On “Stranger Things,” salvation, and the seriousness of life.
Spiritual reflections on Netflix’s flagship sci-fi series.
Call me a sucker for the ’80s and I’d probably agree with you. Give me a smooth pop song stuffed with synth and I’ll be happy, especially if Phil Collins or Steve Perry busts out the vocals. Let me know whenever, wherever you want to watch Back to the Future, and I’ll be there. Maybe you find that conventional; I’m okay with that. I know it’s not a nostalgia thing, though, because I was born in 1990. Ergo, all of my knowledge of ’80s society is derived from the nostalgia-laden entertainment created by those looking back on the decade with rose-colored glasses. I suppose those who are reminiscing on how they perceived the ’80s (or an idealized version of it), and then capitalizing on it in all sorts of media, are succeeding in their retroactive revival of the times. Such is why I think I have been won over by Netflix’s flagship original series, Stranger Things.
Since its inaugural season took the world by storm back in 2016, I haven’t been able to get enough of the alternate 1980s universe as seen through the lens of the feigned small-town environment of Hawkins, Indiana. Show creators Matt and Ross Duffer’s massively successful series prides itself on its homage to familiar cinematic ideas, arcs, and tropes from all over the science-fiction and horror genres. Some have described the series as “Steven Spielberg meets Stephen King meets Netflix.” While there are some who scoff at this, as if the show-runners are being lazily derivative — I, however, find the show to be a buoyant and enhanced fusion of beloved archetypes and nuances and motifs from a wide array of film repositories.
Others, perhaps, opine some of the more campy story elements or the overt product placement, which is rife, at times. Stranger Things 3, for instance, boasts an extended dispute over the merits of New Coke and contains a slew of references to films such as The Shining, The Terminator, Alien, Red Dawn, and several others peppered throughout. Nods to these properties aren’t there for the sake of nostalgia, though, and neither do they take you out of the story as it is unfolding. The show has never suffered from the Michael-Bay-ism of its production or execution. It’s an “in-the-know” spoof of the ’80s action/conspiracy films that were blatant with their undertones. The show’s creators and writers are in on the joke — which is to say, the Russians are supposed to be cheesy, and the loose examinations of capitalism and culture are on purpose. Such is why, I think, I’m so fond of this show: it’s seriousness is never self-serious.
Case in point, in the finale of Season 3, during, perhaps, the intensest moment of the series, one of the main characters busts out the theme song to The Neverending Story with his long-distance girlfriend — a task with which he was charged as the contingency of her reminding of him a famous mathematical sequence which also happens to serve as the passcode for a secret Russian vault. See what I mean? Even writing that sounds outrageous. But it’s so delightful to watch.
Stranger Things boasts an incredible amalgamation of heart, sentiment, suspense, and endearment. For my own account, it’s undoubtedly my favorite active show on television — the one I most look forward to watching. Having just finished the third season of the show, I figured I would try and conduct my own retrospective of the hit series. Since completing season 3, I’ve also gone back and re-watched seasons 1 and 2 (along with season 3, a second time).
The sense of discovery and novelty and the unknown drives much of the story in Season 1 in a way that’s difficult, impossible even, to capture in subsequent iterations of the show. There’s a magic about those first eight episodes that’s hard to recreate, as youths scurry away from shrouded baddies on their bikes and seek to understand inter-dimensional space by analyzing it through the lens of Dungeons & Dragons. It is easily the best season of the show to date because of its mystery and conciseness. Season 2, though, does an admirable job, letting characters grow and introducing new ones that don’t feel out of place. The traumatic second season does suffer from a bit of the “sophomore slump” syndrome (see S2:E7), but it’s far better than I remember despite feeling more than a little unbalanced. The characters that won you over in Season 1 are now separated for the overwhelming majority of season 2. They are only reunited for the final two episodes — which, by the way, are nearly without parallel in the show’s entire catalog of chapters. Episodes 8 and 9 of season 2 contain some of the most compelling beats of action and emotion, such that even though I knew the outcome, I was still gripping my chair arms with intensity.
Hawkins’ most thrilling adventure, though, might just be this latest iteration, as Season 3 boasts, perhaps, the most vibrant story of them all, and I’m not merely referring to the fashion. Stranger Things 3 tells a story with life and energy and emotion and comedy; it moves with rapidity. Though some critics have made a fuss about the first three chapters being “slow,” I found the pace to marvelously breakneck. There are several moments when it feels as if you’re watching an action-comedy film and not a sci-fi TV show, which is delightful, to say the least. Additionally, the way in which the characters were allowed to grow and develop made them more believable and more endearing. I am unashamed in saying that I have come to love each of these characters, and I cannot wait to see what the show-runners have in store in future seasons.
