Secret Demodogs and (Spiritual) Black Holes: Stranger Things 2 Loses Its Innocence

Spoilers in the following look at the latest season of the Netflix series. A Christian […]

CJ Green / 11.7.17

Spoilers in the following look at the latest season of the Netflix series.

A Christian take on the new season of Stranger Things begins and ends with Eleven and her relationship to Hopper. That relationship—its ups, its downs, and its upside downs—becomes the beating heart of this season.

When we last saw El, she’d proven herself a worthy Jesus figure. She was mysterious, a charismatic mediator between the known and the unknown. What’s more, in the first season finale, she sacrificed herself to the Demogorgon before a well-placed box of Eggos hinted that the tomb was empty. But at the risk of sounding cynical, all of those subtle hints of the old, old story became—emotionally speaking—minimized amid a slew of other likewise provocative references. The death and resurrection of Eleven-Jesus was just another in a sea of symbols, drifting alongside the bikes of ET and Sean Astin from The Goonies. This year, the Christian imagery packs a greater emotional punch, because it’s not exclusively “Christian”—it’s human. Personal, concrete, real.

Eleven begins Season 2 having broken out of the relatively weak mold of “Christ figure.” Her status, now, is smaller, less epic—an orphan. Even less, a tween orphan. She is taken in by Chief Hopper, who continues to grieve the tragic passing of his real daughter, Sara, and the basis of their relationship—secrecy, stoicism, and rules—quickly proves faulty. Hop commands Eleven to stay inside at all times, for almost a year…and understandably, she just can’t obey.

After their relationship bottoms out, Hop is moved to apologize. “There are a lot of things I shouldn’t have done,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just some kind of black hole or something.”

Eleven looks confused. “Black hole?” she asks.

“Yeah, it’s this thing in outer space. It sucks everything towards it and destroys it… And somehow, somehow I’ve just been scared, you know? I’ve been scared that the black hole would take you, too. I think that’s why I get so mad. I’m so sorry for everything. I can be so… so…”


Hop laughs. “Yeah. Stupid.”

In Stranger Things 2, black holes are everywhere, riddled throughout the show, first and foremost in the Hawkins Lab, then tunneling underneath the idyllic town, and finally—and most importantly—running among the characters themselves.

Last year I hypothesized that Stranger Things blew up because viewers longed for its purity. We were enamored of a simpler time, a time without cell phones, without social media, without fake news; a time of board games and yellow shag rugs; a time when kids could walk around safely at night; a time when the worst call the police ever got was when an owl landed on Eleanor Gillespie’s head because it thought that her hair was a nest. We longed for a time that never existed. But in Season 2, that illusion of purity is torn down—time after time.

In one clever scene, Lucas recaps the entire first season for his new crush, Max. She obviously doesn’t believe him (in her life, apparently, stranger things have not happened), and she says, “I really liked [your story], but I had a few issues. I just felt that it was a little derivative in parts… I just wish you’d have had a little more originality, that’s all.” By and large, these were the (rare, outlying) criticisms of the first season—that the characters leaned too heavily on clichés: Steve, for example, was the classic hotshot boyfriend, the bullies were, well, bullies, and Barb (poor Barb) was the sanctified best friend. By the end of that season, however, those clichés had either been shaken up or outgrown or…killed off (it still hurts).

Season 2 continues in that vein, developing and challenging the characters into newer, stranger places. While the show proceeds to delight in genre references—I nearly choked when Sean Astin said, “What’s at the X? Pirate treasure?”—this time, those references are less the show’s building blocks and more a fun game of “I Spy,” leaving room for more nuanced conflict and character development. Where in the last season so much of the trouble involved the cold, evil world, or the corruption of the scientists, the characters are now fighting among and within themselves. They shuffle around, leave the comfort of their cliques, and rub shoulders with people who are not like them.

Similarly, so much classic horror involves the loss of innocence. We saw this most explicitly last season when Barb’s death coincided with Nancy’s loss of virginity. This season, the innocence question is raised, but with greater intensity: Will is not merely physically lost, but spiritually. Possessed, he becomes a spy for the Mind Flayer—he becomes untrustworthy, and dangerous. That he happens to be in middle school during all of this is no coincidence…this is his coming-of-age. He’s not just escaping the Upside Down; he is becoming it in order to get through it.

