Poignant moments show the long-term psychological damage and surviving-another-dimension complex the characters face post-Upside Down
Warning: do not read if you haven’t watched Stranger Things 2 yet
Stranger Things’s second season delivers on the binge-inducing entertainment its rigorous marketing campaign promised; it’s funny and tense without unbalancing the jokes or scares, remaining gleefully nostalgic without being saccharine. What distinguishes this season, and by virtue surpasses its predecessor, is its nuanced foregrounding of the trauma and loss following the last showdown with the Upside Down. Its portrayal isn’t as simplistic as a “the REAL monster is trauma” style McGuffin; trauma is engrained into the fabric of the show, dictating both its action and character dynamics.
Will’s PTSD is the most explicit example of the show’s trauma, which the Duffer brothers manipulate so that it’s still tastefully sensitive while serving the plot meaningfully. As the season begins Will is undergoing rehabilitative therapy, suffering zone-outs and numbing, and experiencing flashbacks which later turn out to be “now memories,” mental teleportation to the Upside/Down. It’s a poignant illustration of conventional PTSD symptoms presented under a supernatural lens, a psychological study disguised as a sci-fi adventure. At the end of episode five when the Upside/Down gunk is burned by government drones and Will, squealing, imitates its pain, the scene evokes PTSD’s most dissociative reactions; when the sufferer isn’t just reliving memories of trauma, but reliving its destabilising immediacy anew.
Nancy’s survivor’s guilt over Barb’s death is also critical to the season’s narrative. Despite only two episodes and barely a dozen lines of dialogue to her name, Barb became a meme icon last year because of her relatable self-deprecation and Shannon Purser’s charismatic performance. Forgotten in her memeification was the blunt actuality of Barb’s death, and the Duffers brutally affirm this when Nancy and Steven have dinner with Barb’s parents early on this season, revealing the bereaved couple as selling their house to afford a private detective to search for a body absent from their dimension. Nancy’s guilt isolates her from Steve and her family, feeling unable to enjoy the trivial fun of teenage house parties.
She teams up with the also-distressed Jonathan to bring down the government suits accountable for Barb’s death, with assistance from the crackpot journalist Murray Bauman; a morally brave endeavour, but also a form of therapy. With the perpetrators finally held responsible, but the nature of their daughter’s death still unknown to her parents, Nancy’s arc ends as redemptive but incomplete, an almost-vindication, a near-justice, that’s more enthralling for its lack of resolution. It forces Nancy to confront the possibility that her guilt might endure, that true closure will never happen.
“The season’s undercurrents not only instil greater emotional depth to the characters, but subvert the ‘return to (relative) normalcy’ trope which typifies so many popular sci-fi shows – Doctor Who, Star Trek, Buffy”
This psychological murkiness isn’t reserved for Will and Nancy, and the town itself assumes a collective trauma that manifests itself in different ways. The boys – Mike, Dustin, and Lucas – struggle to reconcile their love for morally unambiguous, happy-ending fantasy stories with the idea that Will might never fully recover from his experiences. Joyce is seemingly doomed to a life of paranoia and fear for Will’s wellbeing, which the Duffers emphasise with a red herring scene early on enabled by unsettling music and abrupt editing before revealing Will’s safety. Hopper’s own trauma over losing his daughter was revived by finding, losing, and subsequently again finding Eleven in the first season, and his own dread of losing this surrogate daughter is evoked in how obsessively protective he is, and it nearly destroys their relationship.
Those most indirectly affected by last season – Steve, and Nancy and Mike’s parents for example – benefit from the experiential distance of the ordeal, and try to simply forget and move on, yet this self-imposed amnesia alienates them from their less fortunate loved ones. Shared trauma even precipitates intimacy between characters, with Jonathan and Nancy’s growing romance.
Quite subtly, the season’s undercurrents not only instil greater emotional depth to the characters, but subvert the “return to (relative) normalcy” trope which typifies so many popular sci-fi shows, including Doctor Who, Star Trek, and to an extent, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. From their uncompromising approach to Barb’s death to the haunting final image of the Shadow Monster, the show’s universe bleakly and persistently demonstrates that decisions and events have tangible, sometimes irreparable, consequences on our characters’ welfare, raising the narrative stakes and deepening our investment. The primary plotline of an alien hive mind is almost uninteresting by comparison, a service to the processes of trauma rather than the season’s Big Bad.
It could have been so easy for the Duffers, so convenient. They could have shrugged off the first season’s consequences with a throwaway line or an underwritten exposition monologue; they could have contrived to resurrect Barb; they could have indulged in torrents of aggressive pop culture winks. It’s to their credit, and the show’s inarguable benefit, that they explored a darker, more provocative, and ultimately more fulfilling, dimension.