Stranger Things made Eggos into a meme and the most essential Halloween accessory of the past two years. It reintroduced the world to the wonders of the defunct Farrah Fawcett Fabergé Organics hair-care line, an array of products it could now probably resurrect as merch. It offered up the case for Dungeons & Dragons as not just a role-playing game, but a useful analogy for decoding the impending apocalypse. Yet the biggest brand refresh the Duffer brothers' Netflix series has attempted isn’t on behalf of a product, but rather a group of people. For two seasons now, Stranger Things has been an ongoing venture to rehabilitate the nerd.
Bringing our culture back to an understanding of nerds as underdogs that everyone can root for is no small achievement in 2017, when the concept of the nerd has become so ascendant as to barely be a meaningful identity anymore, and simultaneously so toxic that the resentful gatekeepers of nerdom who remain are more likely to be associated with doxxing and death threats than with, say, the superhero movies that everyone watches. Between GamerGate, the annual onslaught of angry “Puppies” determined to hijack the Hugo Awards, the James Damore memo, and the endless plethora of online rants about SJWs ruining the world, the connotations of modern-day nerdiness have more to do with persecution complexes and bullying than being socially rejected or bullied.
In returning us to a simpler time, when an all-encompassing obsession with sci-fi and fantasy was still something that could get you thrown into a locker, Stranger Things provides a form of escapism that has nothing to do with alternate dimensions. It invites viewers to indulge in the sweet self-righteousness that can come with getting excluded for being uncool. That's a delicate, dicey feat that the series mostly managed to pull off in its first season. But in its second, there’s significantly more present-day baggage weighing it down.
Jocks rule and nerds drool in the fictional '80s of Hawkins, Indiana. Stranger Things is awash with longing for the way a shared love of unhip things (like Tolkien and dressing up as Ghostbusters) can be a badge of honor and a secret language among its main characters, but also — in a way that feels a little perverse — nostalgic for the straightforward injustice of being derided because of that love. This worked best when it focused on the intense bond between Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and the missing Will (Noah Schnapp), depicting them as friends so close that they lived in their own slightly tweaked reality. It wasn't just the closed world of relatively unsupervised kids, but one that primed them to believe in, and gave them vocabulary to understand, the monster other characters take longer to come around on.
And it was a world that was, at least in its first season, aimed to feel intimate while also being earnestly welcoming. The strangest thing about Stranger Things is that it's a mainstream show that looks back fondly to a time when something like it would be hopelessly niche. In 2017, most of the series’ unapologetic throwback movie references aren't obscure at all — from Jurassic Park to E.T. to Gremlins to Firestarter to It, the show’s bar for entry in spotting homages is set intentionally, invitingly low. It's able to generate an atmosphere that's as cozy as it is creepy because it's bent on welcoming everyone into its band of outsiders.
At least, that's the idea. But it’s telling that the Duffers underestimated the degree to which viewers would latch on to Barb (Shannon Purser), who became a runaway internet favorite based on very little screentime. Poor, doomed Barb — sitting by herself on that diving board in her mom fashions while the popular kids canoodled inside — emerged as a poignant, acutely relatable figure for anyone who's ever been left behind by a friend's changing social status. The short shrift given to her death, especially when compared to the seemingly communitywide search for Will, was evidence that while she, like the main kids, was an outcast, she was not the right kind of outcast — or at least not the kind of outcast the series' creators thought anyone would be invested in. The second season worked hard to enact justice for Barb, delving into Nancy's (Natalia Dyer) guilt over her best friend's death and introducing Barb's parents and their grief-stricken search for closure. But there are other new, even bigger fractures in the bubble of inclusive outsiderness the show has struggled to maintain.
Puberty turned out to be an even more trying antagonist than the evil entity looming large on the horizon of the Upside Down. The monster merely wanted to take over and destroy the world as the characters knew it. Puberty, far more pernicious, sent the show drifting back toward retrograde gender norms and character patterns it had previously managed to avoid, ones in which the (male) nerd always gets rewarded with romance. It's a stereotype the series initially subverted in its sweet central relationship of Mike and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), because Eleven wasn't just the girl, she was also the creature — a dynamic that was genuinely unpredictable, and sometimes (like when she broke the arm of that bully in Season 1) unsettling, as if the kid in The Iron Giant somehow ended up dating the robot.
