Stranger Things and the Irrationality of Power
June 7, 2022
An eerie quietude descended on social media for a few hours this July 1st, one usually reserved for Super Bowl or World Cup finals. It was instead the release day for the final two episodes of the latest series of Netflix’s Stranger Things—a franchise with an unparalleled ability to draw people in. The first seven episodes of Stranger Things 4, which dropped on May 31st, broke streaming records 286.79 million viewing hours in days. Much has been said about the nostalgic appeal of the show, but could it do more?
For all its stylistic and dialogical accomplishments, Stranger Things 4 misses the kind of inspirational moment that might potentially inspire agency in its viewers. This absence is conspicuous considering how ample such examples are within ‘80s films and hits the Duffer brothers reference in the show, including but not limited to Stand by Me, E.T, Platoon, Heathers, Lost Boys, Christine, Kate Bush’s Running up That Hill and Metallica’s Master of Puppets. It's not that the latest series doesn’t come close to producing potential individuating moments. Rather, its message that music and friendship are central to resisting tyranny in the form of the horror issuing forth from The Hawkins National Laboratory—a symbol for the military-industrial complex—is put forth only to be squandered. Though it is unclear if this is due to a lack of vision on the part of the Duffers or to the cynicism of the Netflix corporation.
Comprising 9 episodes, each of film length, season 4 has several trajectories. Of these, the play on the "evil Russian" trope of ‘80s cinema is the least subtle and the least engaging. It’s a superficial hook that gets people talking while feeding the desire for nostalgia, and it is in any case steeped in a quasi-slapstick humor brilliantly carried off by Bret Gelman as Murray Bauman. However, beneath this surface, there lurks a plot that is both darker and more psychologically compelling. It’s a plot concerning individual and psychological trauma and its links to the social fabric in a given locality and era. In this light, the torturous barbaric Russians are our shadows. Like the Upside Down, a kind of dark gloopy mirror of our world populated by monsters that take their energy from Vecna, they mirror our own deficiencies feeding off repressed trauma. Nearly the entire time spent in Russia follows Sheriff Hopper’s internment in a forced labor camp and the franchise focuses on institutionalized abuse in the form of government-sponsored experimentation on children so as to develop superhuman powers for use by the US military. The message, which is perfectly in keeping with history, is that both Russia and America operated (and still operate) abusive penal systems while conducting morally reprehensible military experiments and campaigns.
This message is sufficiently blatant, though it is also banal in comparison to the psychological devices deployed throughout season 4, which hints at a potential deliverance from the social and personal trauma that permeates the show. The near brilliance ("near" as it later gets squandered, as we will see) resides in the linking of personal trauma to camp horror, as the central force of evil, the undead Vecna, overcomes his victims by planting negative past experiences in their mind that cause a creeping neurosis culminating in paralysis. For example, in the episode called Chrissy, a new character based on the archetypal blonde it-girl of high school movies is haunted by fat-shaming taunts from her mother after she sees an eerie-looking clock in the woods. Later, Chrissy succumbs to a harrowing recollection of childhood trauma while scoring drugs from metal kid and Dungeons and Dragons geek Eddie Munson. During this trance, Vecna levitates Chrissy and hollows her out from within using psychic powers forcibly taught to him while a captive minor at Hawkins laboratory, before snapping her limbs.
Similarly, episode three sees regular character Max enter a trance in which she is revisited by traumatic memories of her sociopathic brother, who died in season 3. Whilst being levitated, Max’s friends chance upon the discovery that music can help victims resist Vecna’s tyranny, so play her favorite track her walkman—which happened to be Kate Bush’s Running up That Hill, leading a generation of viewers to discover the song. It’s hard to resist warm fuzzy feelings at the thought of seeing Kate Bush’s track head to number one of the music charts 36 years after its first release. Though what’s really significant here is the notion that the comradeship of good friends, together with leftfield music, can help individuals overcome trauma brought about by the misappropriated power of the state. The Duffer Brothers thereby conveyed in an entertaining format the central thrust of the output of the Frankfurt School: in short, the irrationality of power can be effectively countered by the irrationality art, helping to sublate powerful psychic traumas and urges.