Speaking of which, as for season 4, which is definitely happening, I do hope they lean into the horror-thriller elements that made season 1 so groundbreaking. Seasons 2 and 3 are fun and exciting, but they’ve never recaptured the wonder of the first iteration of the show. Perhaps that is impossible now since the gang of kids have lost their innocence after saving the world three times over. The wonder is gone, to some degree, in both our eyes and theirs. Such is what the closing montage in season 3 is so emblematic of: “growing up.”
I know you’re getting older — growing, changing. I guess, if I’m being really honest, that’s what scares me. I don’t want things to change. So I think that’s maybe why I came in here, to stop that change. To turn back the clock. To make things go back to how they were. But I know that’s naïve; that’s just now how life works. It’s moving, always moving, whether you like it or not.
And yeah, sometimes that’s painful. Sometimes it’s sad. And sometimes, it’s surprising, happy. So, you know what? Keep on growing up, kid. Don’t let me stop you. Make mistakes. Learn from them. When life hurts you, because it will, remember the hurt. The hurt is good. It means you’re out of that cave.
Hopper’s letter to Eleven serves as a fitting denouement not only to the present storyline but to the show itself, denoting the shift in storytelling already present, with surely more to come as all involved get older and experience more hurt, more struggle, more of life itself. The narrative elements of Stranger Things incorporate the fundamental elements of life, namely, notes of hilarity and tragedy, calm and conflict, stress and peace. By the which, I mean, that while the series is purposefully opposed to self-seriousness, do not, for an instant think its circumstances aren’t entirely soberingly real. “It is not that evil is winked at even for a second,” writes Episcopal priest Robert Capon; “it is seen in its true proportion to the good and therefore as not ultimately mattering.”1 That is to say, that even as you watch a band of kids successfully scuttle a nefarious Russian plot, close the gate to an interdimensional portal, while also overcoming a grotesque beast from the underworld, you are made to imbibe on the cordial of your own catharsis.
For me, that is what makes Stranger Things so resonant. Its seamless relationship of give and take between horror and simplicity, agony and absolution creates world in which to watch the apogee of human life and sentimentality. The show is a “genre throwback to simpler times,” writes Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, “with heroes, villains, and monsters” — all of which converge in moments of hope, fear, sorrow, loss. Which is to say, in Stranger Things, the fairy story has intermingled with real life. Nussbaum continues:
It’s also haunting, and has a rare respect for both adult grief and childhood suffering. It’s an original . . . The flashbacks are about vulnerability, how people are bruised in places that no one can see.
What’s more, another thing of which I am certain is that the decision for Millie Bobby Brown’s titular character to be named “Eleven” was not happenstance. This is seen in the very fact that she is known as “El” throughout the show’s run, a fact that ought to make the astute Christian viewer perk up with attentive eyes and ears. For the biblicist, El, of course, is shorthand for one of the most significant names of God, that is, Elohim. It is the introductory name for the Creator of the heavens (Gen. 1:1), and appears over 2,500 other times throughout the Old Testament. Though it used in Scripture to denote others gods, it is primarily suggestive of the true God, Jehovah.
It is in this way that El can and does make for an intriguing Christ figure. Her abilities make her our characters’ “savior,” in more ways than one. In season 1, for instance, as El disintegrates the Demogorgon and is, likewise, enveloped in the cloud of bits of flesh, she is subsumed in a death that wasn’t hers. El takes on her friends’ death as her own. In season 2, El’s salvation is different but nonetheless impactful as she descends into belly of the rift between worlds and closes the gate that’s allowing evil to infiltrate. In that way, she stands in gap for her beloved companions and fights their battle for them. In season 3, El’s deliverance is even more nuanced, as she doesn’t necessarily employ her telekinetic abilities for destruction as much as she does for absolution. As the Thesselhydra wreaks havoc on Hawkins’ Starcourt Mall and appears to be winning the day, El’s intervention with impulsive bully Billy Hargrove is such that his shameful, sordid past is swallowed and done away in the re-membering of it to Eleven’s substitutionary work.
Therefore, despite Stranger Things’ overall lack of religious elements or iconography, there is a constituent part in which one is given more than a monastic demonstration of salvation. In fact, I would say that, in one sense, the series serves as a cinematic reprimand to the modern man and his inattention to the “principalities and powers” and the “cosmic powers of this darkness” against which we are struggling (Eph. 6:12). Right under our very noses, a war is raging “against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.” Yet, the millennial mind couldn’t care less about such conflict. Reflecting on Stranger Things in this light, I feel very convicted at my overall lack of attentiveness to the spiritual warfare that’s raging all around me. As Claud Atcho, in his piece on the show for Think Christian, writes:
The series invites us into a view of the world that is more enchanted than empirical; more cosmic than cloistered; more spiritually contested than neutral and banal. It’s more New Testament than modern day.
Seen in this light, then, we can cope with our utter inability cope at all with the life’s darkness. We can accept that, since sin and death are forces outside of our limits to control, much less fight, the solution must also come outside of us.
Robert Capon, The Youngest Day: Shelter Island’s Seasons in the Light of Grace (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2019), 114.