But the second season ended with a series of pairings off at the Snow Ball that felt a lot more traditional — a blithely heteronormative happy ending that also came depressingly close to presenting romance as recompense for its characters’ heroism. Mike and Eleven were dramatically reunited, and Lucas got a slow dance and a kiss of his own with new arrival Max (Sadie Sink). Sink, who is 15, said she felt uncomfortable about shooting the kiss, which wasn’t originally in the script — a fact that apparently only made the Duffers more eager to include it. Dustin, left on the wrong end of that love triangle, instead scored a dance with Nancy, who assured him that eventually he'd be a ladykiller. "Girls this age are...dumb," she advised. "But give them a few years and they'll wise up. You're going to drive them nuts." Even Will — bowl cut, recently possessed pallor and all — ended up sharing an at-arm's-length shuffle with some unnamed partner.
What's jarring here isn’t so much the sudden onset of puppy love between characters who were strongly coded as children last year (that’s middle school for you) but rather the one-sided neatness of it. It feels like the narrative’s concern is distributing kisses and reassurances of desirability to its young men — the romantic affirmation they apparently “deserve” after their trials and tribulations — rather than dealing with all of its characters evenhandedly.
To watch Season 2 of Stranger Things through its end is to watch signs of present-day cultural toxicity approach like shark fins poking out of the water. Eleven and Max get left with the tension between them unresolved, as if there's only room for one token female in the party and they'll have to vie for the spot. Mike fake-geek-girls Max when she suggests her role in the group can be that of the non-D&D-approved "zoomer." And Dustin walks away with the message that eventually women will wise up and throw themselves at his more deserving feet, a pernicious assurance that can blossom into ugly, unfounded entitlement.
And why wouldn't he take it to heart, when it's an expectation the series also underscores in the relationships of its older characters? Before Bob (Sean Astin) meets his gruesome end, his romance with Joyce (Winona Ryder) serves as a middle-aged fulfillment of Nancy’s prophecy, proving that the onetime founder of the Hawkins AV Club can eventually attain the girl he crushed on from afar as a teen. Nancy herself drifts into the arms of the dreary Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), not out of any evident attraction but because she seems to eventually surrender to the idea that it's her narrative destiny, as someone caught between the prom king and the moody loner.
When investigator–conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) rather creepily engineers the inevitable Jonathan-Nancy hookup midway through the season, it feels like these problems with the season are getting conveniently restaged in miniature, storylines driven by the creators' sense of obligation rather than the characters themselves. Nancy turns to Jonathan just when it makes the least sense, just as her soon-to-be-former boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery) is completing his unexpected transformation from luxuriant-maned jerk to stealth hero of the second season, becoming a chaperone, protector, and source of advice to some of the younger characters. It's not just that we don't see why Nancy is drawn to Jonathan; it's that Steve has become so much more interesting.
The fact that Keery was promoted to series regular in the second season after winning over fans in the first would seem to suggest that the Duffers have a better grasp on Steve's appeal than they ever did on Barb’s. Steve atones for his past misdeeds, changes his priorities, and, when the time comes, allows Nancy to break his heart without putting up a fight. And it’s noticeable that he shifts in more significant ways than any of the other characters, most of whom don't feel like they've been maturing so much as coming around to the spots already marked out for them.
That Steve is the only figure who defies his preordained type speaks to how central types are to Stranger Things — and in this season, to an extent that feels constrictive. The trouble with insisting that it’s the nice guy who ultimately gets the girl is that it relieves the nice guy of any need to change; he can just wait for the world, and the girl, to catch up with him. Stranger Things may have set out to rehab the nerd, but it's losing sight of the fact that we're all nerds now, and no one gets excused from having to grow up. ●
Alison Willmore is a film critic for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Willmore at email@example.com.
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