I really liked the latest season of Stranger Things. I didn’t think much about what I was seeing on the screen as I was seeing it. That came after. It took some time to think through what I thought — pulled as I was, this way and that, by pressing deadlines and family obligations. The remarks I have to offer here are not so much a review as they are a pretty loosely woven web of impressions.
(For the coherence of these impressions, such as there is, I have in large part to thank Amy Welborn, whose very different take on Season 3 and the whole Stranger Things project was a great help to me.)
In what follows, I’m going to try not to spoil anything for anyone. That said, the kind of reading I plan to attempt is of the sort that could ruin without spoiling. Caveat lector.
Thematically, the monster that has come into our world through the rift that led to and from the Upside Down reveals itself in Season 3 to be a psycho-trophic creature that feeds on unresolved pain: specifically childhood pain caused by family disintegration. Hence, the Mind Flayer is a metaphor that stands not simply for divorce, but for the effects of domestic disorder and dissolution, not only on individuals, but on society.
The creature gets into “our” world by way of a rift opened when a child the government took from her mother proves to have powers beyond her control and those of her captors. The Mind Flayer’s minions feed fairly indiscriminately, but the creature prefers to possess characters deeply wounded, especially those wounded by domestic failure.
The Soviets have a role to play in all this, but the sheer improbability of their establishment beneath the sleepy town of Hawkins — the Russkies have literally undermined the place — serves only to set in relief the real villain’s identity, nature, and true designs. The Soviets didn’t create the beast, and can’t control it. They can manipulate technology to amplify the monster’s destructive power, but we are the ones who let the creature in, often by choices taken in view of legitimate goods that do, after all, need pursuing.
Other times, a character’s evil choices in pursuit of personal gain, rationalized in the most mundane terms, serve the true designs of evil forces quite beyond the scope of the character’s considerations. (I’m looking at you, Mayor Kline, but not only at you.)
In contrast, one woman makes an heroic choice at a key moment of the story: a middle-aged suburban housewife, who chooses humdrum domesticity over amorous adventure. Even if later her willfulness keeps her from seeing the approach of danger, she is there with her boring, workaday husband and her little daughter, and may be forgiven her dismissive attitude: The monster, then and there, was not coming for her or her family, but for another house.
The convergence of big government overreach, local government corruption, domestic compromise, and even Cold War intrigue are not enough on their own to breach the peace of Hawkins: In concert with all those elements, the Mind Flayer ruins the 4th of July. The monster’s attack leads to the arrival of the feds, whose presence in Hawkins will no longer be secret, or even quiet. The point here is not to offer a small government conservative interpolation. The overwhelmed parents of Hawkins call for help, and no one can blame them. Human affairs are messy. Even when the powers at play are narrowly within our control, the consequences and repercussions of our choices far outstrip our ability to see and predict them.
There’s not much talk of the Upside Down in Season 3 of Stranger Things. One does wonder what happened. A brief beginning to consideration of the question — unsatisfactory as an answer, but pointing to an answer or to a way toward one — is to register a sense I garnered from several shots of downtown Hawkins in decline, which were eerily approaching some of those we saw in Season 2, of Hawkins in the Upside Down. One might even see the thing as a dramatization of a dynamic I diagnosed — with the help of Eric Voegelin, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Cavell — in The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood, as a slow-moving and well-camouflaged rot:
In the last century, the gnostic mass movements of Communism and Nazism-Fascism were successfully countered by the strength of the so-called “free institutions,” i.e. the institutions founded by societies with a self-understanding originally resistant to gnosticism. The struggle was carried out at the institutional level, and was of such moment that nothing less than the continued existence of the societies that had erected the free institutions for themselves was at stake: the struggle against the mass movements masked a creeping gnostic corrosion within the very societies that had free institutions, most especially within American society.
Then again, one will often see what one wants to see, whether it is there or not, and disregard the rest. “Gnosticism” is often a sort of bogeyman, itself. In any case, such recollections after the fact, as those on which the foregoing considerations are based, are themselves notoriously unreliable. I feel strongly enough about the business — and am confident enough in my surmises — to propose them, but do not insist anyone else see what I see. I’d be happy to be proved wrong.
As in seasons one and two, there was a plethora in season three of 1980s nostalgia, copious callbacks and allusions to classics of the decade, including a Terminator–Die Hard portmanteau cleverly played by Andrey Ivchenko. All that made for good fun, even — perhaps especially – when it was on the nose. Other performances were inconsistently successful in their attempt to elicit — from this viewer — the sort of discomfiture that comes when childhood friends in the throes of adolescence are each growing up at a slightly different pace. I was merely impatient more than once, but that says as much about me as it does about the performances, and perhaps more.
I really enjoyed the kids, don’t get me wrong. Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington is an anchor this season, whose genuine friendship with the party of younger adventurers made the inevitable tension I mentioned manageable for this viewer. His sidekick and on-screen romantic interest — he takes a while to realize what a great match they’d make for one another — Robin, played deftly by Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman, and boy, howdy, can you ever see the family resemblance), was a great addition and a terrific character.
I’m going to wait a little while longer before writing about Steve and Robin, but theirs is one of the most well-developed and thought-provoking young adult relationships we’ve seen in a good while, and deserves separate treatment.
One of the reasons we haven’t seen young adult relationships portrayed on the screen — good or bad, well or poorly — is that adolescence has been so prolonged and the cusp of adulthood has been pushed so far back, that “emerging adulthood” now runs through the years of the 20s and into the 30s. Even if the Duffers tell us a little too much, they do show us what it used to be like. To see a rising high school senior and a recent high school graduate deal with the realities of life after adolescence will have been a genuine shock to many viewers: a good one and sorely needed, and a salutary reminder of the way things were, not too long ago.
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