At the risk of putting too much into one review, I feel it is necessary to put 8 and 9 together, for a couple reasons. First, like the other two times I reviewed episodes together, it might actually be impossible to watch one of these without canceling any and all plans so you can watch the next ones. Stranger Things may have cliffhanging down to a science. Secondly, while there is a lot of plot and explication in episode 8, there is a lot less thematic content – meaning, so much happens, but there is very little reflection on what it means or why. This show has hit the pause button so many times this season to meaningfully reflect on these characters and the journey they are on that it had to make up ground somewhere.
This journey, if you’ve been following along, is about a community experiencing trauma, specifically the events of season one. Because people in power want to maintain control, the traumatized have been forced to hide their pain. This has taken the form of dishonesty, neglect, pretending, and even projection. The monster of this season is representative of what happens when you ignore or try to bury trauma; it spreads, it infects, it takes over everything just below the surface, and by the time it emerges it has become so much bigger and dangerous than anyone could have imagined.
Along the way, one of the main tools that has been used to combat the monster has been truth-telling, and by episodes 8 and 9, the truth is out. The only main character still in the dark is Billy, Max’s older brother, who unfortunately gets the short end of Stranger Things 2’s limited time. We do get to see the source of his pain, (an abusive father), but it looks like we will have to wait until a later season to see him either work through it or emerge as a larger villain. The truth is out for nearly everyone, but unfortunately, the worst of the danger has already been unleashed. I think this is how we are meant to see Bob’s death. All along he has represented the fake-normalcy that Joyce wants after season one, but his ignorance and lack of preparedness for the truth meant he wasn’t going to survive it. Bob is this season’s Barb, a fan favorite who meets a sad end because of other characters’ flaws. (Do the Duffer Brothers have a vendetta against single-syllable “B” names? If we meet a “Brad” next season… don’t get attached.)
There are some nice moments though, now that the truth is out, for some new truth to be discovered. This is the episode where the whole group understands the monster to be a kind of “Mind Flayer,” another character from Dungeons & Dragons that helps our characters understand what they’re dealing with and how possibly to defeat it. There is an unfortunate aside about this villain’s motives, that it believes itself to be the superior being and wants to inhabit and control everything, leading to an all too quick moment about Nazis that just doesn’t belong in this season’s conversation.
What this conversation leads to, ultimately, is the acknowledgement that to defeat this seemingly undefeatable evil means to deal with it at its source. As it relates to the larger theme of trauma, this is an important moment to dwell on. There may be a lot of symptoms that look like the real problem, but the source of the pain is where healing can happen. That’s why therapy is such a long-term and laborious task – often it is weeding through all the reasons that brought you to therapy to finding the origins of the pain. Our characters could spend the rest of their lives trying to fight off the “Dema-Dogs,” but it is a losing battle to not go to the source. Another detail worth noting is that they have to free Will from the monster before they destroy it. This is a reminder that when we are working through our own trauma, part of the reconciliation comes with those to whom our trauma has spread. It’s not enough to simply get closure on our pain. We have to do right by all those we have hurt in the process.
Will reveals that in order to defeat the monster, they have to close the gate. This is the same gate that Eleven unwittingly opened, which set everything in season one into motion. When Eleven and Jim go to the gate and finally close it, it’s poignant the images that go through her mind. She is once more confronted by her “papa” talking about the festering wound (from episode 7). We are meant to see that “closing the gate” is to finally “close the wound” that is festering, infecting, spreading and growing throughout Hawkins. In episode 7, Eleven learns to harness her emotions to strengthen her powers. It is only through cathartic self-realization that Eleven is able to close the wound that haunts the town of Hawkins, and all of the infected hosts fall to their death.
The final peace that the season offers us is the redeeming power of community. It’s fitting that right before the characters go off on their final mission, they are all in one room together figuring it out. There’s a nice coming together of new and old characters of three distinct age groups that work in conjunction to face the trauma. It’s nice, too, that the groups don’t separate by age groups in order to accomplish their tasks. Each group gets and adult and a child, reminding us of the importance of working together and learning from each other. They each play their roles, some with more glamorous tasks than others, but their shared work and willingness to play a part is what ultimately leads to healing. The final shot of the season, though, reminds us that the monster has not been eradicated. It still looms in its place in the upside-down, ready to haunt again if a gate or a wound becomes reopened. Like many of the most recent great horror films, it is impossible to completely destroy the darkness, but we can keep it at bay, and minimize the damage it can do to us daily. We can close the gates.
This vision of a multi-generation community of people who engage in truth-telling, shared work, healing, and restoration is such a powerful vision for what the Church could be. As we look at the world around us and see the monsters we have helped create, it can feel daunting. It seems impossible. Yet, like Stranger Things 2, we are offered the vision of a community that functions as the body of Christ in the world. 2 Corinthians 5 reminds us that God’s work in Christ was a ministry of reconciliation and healing of the whole world, and that we are the means by which that work continues. We can be pointed to Paul’s first letter to those same Corinthians where he writes that we all serve different roles in that one body toward that goal. Will we a Church that tells the truth, and works as a community to bring true reconciliation? Or will we try to glorify ourselves and avoid the darkness in our world?
Thanks for reading, it was a real treat to think through this season. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!