Continuing in this spirit the fifth episode sees Max produce a series of seemingly meaningless drawings which when arranged into a collage by her friend Nancy reveal the house of serial killer Victor Creel, who they are subsequently able to eliminate as a suspect in Chrissy’s killing. A moment of collaborative art-making thereby turns out to be instrumental in a sequence of events that leads to thwarting Vecna’s plot to destroy the town of Hawkins.
This theme of creativity and solidarity continues into the epic two-and-a-half-hour final episode in which Eddie Munson takes his Warlock-style guitar into the Upside Down and belts out Metallica’s Master of Puppets from a hilltop in a bid to distract Vecna and his monster hordes. Where James Hetfield’s vocal line comes from is anyone’s guess (Munson is the only person playing), yet the refrain perfectly encapsulates the themes of power and trauma that the show so clearly channels:
Taste me you will see/
More is all you need/
Dedicated to how I’m killing you/
Come crawling faster/
Obey your master…
In an interview with Thrasher magazine in 1988, Hetfield stated “‘Master of Puppets’ deals pretty much with drugs. How things get switched around, instead of you controlling what you're taking and doing its drugs controlling you.” With addiction itself being a response to trauma this scene continues the theme of artistic output as a means of ameliorating the effects of abusive power.
Even Vecna himself is subject to the deranging auspices of power as episode 7 earlier revealed. Like the franchise’s heroine, "Eleven", Vecna was kidnapped and subjected to scientific trials in Hawkins Laboratory as a child, leaving him with a psychopathic disorder and a desire to seek revenge against Eleven. Even the powerful are subject to the runaway forces of capitalism, as Adorno and Horkheimer pointed out in their reinterpretation of Homer’s parable of the oarsmen, which appeared in their co-written Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).
In the parable, Odysseus and his ship's crew veer closely on their nautical travels to a small island upon which the "Sirens" live, women whose enchanting song threatens to distract the men from their journey, thus potentially leading them to fall prey to the various forces that set out to thwart Odysseus’ hubristic ambitions. Odysseus' cunning devises a clever means of escape, but one that binds him to fate, as equally as it allows him to escape it: He knows only two possibilities of escape. One he prescribes to his comrades. He plugs their ears with wax and orders them to row with all their might. Anyone who wishes to survive must not listen to the temptation of the irrecoverable and is unable to listen only if he is unable to hear. Society has always made sure that this was the case. Workers must look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side. The other possibility he has applied to himself: tied to the mast on his own request by his men, he is able to command the ship's direction whilst being unable to respond to the Sirens' lure. Odysseus did not succumb to the Sirens as such, yet in not succumbing he had himself bound. In his "Late Marxism", Fredric Jameson sees the lure of the Sirens as representative of the "artwork" which conveys truth untainted by political and social deformation. In Stranger Things, the songs of Kate Bush and Metallica represent the siren song that confers the energy and understanding to overcome the nihilizing effects of corrupted power, which Vecna has become addicted to as a means of warding off his own trauma.
However, with Munson sacrificing himself to a tornado of monstrous bats to draw them away from his friends as they head to fight Vecna, Max ending up in a coma, and Vecna very much at large at the show’s end (despite being greatly weakened by Eleven), the hopeful message is dampened. As darkness stirs in Hawkins, causing it to snow out of season, the townspeople gather to watch an ominous sky. It is less “stand up to tyranny with art” and more “wait until next season to see if our intrepid heroes survive…”. And here the cynicism of Netflix shines through, for where the series finale might have ignited feverish communal art-making and music production, viewers are instead left in a suspended animation that will likely be satiated by binge-watching other Netflix series’ and purchasing Stranger Things merchandise. Perhaps the Duffer brothers have made a series so much of its time that it stops short of offering solutions precisely because there cannot be any in a world as thoroughly beholden to capital as our own. Though in all probability the squandered ending to season 4 has more to do with corporate opportunism. Whatever the case, I propose an alternative to waiting for Stranger Things 5: go out, make art and friends and resist the status quo. With that I’ll end with a quote from Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou that sums up much of Stranger Things 4 when shorn of its unavoidable profit motive: “My comrade is one who, like myself, is only a subject by belonging to a process of truth that authorizes him or her to say 'we'”.