“What in the Name of Jesus Just Happened?”: Stranger Things 3 Blows Up Fireworks and Idols

This delightfully expansive, spoiler-ridden piece was written by Professor Leigh Hickman, who gave such a […]

Mockingbird / 7.10.19

This delightfully expansive, spoiler-ridden piece was written by Professor Leigh Hickman, who gave such a stunning presentation on the show at our Tyler conference earlier this year – video below.

Stranger Things is back and stranger than ever. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are dating and making out to 80s love songs. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns from summer camp announcing he has a girlfriend named Suzie. Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are also a couple. The hormones and distractions of puberty are particularly heartbreaking for Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) who, after having parts of his childhood stolen in the Upside Down, just wants to have a fun summer in Mike’s basement playing D&D. His angst: Mike and the rest of the party are too distracted by girls and growing up to play with him. Meanwhile, Joyce (Winona Ryder) is still grieving the death of her boyfriend (Sean Astin), and police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is lonely for quality time with his adopted daughter, El, and hating the changes caused by her dating. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) both work in thankless jobs for the Hawkins Post where Nancy is the target of sexist bullying.

The small town of Hawkins is also rocked by change as the corrupt Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes) and the state-of-the-art Starcourt Mall cause most small, family businesses to close their doors. But Hawkins residents can enjoy ice cream served up by Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and his coworker Robin (Maya Hawke) at Scoops Ahoy inside the mall. Formally “King Steve” of Hawkins High, Steve is struggling to adjust to his demotion in social status and unsexy sailor job uniform. When Dustin discovers a secret Russian radio transmission, he, Steve, and Robin stave off boredom trying to translate the message and solve the Russian riddle. There’s also the popular Hawkins pool where “bad boy” Billy (Dacre Montgomery) serves as a lifeguard and the object of sexual fantasy for several middle aged women poolside. His attempt at an adulterous tryst with Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) is abruptly ended when Billy is possessed by an evil that will change everything in Hawkins during the hot summer of 1985.

The Shadow Monster who possessed Will in season 2 didn’t leave Hawkins when Eleven closed the gate between our world and the Upside Down. While taking in a screening of George Romero’s Day of the Dead, Will senses the presence of his excised tormentor. Suddenly, the lights go out. It’s episode one of Stranger Things 3, and everyone is in total darkness. “Let there be light,” Steve declares when power is suddenly restored to Starcourt Mall moments later. The scene, line, darkness, and light are what season 3 is about in essence: When darkness is everywhere consuming, what story will people choose to live in? Will they surrender their humanity and be dead inside but outwardly living like the zombies Will sees on the screen? Or will they live through the redemptive story which begins with the Word who creates light where only void exists? In other words, when the lights go out, what story turns the lights back on?

This theme of a larger story surrounding the story of Stranger Things 3 is everywhere throughout the season. The show’s narrative pointedly rejects a nihilistic worldview. In Stranger Things, things that happen actually matter and are vitally connected to one another. The natural world affects the supernatural world and vice versa. For Joyce, the first sign that something is again wrong in Hawkins occurs when magnets start to fall off surfaces where she works and her own fridge. The sign of encroaching evil is laughably mundane. Mr. Clark (Randy Havens), her son’s middle school science teacher, tries to assure Joyce that the reason she sees extra significance in demagnetized magnets is due to “Apophenia. You’re seeing patterns that aren’t there. Coincidence.”  But it’s precisely interconnected patterns which drive the whole story.

One of these patterns is the setting. Stranger Things is usually set around a national holiday. Season 1 featured Christmas. Season 2 was a fun romp through Halloween tropes, and Season 3 is set during July 4th. The season consciously honors everything that it meant to be an American in the 80s, complete with New Coke, capitalism, and jazzercise classes. One of the not-so-subtle ideas in Season 3 is the dark mirror of what America could be at its worst contrasted with what America is at her best. This idea is imagined in the monster of Season 3 versus Mike’s party. The monster is literally a gory amalgamation of subsumed human lives. The “flayed,” as they are called in the show, are people whose very identities and souls are sucked out of them in order to strengthen a monster who consumes individuality in order to become the only individual allowed to exist.

In sharp contrast to the monster, the heroes of Stranger Things fight with a united purpose and goal to defeat this monster and to save those whom he’s enslaved inside himself. Repeatedly throughout the season, characters give voice to or act on their desire to lay down their lives for the sake of one another. “If you die, I die,” says Dustin to Steve. This instinct for self-sacrifice isn’t motivated by totalitarian force but by pure love and intimate friendship. E Pluribus Unum is more than just the title of one of the episodes this season. “Out of many, one” is true both of the monster and the party of the show’s heroes.

