“You have got to understand that there are consequences to your actions.” This is what Hopper, steeling himself to be stern, tells El after her takes away her TV a few minutes into “Chapter Four: Will The Wise,” and at least three calendar seasons into her confinement at Hopper’s cabin.
There are consequences to Hopper’s actions, too. Taking away TV forever would be distressing for lots of kids, but for El, it’s particularly punishing. The cabin’s staticky old television is more than El’s only source of entertainment; it’s her only channel to the outside world, or so she thinks.
But losing her one known means of escape isn’t what sets off El’s telekinetic rampage. It’s Hopper threatening—taunting, even—to send her back to Hawkins Lab that does it. Even if Hopper doesn’t mean it (and it’s hard to believe he could, though he’s risking his own life and his town’s safety to harbor her), that’s a terrible piece of emotional blackmail to drop on a child in your protection.
Hopper’s reaction seems overblown at first. But what if it’s not El comparing him to Dr. Brenner that triggers his anger? What if it’s something else, something buried deeper? What if it’s her words: “You are like Papa”?
Among the boxes marked “New York” and “Vietnam” that El uncovers in the cabin’s hidden cellar, there’s also a box marked “Sara.” Surely that’s where Hopper dug up the copy of Anne Of Green Gables he reads to El at night, just as he read it at Sara’s hospital bedside. As the first season shows, memories of his late daughter Sara—and especially memories of her illness and death—are both deeply buried and quick to surface.
Placed in the larger context of season two, Hopper’s season-finale flashbacks to his daughter feel less nakedly manipulative and more honest. That’s because Stranger Things, though it’s mastered both loving allusions and carefully built scares, isn’t really about those homages, or even about fear. Under the surface, Stranger Things is about grief and loss. It’s about trauma. It’s about secrets—who keeps them, who doesn’t, and the cost of keeping them.
It’s all there from the very first chapter. Even before Will disappears, Joyce Byers is a single mother on the edge. Hopper is introduced in a welter of beer cans and prescription bottles. Jonathan has the haunted eyes of a young man growing up too fast. Lucas talks about “’Nam” with odd fluency, as if he’s heard more about it than a kid really should. Even the bright coziness of Mike and Nancy’s house is undercut by their parents’ prickly dynamic as they alternately ignore and scoff at each other. Throughout Hawkins, there are murky secrets just under the surface, and not just at Hawkins Lab. As dangerous as it might be to spill those secrets, it’s even worse to keep them buried.
As “Chapter Four: Will The Wise” opens, Joyce makes Will promise, “No more secrets.” “‘Friends don’t lie,’ isn’t that your bullshit saying?” Hopper jibes at El after she returns from a forbidden trip outside. But for Dr. Owens, the only way to correct the overstepping of his predecessors (quoting George Sarton, he describes their disastrous experiments as “abundant mistakes”) is to keep burning back the tendrils that threaten to escape… and to be just as ruthless with anyone or anything that threatens to expose their secrets.
Max’s biggest beef with her four new friends is that they “keep secrets like we’re in second grade.” “Did you keep secrets from El?” she asks Lucas, whose shock that she knows about El at all only underlines how thoroughly they’re trying (and failing) to keep Max in the dark. She can’t be expected to believe their assurance that it’s for her own safety. Lots of kids feel like their secrets are life-and-death, but for the Hawkins Middle School A. V. club, they really are.
That’s what makes the scariest scenes of “Will The Wise” so potent, and so chilling. They aren’t jump scares with monsters lurking around the corner. They’re the slow, creeping chill of dread.
It’s chilling to hear Will, usually so gentle and reserved, proclaim “He likes it cold.” But that strong voice and resolute tone of demand are far more striking for following on the heels of Will’s silent, solitary terror as he approaches the warm bath his mother has drawn. Throughout the first season, Millie Bobby Brown did more with a glance or a gesture than most adult actors can do with a monologue; now Noah Schnapp is following in her footsteps. He breathes quiet panic into Will’s whole body: Breath wracks his slim frame, his eyes widen in terror, his posture is both crumpled and curiously tense.
Even Mr. Clarke’s prosaic classroom lecture, playing over Will’s slow approach to the steaming bath, underscores the central theme of the season. As Mr. Clarke outlines for his class “the signs of the physical and emotional state we call fear,” Will demonstrates them for the audience. Whatever is occupying Will’s body, it recoils from hot water.
Later, Dustin enacts a similar scene as he approaches the closet where he hears Dart feasting on the corpse of Mews, the Henderson family’s cat. (I wasn’t counting on this payoff coming so fast or being quite this clearly filmed. The inert hunching of Mews’ body as Dart lunges in to feed is uncomfortably vivid.) To differential the scene from Will’s, Gaten Matarazzo nicely underplays Dustin’s sudden horror. As he inches toward the closet from which Dart’s grotesque gurgles emanate, his shoulders visibly rise and fall, but it’s the sudden absence of light from his eyes that makes Dustin’s fear palpable.
Dustin’s alarm at what he’ll find in the closet is entirely rational, and Will’s fear of the hot bath is just as practical, even if it’s a fear imposed by his parasitic passenger. But many of the fears in Hawkins, Indiana, aren’t immediate or practical. Many are never even spoken of. From its first chapter, Stranger Things lingers tacitly on the traumas and troubles people carry around silently inside them, shaping their actions and their reactions.
People respond to trauma in different ways, but one common description of trauma and stress-related disorders, and the aspect that makes them so punishing, is that real-life flashbacks aren’t memories or thoughts. A flashback thrusts the sufferer into a traumatizing event or period. As Will tells Joyce, each “episode” isn’t a thought or a reflection or a dream. It’s “a now memory.”
Like living with a mysterious monster looming over you in an empty sky, or with a governmental agency tracking your every move, living with devastating secrets or stifled horrors isn’t just living with the memory of danger. It’s the utter absence of any sense of safety. When you cannot exorcise your terrors, they are always with you, lurking underneath moments of peace or joy, waiting to turn your world upside down.
Hopper’s got the right idea, and so does Nancy. Secrets like the ones these characters are keeping are poisonous. That’s not only because lies erode relationship. It’s because secrets as nightmarish as the ones all these characters are burying inside themselves are toxic. The only way to deal with them is to dig them up, air them out, or burn them to the ground.
- Baby Demogorgon is never going to be as popular as Muppet Babies, but as a spin-off, it’s got (wait for it) legs.
- Dr. Owens is perfectly genial right until the moment when he threatens to immolate Nancy and Jonathan.
- As a someone who’s grappled with PTSD, I find Stranger Things’ portrayal of flashbacks—not as memories, but as unpredictable, uncontrolled immersion in past moments of terror—thoroughly convincing.
- As soon as Hopper dug into that pumpkin patch, early-’80s Tom Hanks deep cut Mazes And Monsters shot to the top of my to-watch list, but after 30 minutes I decided I never need to see it again. Neither do you, I wager.
- Dig Dug as Max and Dustin’s game of choice has extra meaning now that Hopper’s shouldered that shovel. I’m hoping the same isn’t true for Centipede.