Stranger Things is a show about fear. In some ways this is obvious, as the show utilizes the supernatural and otherworldly to instill fear in its characters and audience, but there’s a deeper fear at play in the world of Stranger Things: a fear of change.
Set in the 80s and built off of iconography and homages that harken back to the era’s pop-culture, Netflix’s surprise hit has always been reliant on its attachment to the past, on nostalgia. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; after all, nostalgia is a tool that elicits a powerful and often beneficial feeling of comfort. However, as the show endures, Stranger Things reveals that its nostalgia is not a tool, but a dependence – a safeguard against change.
When we’re introduced to the world of Stranger Things, we’re introduced to an idealized past. The bigotry and fears of the era are gone and we’re left with the comfortable, sanitized world of Hawkins, Indiana – full of angsty teens, Dungeons and Dragons, and 80s pop-culture references. Obviously there’s still danger in this world, coming in the form of the Demogorgon for season one, but there’s a specific and important cause for this monster’s arrival: science. The Demogorgon has been summoned from the Upside Down (an alternate dimension) by scientists experimenting with a dimensional rift.
The narrative we’re presented with is an idyllic 80s world plagued by progress, by science and technology – by change. Throughout the show’s three seasons, we see science and progress continue to manifest as the show’s villain, and in season three, the show goes one step further by also villainizing the new Hawkin’s Mall – revealed to be a secret front for Russian scientists.
To the show’s credit, season three also presented the possibility that the show may finally be pushing past its fear of change. While still poised to continue on with science as a fundamental enemy, the show did introduce two major paradigm shifts. In the finale of Stranger Things season three, fan favorite character Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is killed. In the wake of this, his adopted daughter Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is taken in by Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and her family, who have decided to move out of Hawkins following the trauma they’ve endured over three years.
This is a big shift for the show which has, until this point, refrained from killing off major characters despite the dangerous, supernatural world it presents us with. In fact, of the five characters with any significant connection to our core cast that are killed in Stranger Things, only Hopper is a beloved, long-running character. Barb, Bob, and Alexei were all introduced in the same season they were killed off (essentially making them characters born to die) and Billy, despite being introduced a season before his death, wasn’t a particularly liked character. Hopper stands as the only character death to really impact the core of Stranger Things.
“The narrative we’re presented with is an idyllic 80s world plagued by progress, by science and technology – by change.”
Now, fans of the show will note that a final scene in season three does suggest the possibility that Hopper may still be alive, transporting us to a facility in Russia where they refer to “the American,” but nothing confirms this mysterious American is Jim Hopper. The show seemed primed to introduce a post-Hopper season four where his survival is, at best, a possibility.
Then the season four teaser came out and immediately confirmed he’s alive.
It can’t be denied that many suspected, or outright believed, it was Harbour’s beloved character in the Russian facility from the start, but that’s not based on details given by the scene. It’s based on the show. It’s because we know Stranger Things won’t kill off a major character when it’s given itself an out. The audience sees the show’s obsession with nostalgia for what it truly is, even if we haven’t consciously put words to that understanding. We know, deep down, that Stranger Things is terrified of change.
With the surprise release of its season four teaser, Stranger Things shines the strongest light yet on the fear at the root of its nostalgia obsession. In revealing season four this way, Stranger Things has proven itself unable to look forward, unable to confront change. With this teaser, not only are we told Hopper is alive, but we’re only told Hopper is alive, with the trailer revealing no other details about the new world of season four.
“Stranger Things reveals that its nostalgia is not a tool, but a dependence – a safeguard against change.”
There’s a saying among storytellers, an idea echoed by literary greats such as William Faulkner and Stephen King: “kill your darlings.” It’s a lesson the creatives behind this Netflix juggernaut have failed to learn. Instead, they’ve stood up and, in a resounding voice, said “there’s no need to fear, everything you love is still here.” They’ve been echoing this mantra since the show’s inception, first with their nostalgia-laden setting, and now evolved to encapsulate the show’s own characters.
Stranger Things will likely survive for at least a few more seasons (barring the creators choosing to end the show), but if it can’t move past the fear of change that drives it, the show risks being consumed by its obsession with the past.