Warning: this article contains spoilers for Season 4 of Stranger Things.
In the face of an implacable invading army, a small group of Americans in the heartland load up on guns and take the fight to the enemy. In the past, the US has invaded others, but now we’re the invaded—and we are ready.
That’s the plot of the classic paranoid Cold War agitprop Red Dawn, in which Soviet and Cuban forces invade Colorado. And of course it’s also the plot of Stranger Things season 4.
The second part of s4, comprising episodes 8 and 9 of the series was released this week. It leans hard into its retro 80s setting complete with Soviet prisons, Rambo references, and sawed-off shotguns. In comparison to Red Dawn, though, the fears of Communist takeover in Stranger Things are diffused and abstracted. The Cold War doesn’t end; it just turns into a vague nightmare. With tentacles and vampire bats.
Bloat and Horror
At the end of season 4, part 1, we learned that the season antagonist is Number 1/Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower)—a psychic child who turned into a slimy monster. Number 1 threatened and was then defeated by El/Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) years ago. She thought she’d killed him, but really she blasted him into the Upside Down, a negative realm of darkness, shadow, and unholy things.
There Vecna grew in power. He’s now trying to open a door into our world so he can invade and take over Hawkins, Indiana. His magic ritual involves cursing and then killing guilt-ridden teens in our world. His final target is Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink.) Her friends, who have fought the Upside Down before, try to protect her by buying a bunch of weapons and invading the Upside Down before it can invade us.
Meanwhile, another group of kids tries to get El to Hawkins to help. And meanwhile, meanwhile, El’s adopted father, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) breaks out of prison in Russia and fights Upside Down monsters in the Soviet Union.
So, yeah, there’s a lot of plot. Arguably too much plot, even. The second part of the season is roughly four hours, and a lot of it feels flabby. Every hairsbreadth escape is drawn out for minutes longer than it needs to be, and the effort to tie together the three or four major narrative strands get increasingly labored by the end. In this quintessential Netflix series, there is a lot of Netflix bloat.
America vs. Anti-America
Still, beneath all the tangling and thrashing and bloating, you can make out that basic invasion storyline. The Upside Down is a bleak, evil mirror image of good American Hawkins. It’s inhabited by a hive mind, like the pods in the 1950's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other Cold War classics. The ant-like, deindividualized invaders will assimilate the good God-fearing Americans, swallowing them in the gray, dead cold of Socialism.
The series complicates that blueprint in some interesting ways. First, the Soviet Union shows up as an actual historical state as well as a metaphor. The USSR in Stranger Things is grey, cold, and ugly like the Upside Down. Soviet officials try to harness Demogorgon monsters for their own nefarious purposes.
But inevitably the monster-harnessing goes awry, and the Soviets end up having to defend their own bleak motherland from the even bleaker Upside Down. The nightmare USSR of the American imagination is worse than the real USSR, and threatens to eat it.
The Soviets aren’t all bad. By the same token, wholesome Americana isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. US government intelligence agencies are trying to kill El because they think she’s the cause of the invasion. And in Hawkins the basketball team jocks decide that a D&D club is an evil cult; their moral panic ends up inadvertently aiding Vecna. Some Americans don’t even need to be assimilated to join the evil hive mind.
It makes sense that Stranger Things scrambles Cold War good guys and bad guys. After all, the Soviet Union fell apart three decades ago. In retrospect, the USSR looks like much less of a threat, while America’s internal problems loom larger. Vecna’s evil gothic slime oozes over the metaphor, turning it soggy and indistinct. Is the Upside Down our terrifying global rival, threatening the homeland? Or is it our evil double, the ugly nether America which wants to colonize our better instincts?
Everything You’re Afraid of All At Once
It doesn’t have to be one or the other, of course. Part of the fun of horror is that it doesn’t stick to any one fear. Cold War paranoia; adolescent fears of not belonging; self-loathing; being icked out by bats—you can dump them all in the Upside Down together. And then, like Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), you can look badass while shooting them in the face with a sawed-off shotgun.
It is notable, though, just how obsessively Stranger Things—and for that matter the MCU with its Loki‘s and Thanos's—returns again and again to the theme of invasion. It’s been a couple hundred years since the US faced a credible threat of occupation by a foreign power. But the image of someone like the USSR marching or crawling into some American town and stripping rights, dignity, and joy from the landscape remains indelible.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that, yep, part two ends with that same fear, the grey Upside Down overwhelming Indiana, complete with fire and eerie, drifting non-snow. It’s almost like we miss the USSR. Who do you fight when the boogeyman’s gone? The answer to that is depressing enough that you can expect Vecna, or something like him, to come back for many more seasons of Stranger Things.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Featured Image Courtesy of Netflix.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.