Continuing the series on Stranger Things 2, it is clear this season is going to be about the trauma and secrets we bury and how we pretend that everything is okay. The first episode took most of its time showing how the characters are not okay after season one, a bold choice to make in a world that is quick to “move on” without real growth. I’m going to treat episodes two and three together, because while there is a lot of plot that happens separately, thematically these two episodes are in sync.
Episode two is just delightful, and a welcome return to form after episode one’s deliberate but melancholy pace. The Ghostbusters references bookend this episode perfectly, and we are reminded just how gleefully manipulative this show can be with its cliff-hangers. (Another reason to treat these two episodes together – there’s not a person out there who didn’t immediately watch episode 3, or at least the first few minutes of it to see what was in Dustin’s trash can.) The music cue for the Ghostbusters theme is perfect, and there’s a great gag where both Mike and Lucas show up as Venkman, Bill Murray’s character from Ghostbusters. Apparently it was assumed that Lucas would play Winston, the only black Ghostbuster, which Lucas resents, of course. It’s nice to see Stranger Things aware of its racial dynamics, since it is a nostalgic show about a time where representation was worse. (It’s still not great.)
Much of this episode is given to filling in the gaps between season one and two for Eleven’s character. Eleven is one of the secrets being kept hidden, and it’s only a matter of time before she lets herself loose. She asks to go trick-or-treating, reminding us that she is still a kid, despite her monster-fighting and telekinesis. She puts a sheet over herself like a ghost, saying that no-one would see her. No doubt, she feels like an actual ghost, unable to interact with the world.
We get another taste of Sean Astin’s character Bob and his corny-dad routine, and begin to see what it is going to represent this season. Aside from a terrible Dracula pun (“Hope tonight doesn’t…. suck!”) we see him suggest to Joyce that they should all move away together. Joyce says, “This isn’t a normal family,” and he responds, “It could be.” As we identified in the last episode, he is going to represent, for Joyce and for us, the attempt to fake-normal: pretend that everything is okay, until it magically is. Meanwhile, we see other characters facing up to the possibility that it’s not: Jim Hopper, the only sage on the other side of trauma, tells Joyce that things will get better, but only with time. In episode three, Nancy and Jonathan discuss the weight that they are carrying by pretending, and Jonathan realizes, “Maybe things can’t go back to the way they were.”
Episode three really hits this all home, using Bob’s terrible advice to show exactly how not okay things are going to be. Bob tells little Will that the best way to get rid of a nightmare is to stand up to it and tell it to go away. Remember, Bob represents everyone’s desire to just “move on” and get on with their lives. When this episode begins with that perspective-giving advice, we should be prepared for it not to go well. And when Will tries to stand up to the “shadow monster,” it envelops him entirely. The episode ends ominously and sinisterly, and we can only begin to imagine what the consequences of this neglect and dishonesty will be.
I, for one, love the direction this season is going. The Duffer Brothers, who produce and write the series, have said that this is more of a sequel than a “season two,” implying that it deals directly with the events of season one rather than starting over, or just doing the next thing. I really love this cause and effect approach to story-telling, which is more a product of contemporary television and film than of the decade it is emulating. In the 80’s, when Stranger Things takes place, film and television series followed more of an anthology route, where events from one episode or season or film could be treated independently of the others. (Consider the Indiana Jones series, where three different female “love-interests” are introduced in each film with no mention of the previous one’s whereabouts. Only in 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a character brought back, showing a more contemporary sensibility to keep series’ interconnected. The Bond movies have followed a similar pattern as they modernize.)
And so, we, along with Stranger Things, find ourselves torn between our propensity to move on, to bury our shame and our secrets, and to ignore our trauma. Will we go along with the false cries to just “be normal,” like Bob, or acknowledge that “maybe things can’t go back to the way things were?” I’m drawn to the biblical notion of resurrection here; when something dies (experiences death), it can be resurrected, but not exactly like it was. Resurrection is different than revival, rebirth, or reanimation. Jesus retained his scars, but looked completely different when he returned to the disciples. In Christian ideas of resurrection, there is an acknowledgment that, while there is hope in new life, things can not simply return to how they were before. And that should be considered a blessing, not a curse. To cut oneself off from the truth of the past is also prevents the possibility of a new future. I suspect as this season continues, we will see this play out in how our characters have to confront their own monsters in fantastical forms. To do so will not be, as Bob think, “Easy peazy.”