In confronting the monster of Season 3, the characters must all deal with their most painful memories, losses, and fears of further loss. The individual and collective traumas experienced by Mike and his friends still haunt them and color their choices. The means of coping with suffering get more adult with each new season of Stranger Things. In season 1, the boys faced Will’s disappearance by making their search for him an extension of their play. Eleven showed Mike where to find Will by literally turning his D&D board upside down. Understanding the monster and the search as a game, the children easily accepted the strangeness of monsters, alternate reality, and travel through interdimensional space. The search for the lost child of Season 1 was also the catalyst for Hopper to appropriately grieve his own lost child, Sarah.

In Season 2, the same characters face a much more intimate trauma. Will is found, but he’s still missing, his soul hijacked by evil. The Shadow Monster exorcism in Season 2 is more than a nod to The Exorcist. So the evil that was a D&D monster in Season 1 is made almost explicitly demonic in Season 2. Dealing with more invasive evil, the characters in Season 2 survive by taking responsibility for someone they love more than themselves. Mike deals with the trauma of losing Eleven by protecting Will. Hopper deals with his trauma by trying and failing to enforce rules to protect Eleven. Dustin tries to protect Dart. Lucas tries to protect Max, and Max and Eleven both protect and rescue their friends in key moments of crisis. If play was the coping mechanism in Season 1 and taking responsibility for another person was the way to face trauma in Season 2, then it’s particularly interesting that the strategy for dealing with trauma in Season 3 is jarringly different: distraction.

Season 3 serves to showcase the dominant cultural idols of the 80s and subsequent decades. “Don’t you think it’s time you move on from primitive constructs such as popularity?” Dustin asks Steve in episode three. The irony is that almost every character this season begins the summer with a cultural idol/construct they hope will be their savior. Both Mike and Hopper lie to the women they love at the beginning of the season. Mike lies about not lying, and Hopper lies that his invitation to take Joyce to dinner isn’t a date. In both cases, these lies engender shame. To try to cover their shame, Mike buys into the idea that buying Eleven a gift at the mall will restore his broken relationship with her. His initial idol is materialism where things rather than intimate honesty secure love. Hopper is heartbroken and ashamed when he thinks Joyce has rejected him. His idol is aggression, his anger serving as his sadness’ mask. For Hopper, anger is the easier emotion to express between it and what he actually feels: loss and grief.

Steve whose idol is his popularity has to face the fact that he’s not popular anymore. Jonathan, who encouraged his brother to embrace his inner “freak” in Season 2, is now desperately trying to hold down a good job as a photographer at the Hawkins Post. His idol is the security of the American Dream which makes his character rather bland at the beginning of this season. Nancy and her mother Karen each live in the American Dream. Tellingly, every time the Wheeler house is filmed in an exterior shot, it is the stereotype of the ideal American home complete with three kids, a beautiful wife, financial security, and conservative political values. Underneath that primitive façade, Karen Wheeler lives in a loveless marriage, struggles to connect with her kids, and dreams of a fulfilling intimate life. Interestingly, Karen spent almost all of Season 2 reading romance novels and drinking wine at all hours of the day. Her idol is escapism, be it in stories or substances, from her horrible American Dream life.

Nancy is drawn to Jonathan precisely because he is not like her absentee dad. Being a woman in a misogynistic work environment, Nancy idolizes recognition and professional respect. She hopes the mysterious case of diseased rats she’s trying to solve with Jonathan will lead to her gaining the respect of her male boss, Tom (Michael Park). She tells Jonathan that her male coworkers “like that I’m a coffee delivery machine. They don’t actually like me or respect me as a living, breathing human with a brain.” This description is ironic because how Nancy’s coworkers estimate her value is identical to the monster of Season 3 who sees people and rats alike as machines to supply it with power through mass genocide.

Finally, Billy, the lifeguard with the perfect body and sex appeal, idolizes his external appearance because his external life is all he’s ever been able to control. Abandoned by his mother and abused by his father, Billy’s sex god appearance is what he must maintain to avoid being exposed as vulnerable, heartbroken, and desperate for love.

In Season 3, most characters serve idols that at first limit their potential to act and dull their humanity. Hopper describes his inability to feel in a letter to Eleven: “The truth is, for so long, I’d forgotten what [feelings] even were. I’ve been stuck in one place, in a cave, you might say.” It’s no accident that the events of Season 3 happen around Independence Day. The story is about the characters stepping out of different cultural and spiritual caves. It’s a story about the cost of liberty.

By the end of Season 3, every one of these caves or “primitive constructs” is deconstructed. In fact, it is only when characters trash their idols that they become most fully themselves. Mike, the protector of Eleven, Will, and the leader of his friend group is boring, deceitful, and disrespectful at the beginning of the season. Will gives Mike and Lucas a wakeup call. When Mike complains that it’s too early in the morning to get up and play D&D, Will the Wise prophesies about his slothful friends and their roles in the rest of the season: “Is it early, Michael? Tell that to the villagers crying for your help, the children so frightened they cannot sleep. Are you truly going to let them perish? Or are you going to come to their rescue and become the heroes you were always meant to be?” In one line, Will implies that there’s a deeper meaning and destiny for his friends. There’s a greater story in which to live.

