rich Stranger Things seems even more jam-packed with a political undertone than season one–or was that just because we weren’t dealing with the Reagan/Bush ’84 level like we are now?
Though the concept of The Upside Down was present in season one, and served as the cause for Will’s abduction in the woods, it takes on a more subversive bent in season two with its full-fledged infiltration and commingling with the town of Hawkins. When last we left Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), he had been rescued from the clutches of The Upside Down only to bring a little piece of it back with him, what Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) refers to as a Demogorgon (another nod to Dungeons & Dragons). D’Artagnan, as Dustin names him because of his love of Three Musketeers candy bars, soon begins to grow or molt at an alarming rate–to the point where mere candy alone isn’t going to satisfy his appetite–the relationship this beast has with a shadow monster Will has been seeing starts to become more apparent. And though Will has encountered the shadow monster multiple times since returning from the Upside Down, Sam Owens (Paul Reiser), the new head of the Hawkins Laboratory, insists he’s merely suffering from the visions that come with PTSD. His mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), on the other hand, isn’t so convinced. Picking up where she left off in her hyper-connected stead, the Christmas light communication is replaced by Will expressing himself through drawings of where the shadow monster is traveling throughout Hawkins. His vine-like “arms” have infested and contaminated every farm in town, in a trail that emanates directly from the laboratory.
But all that seems like a non-issue to Will at the time Halloween rolls around, when the kids from school are still calling him Zombie Boy and teasing him mercilessly for summarily being raised from the dead. While drawing an image of himself as Zombie Boy, Will snaps at his brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), for treating him like he’s broken the way everyone else does, declaring, “I’m a freak.” Bowing to his self-deprecation, Jonathan then spins it into a positive light, remarking, “You’re right, you are a freak. I’m glad you’re a freak. Let me put it this way, would you rather hang out with David Bowie or Kenny Rogers?” When Will makes a disgusted face, Jonathan remarks, “See? No one that ever did anything worthwhile or interesting in this world was normal.” And this, more and more, is becoming something that children do need to be reminded of–especially as they come of age in the era of Trump and accepted overt neo-Nazi principles. In that regard, the delicate presentation of the subject of race in Stranger Things 2 centers around Lucas’ (Caleb McLaughlin) interactions with his friends and a new potential addition to the “party,” Maxine a.k.a. Max or Mad Max (Sadie Sink). Apart from that awkward moment when Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas both show up dressed as Venkman from Ghostbusters and Mike essentially says, we agreed you’d be Winston because you’re black (which Lucas calls Mike out for), there is also Max’s “subtly” racist stepbrother, Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery). Seeming to live for making Max miserable, his authority over her life intensifies when he expressly tells her to stay away from Lucas, barking, “I’m older than you. And something you learn is that there’s certain type of people in this world that you stay away from. And that kid, Max. That kid is one of them. You stay away from him, you hear me?” The “certain type of people,” obviously, being black.
On the “seeing what we want to see” note, the #JusticeforBarb plotline hinging upon the Hollands’ hiring of a private investigator named Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) finds Jonathan and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) at his front door step with taped evidence of Owens admitting culpability for the Department of Energy’s hand in Barb’s death. When Nancy asks if it’s enough proof for him, Murray scoffs, “You don’t need me to believe you. You need them to believe you. Them, with a capital T. Your priest, your postman, your teacher, the world at large. They won’t believe any of this… Those people, they’re not wired like me and you, okay? They don’t spend their lives trying to get a look at what’s behind the curtain. They like the curtain. It provides them stability, comfort, definition. This would open the curtain and open the curtain behind that curtain, okay? So the minute anyone with an ounce of authority calls bullshit, everyone will nod their heads and say, ‘See? Ha! I knew it! It was bullshit!'” This is no doubt a nod to the current landscape of “fake news” proffered directly from the White House and occasionally the mouth of Kellyanne Conway. And yes, it’s true, the American masses often find comfort in the falsities peddled to them (that food isn’t packed with pesticides, that water’s safe to drink, California isn’t going to physically detach from the country any day now, etc.)
A penchant for conciliatory gestures also applies to Owens placations toward Joyce regarding Will’s health, like, “He really will get the best treatment here.” It echoes the “everything’s fine” assurances of the U.S. government, but ultimately, “Can anyone tell me what’s wrong with my boy?” Joyce demands, speaking for us all when we ask: can anyone tell the American people how the fuck this happened?
A Trumpian sensibility infects the mentality of Owens more than any other (human) character, with remarks such as, “I have to stop the truth from spreading like those weeds there. By whatever means necessary,” possibly giving too much credit to Trump’s masterminding capabilities. Most of all, however, the allegory of the political state in America is manifest in the shadow monster, a brainless being who seeks only to destroy, and operates like a queen bee controlling the hive minds of his lackeys.
Stranger Things doesn’t forget to shower its audience with other gifts besides metaphor–the Duffer Brothers also give the people what they want in the form of Eleven’s return–even if she is sequestered in a cabin by Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Now aware of her true identity, Eleven’s evolution in season two is most heart-rending in episode seven, “The Lost Sister,” in which she seeks out Eight, a fellow child she experienced torture with in the lab. Arriving in Chicago to find her, Eight takes her under her wing with the crew she’s assembled to exact revenge on anyone who has ever done them wrong (they do light robbery, too–because, you know, claiming vengeance doesn’t pay the bills unless you’re a hit man). Adopting an American Horror Story: Cult aesthetic (albeit lo-fi, maskwise) at one point, the group approaches the house of one of the “bad men” in masks to exact their own vigilante justice.
As Ray, the man who turned the knob up to 450 to lobotomize Eleven’s mother, watches an episode of Punky Brewster (one of the many timely 1984 references in the season), the infiltration of the gang is timed to Punky saying, “I dreamt I was in a doctor’s office. All of the sudden, he started to give me a shot in my arm. Then the needle got bigger and bigger.” Not just an ode to the trauma Eight and Eleven endured at the hands of these doctors, the parallels between Punky and Eleven are pretty clear at this point: they’re both orphans who have to deal with an out of touch old man raising them.
In this respect, an out of touch old man is also currently attempting to raise the next generation of American Demogorgons. And what the Duffer Brothers seem to be telling us is that it’s no place for a pure spirit of intellect like Will or Bob (Sean “Rudy” Astin). Because, yes, we, too, have engaged with The Upside Down, and are living in it at this very moment.