Even the kids who aren’t possessed by the Mind Flayer are possessed by themselves: Dustin, for example, selfishly harbors what is quite obviously a baby Demogorgon in order to impress a girl; likewise, Lucas breaks the party rules in order to impress that same girl and to, worse, stiff-arm Dustin; Nancy (thankfully, finally) faces up to her culpability in Barb’s death and its subsequent cover-up; Hopper has become a jailer full of empty promises, while Eleven throws regular temper tantrums and breaks the three simple rules of safe living, going all the way to Chicago to totally lose (and thereafter find) herself. We begin to clearly see that the perceived innocence of this show is—once again—an illusion. Whatever innocence the characters may have enjoyed last season was a grace of circumstance; left to their own devices, we now see that they crumble and are corrupted as easily as the rest of us. All of which suggests that the characters in Stranger Things 2 are not the only ones maturing. The story itself is growing up, becoming more nuanced, more perceptive of what it means to be a person in the world. If there was one character who fell flat this season, it was Jonathan. His defining character trait is being tortured and misunderstood. But this season everyone is tortured and misunderstood, so he doesn’t stand out anymore.

At this point, we begin to see that the name Stranger Things really works for this show. It’s a show about the stranger things that have happened. The showrunners are pointing at an element of truth in their twisted and dark underworld…and that twisted darkness is not (mainly) an unfortunate side-effect of a science experiment. It is, first and foremost, being human.

Eleven’s final task is to close the gate between Earth and the Upside Down. In order to do so, she must get in touch with those experiences that have caused her the most pain. Just as Will became conflated with the dark shadow from the Upside Down, Eleven must directly engage what her sister Kali calls “the wound inside her.” In that climactic moment, it’s almost as if Eleven is in the depths of hell, at her very bottom—she looks scary, as well, two streams of blood pouring from her nose. Here, at her worst, in the pit of her despair, she is able to look directly at her life’s problems and begin to, at last, deal with them honestly (by telekinetically forcing shut an interdimensional gate and levitating; seems easy enough). All that to say, if you’re unfamiliar with a theology of the cross, this is a wonderful place to start. Furthermore, when Eleven descends into the pit in a rickety elevator, the man who will eventually adopt her is there, with her—police chief Hopper, the black hole himself.

In the final sequence, Hop acquires a birth certificate stating that Eleven is his daughter. In its final moments, Stranger Things 2—the show about the wild things that have happened, the things that are so absurd you wouldn’t believe them—becomes the story of a girl, lost and alone, orphaned and hungry, who, in the end, finds a home. Not only that, but she finds a home and receives a name. Jane Hopper. As with all things in this universe, nothing is simple. The final eerie shot shows Hawkins flipped upside down, suggesting that there is trouble ahead. But at least for now, together, they are home.

Stray thoughts:

  • On explicit references to religion: there just aren’t very many. The closest we get (it seems to me) is in the final episode when we’re given what essentially amounts to an exorcism…sans priest. I’ve wondered a lot about this. Perhaps it’s a “secular” show, speaking a secular language, to a secular audience…but all the while casting doubt on that framework. Obviously the supernatural elements challenge the imminent worldview. Likewise, the science v. faith conflict is somewhat obliquely evoked, simply because the scientists have failed and mismanaged their power. In Season 1 they opened a wound; now only the supernatural can heal it.
  • Steve is the real MVP this season. I’ve been racking my brains for what to write about him. Just…great job, Steve. Dunno if he’s the right guy for Nancy, but I don’t really care anymore. I think that’s the point. He’s a sufficient character on his own.
  • Jonathan’s failure as an outcast was confirmed for me when he mistook Siouxsie Sioux for Kiss.
  • It seems to be an open question about whether or not this is a horror show. There are some irrefutably disturbing visuals throughout, not the least of which was Bob the Brain getting eaten alive…RIP :’( Overall, though, this show is such a seductive, endearing experience that you can’t really put it alongside, say, Penny Dreadful. I would love to read some comments about this. To me, the defiance of category keeps this show fresh.
  • The Snow Ball was exactly what was needed to close out this wonderful season. I loved seeing the characters living life away from the perils of that rogue science lab, away from demodogs and nosebleeds, and coping with what amounts to a roller coaster of a middle school dance. Dustin becomes a mini-Steve, not only because he uses his hair product (!!!), but because, despite sharing a dance with Nancy, he cannot ultimately be with her. I wonder what will happen with Mike and Eleven/Jane? Which name will he call her? How many episodes before they break up next season? “You’re just too weird, El, I’m sorry!
  • Favorite moments: when Hopper finds himself in the tunnel and the frame turns upside down; when Bob the Brain figures out the “map”; when Eleven finally appears at the end of “Chapter 8,” at just the right moment; when you realize Nancy will dance with Dustin.