This greater story is echoed in how Eleven’s character develops. She begins the season in the throes of young love, her room a teenage girl’s shrine to Mike. When Hopper succeeds in threatening to end their relationship if Mike doesn’t distance himself from her, El finds something she’s never known, friendship with a girl her own age. Max relishes teaching El about the pleasures of shopping, taking glamour shots, reading Wonder Woman comics, crushing on Ralph Macchio, and enjoying being a “material girl” in the 80s.

But their summer plan to be mall rats abruptly changes course when El sees Billy sacrificing fellow lifeguard Heather to the monster. After seeing an image of Heather (Francesca Reale) frantically crying to her for help, El’s inherent empathy is fully engaged and her Christ-haunted nature is activated. When she and Max look for Heather at Hawkins Pool, they are flippantly dismissed by another lifeguard who asks if they are returning some of Heather’s things to get a reward. Max replies, “No. We’re just Good Samaritans.” The larger narrative pattern emerges as El and Max are now playing parts in a biblical parable about “the alien” non-Jew who saw a helpless man unable to save himself. In the story, the Samaritan does what other people won’t do. He takes responsibility for another person in their helplessness and saves him because he recognizes and values his humanity. This Samaritan is exactly who El becomes in Season 3.

Pursuing the lost is again the theme of Stranger Things, but in this season, El isn’t seeking to save Will or the rest of her friends. She’s seeking to save her enemies. The “flayed” are gathered in order to destroy her and all she cares about in Hawkins. Billy, who almost beat Steve to death in Season 2 and physically attacked Lucas who he despised for the color of his skin, is now among the lost people El strives to redeem.

And yet, in Stranger Things and in life, redemption is never cheap. Salvation always costs the life of someone willing to sacrifice themselves for another. This isn’t the first time El’s character arc is cruciform. Mike gives Eleven her new name in Season 1: El. Like Superman’s name Kal-El, El is shorthand for a name of the biblical God. Making her more of a Christ-figure, Eleven is literally the character who stops the Fall in Stranger Things. In Season 1 Mike walks off a cliff in order to save Dustin’s life. El catches him with her mind and reverses his fall. In the finale, in order to save her friends, she pins the Demogorgon to the wall, his arms spread out in crucifixion. Eleven “dies” in Season 1, her body dissolving into the monster she’s slaying. Echoing 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” Eleven destroys herself and the monster by becoming the monster in her willing self-annihilation. In Season 2, El is again a resurrected savior for her friends, coming seemingly back from the dead at the last moment to win the fight with evil they could never win without her.

In Season 3, Eleven again images Christ, but in a more human rather than supernatural way. She and Billy have something in common: shared suffering. Both Eleven and Billy long for and have lost their mothers. Both mothers were taken from them by some form of violence. Billy’s mother abandoned him due to her abusive husband. Eleven’s mother was taken from her through the abuse of evil scientists.

Unlike any other season of Stranger Things, El redeems Billy through the power of their shared suffering and her empathy. Stripped of her powers and helpless as Billy offers her to the monster as a sacrifice, El describes Billy’s best memory, a time with his mom at the beach when they were together and he felt loved. Tenderly touching his face and showing him affection at the moment when he is trying to kill her overpowers the monster in Billy. Taking the death blow for her, Billy’s perfect body, his idol of image, is punctured by the tentacles of the monster. He sacrifices his idol and his life for El. Billy dies into life. Eleven and Billy’s story of redemptive suffering is at the narrative heart of Stranger Things. Hopper makes this point in his final words to El in a letter read in the final episode: “When life hurts you, because it will, remember the hurt. The hurt is good. It means you’re out of that cave.” Again rejecting nihilism, the story says that grace empowered suffering creates empathy, overpowers monsters, and is an essential part of redemption.

“What in the name of Jesus just happened?” asks one of Hopper’s deputies. It’s a rhetorical question hinting that the events of Stranger Things 3 are part of a greater, divine plot. This season, the villain becomes a hero. The main father figure in the show sacrifices himself. At the end of the season, the story’s primary romantic couples are separated from one another by death or geographical distance. But what happens in Stranger Things always happens for a reason. The figure of a greater hero overshadows the Shadow monster and heroes of the story.

In the final episode, the Duffer brothers add into the story something that abruptly changes the mood of the intense final showdown: a song. Over the radio, Dustin and his girlfriend Suzie sing the theme from The Never Ending Story. The pop culture reference to a children’s fantasy classic from 1984 is completely incongruent set in the context of a monster pursuing its prey. The moment is hilarious, winsome, and just right. Of course, the song is what Stranger Things is ultimately about: The Never Ending Story, the story that turns on the Light.