Stranger lessons from Stranger Things

In Stranger Things, the movement is from lonely, unglorified individuation toward meaningful solidarity amongst unexpected individuals and generations.

(Image: Netflix)

With the premiere of Stranger Things 3 upon us—the new season will be released tomorrow—there are plenty of good reasons why Catholics might not tune in. You already well know the foremost of these: “the show’s plot was meant for a single season only”; “Season Two all but demonstrated it”; “Netflix itself is, well, wicked.” All of these prove to be conditional rather than innate evils of watching—meaning you’re not conscience-bound not to watch—and what follows is one big, extended reason to watch in spite of them.

For the sake of clarity, my view is that these reasons not to watch, articulated ably by Patrick Coffin, are not nonexistent, but rather are very real and yet prevailed upon by the following overwhelming reason to watch (which my good friend seems to note, but underemphasize).

Aristotle is why you should watch Stranger Things—or, at the very least, Season One. Back in 2016, the first installment of the series was the best thing I had seen on a screen for five years. But more to the point, from an Aristo-Thomist point of view, it was the best moral tale I’d seen since the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. And that’s saying a lot.

For non-philosophers considering Stranger Things Season One, the moniker “from an Aristo-Thomist point of view” means yet one more caveat: the depiction of widespread, freely chosen construction of virtuous character through good habit. And in Stranger Things Season One, it’s not just one or two characters rising to meet the times by fashioning their character, but a whole handful of people becoming more morally excellent (in subtle ways not typically depicted by Hollywood). In examining the characters, we will see how. Noteworthily—for the literalist (“lbs”) out there—this caveat does not mean to expect zero trappings or conceits of Hollywood sleaze. Get real. What it does mean is that from the perspective of genre, plot, and character, Stranger Things Season One’s commitment to virtue ethics makes Season Three worth rooting and hoping for, even after a disappointing Season Two.

Strange genre

Stranger Things falls by most measures in the horror genre. Yet the series sharply contrasts with every other conceivable horror film, stemming from, shall we say, its Aristotelian approach to horror. Have you ever noticed that your interest wanes in slasher films as the plot drives forward? Given the demands of denouement, this represents the precise opposite of what is supposed to happen. “Interesting at first and boring at last” is the tale of the tape. Embedded in human nature, there exists a very real, very obvious explanation for this genre-wide pitfall: call it the law of diminishing returns.

As one watches horror films, viewer interest diminishes sharply by Act Three because everyone dies—not that you cared about any of the pathetic characters anyway. Most horror films, following the standard established in the Eighties, feature five-ish sleazy young adults at the start, four-ish (or in some cases, all five) of whom prove to be naught more than bowling pins to be knocked down. In the truest sense, they’re actually more like props than characters: amoral, inert, and utterly dispensable. That’s about it: the only surprise, which leaves the horror viewer calculating or imagining, is which character will survive. Sometimes, it is none instead of one.

The leitmotif of dwindling of sleazy teen-survivors in horror films was so consistent as to become a self-referential trope. The Scary Movie spoofs made this most explicit.

Stranger Things Season One, by contrast, collects speed as it goes forward; the speed it collects accrues to the moral fact of the coalition-building informed by an expanding group of survivors, denizens of Hawkins, Indiana who survive by huddling together in virtue, like Rocky and Adrienne.

Strange plot

The “movement” in the Stranger Things Season One’s plot, in other words, progresses from alienated individualism at the arc’s beginning toward a veritable fellow-feeling by the end. That feeling is predicated on moral betterment, within an eventual community wrought both from shared struggle (against the Demogorgon) and from its solution (edification in the virtues). The good guys get better, then come together.

But to achieve resolution, true good guys must hate all evil, not just the evil nipping at their heels. In terms of movement, Stranger Things is the anti-horror-film.

In horror films, evil is neither hated by the protagonists, nor overcome. One infers the causal connection. Usually, a handful of teenaged “friends”—without any moral basis for their friendship—starts out on a sex-sodden romp or drug-fueled adventure, which winds up being beset by a monster who picks them off one by one. The movement is from a false unity to an individuated death.

In Stranger Things, the movement is from lonely, unglorified individuation toward meaningful solidarity amongst unexpected individuals and generations.

Most gratifying of all in Season One, regarding the three depicted strata of Hawkins age groups—the middle school students, high school students, and adults—unexpected alliances form first within and then among the categories. That is, before the three generations can join forces, which gratifyingly occurs in Episode Seven, unity within each generation must be achieved: El earns acceptance within Mike’s group; Jonathan and Nancy (and eventually Steve) eventually earn one another’s trust and respect; Hopper and Joyce Byers prove to one another (and themselves) their parental prowess. The pairings and groupings are initially unlikely. At last, the three generations link arms and triumph over evil: parents and different registers of siblings turn out to reconcile and love one another after all.

Contrast this still further with the genre standard instantiated by series-inspiration It, by Stephen King: in relation to King and his ilk, Stranger Things proves to be the greater son of a lesser sire. According to the amoral phantasmagoria of King, It’s middle school students all suffer irritatingly unrealistic alienation from their parents. Grocery store fiction writers, not reputed for their keen insight into the human condition, seem to figure that unrealistically total child-parent alienation will heighten the viewer’s (or reader’s) sense of danger or fun. Instead, in King’s world, it comes off as inhuman, ridiculous, and as a result, even boring. After all, even in dysfunctional or near-loveless homes, parents would promptly heed pre-teens who run breathlessly through the front door with complaints of a mortal chase by a killer or a monster. But in King’s fiction—which became the genre’s measuring stick—parents will regularly stare blankly at blank television screens and intone palliative platitudes blankly to their crying pre-teens. All this to a blank effect within audiences: the consistent effect produced in the audience equals boredom and irritation.

