Wow! What an episode! For those following along at home, I am officially all in on this season of Stranger Things. On top of the laughs, the creeps, the fun, and the thrills, this season is operating thematically on a level that few shows do, showing how the grief, secrets, and trauma that we bury rises to the surface and can terrorize a person, a family, or even a town. This episode in particular contains some plot reveals that advance this theme forward in spectacular fashion.
Will starts the episode by living into the nickname he’s been given by the bullies at school – he has become an actual “zombie boy.” Through three episodes, he was the bearer of everyone else’s grief, being “diagnosed” with PTSD when he was actually seeing present realities, and now he is literally filled with the shadow of darkness that is spreading throughout the town. Note that Will makes a point to not call it a monster, but “a shadow…a feeling… everywhere,” and “I just want it to be over.” This is the way a person describes grief or trauma, not a horror-movie monster. Meanwhile, Dustin keeps a secret of his own, the little “pollywog,” Dartagnon, who in the shroud of secrecy and lies grows into a familiar monster, a demagorgon! (We should have seen this coming when he named it Dartagnon! The words are so similar.)
Nancy and Jonathan are on their own mission to uncover the truth, and the government’s words to them are so poignant thematically: “Mistakes have been made… we can’t erase it. We can only stop it from spreading.” As we learn at the end of the episode, they have not stopped it from spreading; they may actually have been causing it to spread faster! The upside-down is literally tunneling its way across the entire town, just below the surface. The government says, “We have to stop the truth from spreading like weeds!” But for anyone like me who grew up on VeggieTales and Larry Boy, we know it is rumors (or lies) that spread like weeds, and only the truth can set us free. Jonathan and Nancy are on a mission to spread truth. It will be interesting to see what this accomplishes.
The imagery here has drawn my attention to another sequel that builds off the aftermath of its predecessor, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. The end of The Dark Knight found Batman, in a seemingly heroic gesture, taking on a lie that allowed Gotham to go on believing that Harvey Dent was a hero and not a villain. In the sequel, though, we find that lie has worn Batman to the brink, and the lie that they buried literally comes to the surface to destroy the city. The rest of the film continues to bite off large chunks of thematic content, but the first act works so effectively as a visual metaphor for the lies that we bury rising up to destroy us. Stranger Things is doing a similar thing with the shadow monster, as different characters seek to control the truth, unmask it, forget it, or bear its burden. The shadow, the burden, the feeling - Death has not gone away, but has been spreading like a vine below everything and devouring all life in its path. It’s an all-out catastrophe of revelation.
There’s so much in Christian theology that comes to mind about truth and what we bury. Jesus taught that “the truth will set you free” (John 8) and “whatever is done in the darkness will be brought into the light.” (Luke 8) But more than those proof-texts, I think of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the attention given to what is internal rather than external as it pertains to sin. Instead of focusing on murder, Jesus draws attention to hate; rather than adultery, lust. (Matthew 5) Jesus implores followers to deal with the internal, the shadow, the feelings, before they emerge to wreak havoc on our relationships. Whatever parts of us that we try to bury, mask, hide, or ignore will always come out eventually. (If you don’t believe me, get married.) Stranger Things 2 continues to be a cautionary tale and a fantastic parable about the danger of burying the truth and concealing pain.