Mid-way through the season, Stranger Things is firing on all cylinders. These two episodes, (forced together by another terrifying cliffhanger involving Will,) are such a fine example of what this show is capable of. The comedy and horror are both in peak form here, without falling into the traps that many in the horror/comedy genre fall into. The horror is not tongue-in-cheek, and the humor is not dark. When the show is funny, it is laugh-out-loud funny. (A few of these actors will have long careers in comedy.) And when it is scary? Well, look no further than Will writhing on the ground, or a horde of demagorgans streaming toward the research facility (where many of our protagonists currently are.) Without needing to be spoofy or satirical, this show can do everything it wants stylistically and not lose a thing. This is not an easy feat. (I love that it got in one self-deflating jab – after Lucas recounts the entire happenings of season one to Max, she responds, “I really liked it. I just felt it was a little derivative in parts.” Nice.)
Checking in with our ongoing themes of the season, we may be starting to see what it will take to defeat the real “monster” of this season, which I have described as “community trauma.” The characters, since episode one, have been responding in different ways to the haunting events of season one, and the ways that certain characters have buried the truth, failed to process it, or have been forced to ignore it, are coming back to haunt them in a big way. The “shadow monster” this season, while everyone has been busy looking the other way and pretending everything is fine, has spread beneath the surface “like a virus” (ep. 6), killing everything in its way as it “reaches into Hawkins” (ep. 5).
But as things get their darkest in these episodes, we may be starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I truly can’t wait to be see how they will manage the high stakes danger that this season has set up, but I think a few key characters are on the right track. Jonathan and Nancy, who began a journey in episode four to unmask the truth, get a great couple episodes here as they take steps to not only expose the larger lies, but to finally get past the lack of honesty holding their relationship back. (With help from Brett Gelman’s investigative journalist, and the best scene-transition in the show’s history – right as things start to get hot and heavy, we cut to Lucas’ younger sister making dolls kiss.) However, in order to expose the unbelievable truths of what has happened in Hawkins, Nancy and Jonathan are encouraged to figure out how to “water down” the truth. They create a more palatable version of the story in order to get what they really want, which is responsibility on the part of the government officials who let this all happen. We will see whether this effort to control the truth and dilute it will be effective. In some ways, it’s another effort of control, but maybe that is the only recourse for those who are victims of the lies and not the perpetrators themselves. It’s important to acknowledge that some characters are repressing their trauma by choice, but some are being forced to by people in positions of power.
Bob the Brain gets a nice run too in these episodes. If you remember from previous reviews, his character represents the false normalcy that many characters are seeking, especially Joyce. Bob has no idea what happened, and his ignorance plus a large dose of dopey plainness means that he is going to give terrible advice and hold characters back until he can be used and ultimately let in. That is exactly what episodes 5 and 6 give us: Bob gets his moment to shine in unlocking Will’s puzzle just in time to save Hopper, and then the proceeding events lead to him finally being let in on the truth. He retains his nervous and plain nature, but this time, when he presents Joyce with the idea of moving away once this is all over, it rings with a new air of possibility. Before, Joyce would have been running away from the truth. Now that they all have been forced to confront the truth, to move away would be an act of closure and moving on. The difference? Closure involves a full confrontation with the truth.
So what this show begins to present us with, while everything is going to hell fast, is that the only way out is to tell the truth. (Mike is brought in on Will’s situation; Max is told everything; Steve is brought into Dustin’s secret; Eleven is on a separate truth-finding mission.) Now, I highly doubt that this season is going end like a VeggieTales cartoon, where someone stands in front of the big monster and tells the truth to make it go away. That being said, it is presented here as the first step toward righting the wrongs that are literally devouring the city. It’s poignant that all of Hawkins is at risk here because of the mistakes of a few. Many of us have seen families, workplaces, or churches that are torn apart by lies, secrets, and brokenness that maybe only involved a few members but had consequences for everyone. It’s a good fictional reminder that sin, because it is a relational problem, is always communal. And one of the best tools we have to fight communal and systemic sin is truth-telling. As the Gospel of John puts it, “Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
As we bear witness to the large, communal, systemic problems we face in our communities and in our world (racism, sexism, love of money,) it’s important to continue to be creative to tell stories that are true. We’ve seen new activism against racism form because videos of police brutality were posted live on Facebook. We are currently in the midst of allegations coming out against an ever-growing list of men in Hollywood who have sexually abused and harassed others in the industry. Much like Nancy and Jonathan in these episodes, they’ve had to choose and create their moment, all the while bearing the weight of a truth they’ve been forced to keep by those in power. This process becomes more and more painful as time passes, wherein some of the only good that can come out of it is the telling of the truth and the changing of perception. As Christians, we ought to strive to be truth-tellers, and in a season like this, we ought to practice being truth-listeners – people willing to listen and create spaces where it is safe to tell painful truths that might make us question people and structures that we’ve held dear. It might be painful, but the alternative, as Stranger Things so vividly demonstrates, is as evil as hell’s worst monsters.