For most people, Halloween is a day for pretending, for throwing off the everyday and dressing up as someone or something outlandish, spectacular, or spooky. But on Stranger Things, kids and adults alike have had too much of the outlandish, the spectacular, and especially the spooky. They’re busy pretending to be normal.
Pretending to be normal, whatever “normal” is, isn’t always a bad strategy. As Dr. Owens tells Joyce Byers in the season premiere, treating Will “normally” as the anniversary of his terrible adventure approaches and his episodes intensify lets him decide how to handle his trauma. If this were really PTSD and not something far stranger, that just might work.
For Eleven, who’s spent most of the past year cooped up in Hopper’s cabin, the urge to go outside and see other people, even if she has to hide under an old-fashioned ghost costume, is natural. She’s a fugitive, but she’s also a kid, a kid who never sees anyone but her stand-in father, a kid who spends long days and evenings watching TV alone and flashing back to her own harrowing memories. Dressing up as a ghost, so no one could see her, would really mean dressing up like a normal kid—and maybe reconnecting with her friends for one night. Hopper’s attempt to compromise is understandable, but it falls short of El’s real needs even before he shows up late and nearly empty-handed.
Even after his speech in “Madmax” convincing Will that normal is boring and “being a freak is the best!,” Jonathan tries to pretend, too. Instead of taking the four Ghostbusters trick-or-treating like he promises Joyce, Jonathan drops Will off at the Maple St. cul-de-sac and heads to a party. (Their Ghostbusters costumes are perfect and not too perfect, exactly the kind of outfits dedicated nerds would spend weeks designing and decking out, with a little help from devoted parents.) Halloween’s a rare chance for Jonathan to let his kid brother feel normal, and for Jonathan to try to feel normal, too.
Letting Will trick-or-treat without him is a mistake. Will isn’t the kid he used to be, whose biggest concerns were bullies and D&D campaigns. Will is traumatized. Worse, Will is apparently still tethered to the Upside Down. When a trio of big kids jump out to scare him, he falls down… and falls into that terrifying, lonely landscape. As Will stares up in horror, the mammoth shape of his visions unfurls its hideous mass, blocking out the night sky.
“This isn’t a normal family,” Joyce tells Bob when he offers to move them all to his parent’s house in Maine. “It could be,” he tells her gently. But if Bob is the regular guy he seems to be, he doesn’t understand. He can’t understand. No kindly, clueless stepdad could repair the unspoken damage that dogs the Byers family.
We know it’s unspoken because the government agencies keeping tabs on them won’t let them speak about it. When Nancy wants to spill the truth about Barb—or just half of the truth!—to the Hollands, Steve reminds her exactly what could happen, to them, to their families. “They can do anything they want,” he reminds her. Instead of telling the dangerous truth, Steve urges her to just pretend… pretend to be normal teenagers, just for Halloween. His recipe for coping with a year of repressed guilt and unprocessed fear is [Dustin, drumroll, please] more repression.
Steve’s plan to be normal teenagers blows up in his face. Forced to put on a happy face and a cheerful costume (she’s Rebecca De Mornay from Risky Business), Nancy drowns her guilt in spiked punch. When Steve finally tries to stop her, splashing bright red punch all over her white sweater, she bursts into a drunken tirade against the “bullshit” of pretending things are normal, of pretending they’re regular teenagers at a party, of pretending they’re in love. “You’re bullshit,” she tells him with slurred deliberation.
That’s what happens when you force yourself to pretend that everything’s normal: The lid blows off. There is no more “normal” for these folks, not yet. Things might calm down, and they might get better. They usually do, Hopper promises Joyce. But for these people, things will never go back to their old version of “normal.” Not for Will, not for Joyce and Jonathan, not for Mike, not for Hopper and El, not for Nancy and Steve. They’ve seen something—somewhere—beyond belief. And they’ve learned that people, and governments, can be more monstrous and inescapable than any supernatural creature. Maybe they can pretend with their peers and their neighbors, but they can’t pretend with each other and they shouldn’t have to. Trying and failing to feel normal will just make them all feel more and more disconnected and destabilized.
In the end, Mike and Will have the right idea. “If we’re both going crazy, we’ll go crazy together, right?” Feeling understood is better than feeling “normal.” That’s why Joyce connects so easily with Hopper; it’s why Will and Mike can connect over their wildly different experiences of hiding in the Upside Down and hiding El. When there’s no way to feel normal, the next best thing is having someone you trust going crazy with you.
- Judging by Dustin’s expression, whatever blows the lid off that garbage can is more intriguing than terrifying. At least for now.
- Is Will having flashbacks or visions of the Upside Down, or is Will flickering out of this world and into another? When Mike tracks down Will cowering from the hideous shape in the sky, he yells, “I couldn’t find you!” Maybe that means Will disappeared behind the brick wall too quickly for Mike to notice, or maybe it means Will slipped into another realm for a few seconds.
- “C-O-M-promise,” Hopper explains, showing that he understands how important a promise is to El, and how large the word looms in her limited experience with friends.
- Bob really does love Kenny Rogers!
- Stranger Things continues its run of quiet allusions to genre classics, from El’s choice of costume to the names of the other afflicted pumpkin farmers.
- Max dismisses the boys as “stalkers,” a term that wouldn’t have been common use in 1984, but as I mentioned in season one, sometimes period shows use anachronistic language to concisely express an idea.
- “Girls On Film” plays as Jonathan arrives at Tina’s Halloween party, a nod to his season-one voyeurism.
- Hopper to his deputies: “I want you to track the rot, see how far it goes.” I think we all know the rot goes way past Hawkins Lab and all the way to the Upside Down.