One sees a similar impotency for inter-generational communication in King’s Stand By Me. In fact, in that story the high school students are not only apathetic to their younger middle school siblings—they’re outright antagonistic. It’s just babyish. Not a single elder sibling in the high school group sides with the honorable middle school kids.

This is not so in Stranger Things, where we find elder siblings who love their middle school brothers but might have forgotten it. Love is easily remembered and important abandoned things picked back up, we find in Stranger Things.

At its centermost mass, Stranger Things builds coalitions upon the Aristotelian bedrock of virtue. But not a single one of the characters starts out in virtue. That’s what’s so inspiring about this story.

Strange characters

Joyce Byers is a crackpot single mother. Police Chief Jim Hopper takes antidepressants and stumbles into work late. Jonathan Byers seems a strange, friendless guy—a lone wolf. Steve Harrington is known as shallow and on the certain path to peaking in high school. Nancy Wheeler feigns priggish goodness, but slums from suburban ennui and slavish teen rebellion. The middle school boys—Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas—are a lost cause, regularly succumbing to bullies. Even Eleven proves herself a “weirdo.”

If this were a King story or an eighties slasher film, the characterization would end precisely there. Two of the young teens would have sex and do drugs and take the Lord’s name in vain, but they would otherwise evade the “evil” of the monster and thereby (presumably) earn the faint praise of the viewer; the moral dilemma is naturalistically presumed out of existence; broken families would remain broken; virtue and heroism might be insinuated once or twice, stalking the halls but never making an appearance.

But things are stranger in Hawkins, Indiana. In fact, things are so strange that the viewer of Stranger Things bears witness to acts of literal self-sacrifice by pre-teens. Through the kingly virtue, for Aristotle, of true friendship—not mere friendships of utility or of pleasure—the four middle schoolers provide a shining example for their elders. While the building of habit cannot reasonably be depicted on screen, one moral excellence more than others emblemizes the righteous, loving sublimation of the will to the intellect: the apology, long dead in the post-Christian West.

Joyce apologizes to Jonathan; Jonathan apologizes to Nancy; Lucas and Mike apologize to one another (El gets in on this action); Nancy apologizes to her mother; Hopper through savage heroism atones for his years of grieving fecklessness. Most touchingly of all, in the penultimate scene of the series, Steve apologizes meaningfully and symbolically to Jonathan with a gift.

Returning to the scene of the crime to clean things up, Steve intones the veritable spirit of the Christian (literalists won’t be satisfied) after disgracefully allowing his sleazy friend to malign Nancy in graffiti: “I just want to help.” This line signifies the beginning of his meteoric rise in virtue, which unlike the quality action of Season One, continues unabated into Season Two (Steve’s sustained rise in virtue saves Season Two). Steve is the man—well, so is Hopper, the “man of constant sorrow”—at least in preparation.

As the final shot of Season One pans out, we find a happy, loving Byers family (yes, with a derelict father) on the mend. After the Demogorgon’s attack, the Byers family is in much better moral shape. Everyone involved deliberately or accidentally in the recovery of Will Byers is better. Joyce proves herself a desperately loving mom. Hopper proves worthy of his suffering, to borrow a phrase from Dostoevsky. Jonathan Byers, even from the beginning, bests all other “older brother” figures in film; now he seems capable of applying his charisma elsewhere as well; Steve becomes the man; Nancy remains irksome (but not in a typical, brainless horror-genre way); the four middle school stars of the show are now five in number—now strengthened in many ways.

Hoping for stranger things

In conclusion, Season Two wasn’t strange enough. It was typical. The show’s producers have promised better in the third installment. One hopes that the show’s makers knew some of the ingredients and formulas that went into the making of Season One’s genius, which notwithstanding what naysayers began saying after Season Two couldn’t actually have emerged incidentally, like Athena springing from Zeus’s head. One hopes that the Aristotelian foreignness—strangeness—of hard won virtue, at this late hour in the west, comes back to the center of Stranger Things. If so, then the show could just prove itself both worthy of its Season Two sufferings and “euchatastrophically” fit for its times like Chief Hopper.

Here’s hoping Season Three is stranger than fiction—strange as the sudden remembrance of salvation in our near hopeless era.


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About Timothy J. Gordon 4 Articles
Timothy J. Gordon studied philosophy in Pontifical graduate universities in Europe, taught it at Southern Californian community colleges, and then went on to law school. He holds degrees in literature, history, philosophy, and law. Currently, he resides in central California with his wife and five children, where he writes and teaches philosophy and theology. He is the author of Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish without Rome (Sophia Institute Press, 2019).

5 Comments

  1. Didn’t read the author of the article as I dove in to read, along the way the Aristotle and Thomistic talk began and I’m thinking, “huh this is sort of sounding like Mr. Tim Gordon from #TnT, neat. Keep reading and see the literalist (lbs) comment and again I’m like “I guess #TnT is pretty popular and getting some phrases out.” Get to the end and see it was Tim!

    Great article, and insight. Keep it up!

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