Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you may have heard of a little show that’s fast becoming a cult classic before our very eyes. There is one reason that might explain its success more than anything else.
Stranger Things is easily one of the most binge-worthy shows available for streaming, and it has been praised for its amazing cast, production design, mesmerizing soundtrack, and above all, its masterful storytelling.
And yet, there is something else going, too.
I couldn’t put my finger on it after season one, but it seems pretty clear to me how remarkably different it is at its core from so much of what is out there.
If you are an optimist like me, the choices in your entertainment have been slim for going on two decades now. And escapism is not what I’m talking about.
9/11 certainly had a lot to do with it, but it’s been going on for a while. If I think back to films in the nineties, it was a weird mix of Stoicism and Nihilism, along with absurd escapism. I think of Silence of the Lambs on the one hand, and Twister on the other. I loved them both, but they come from totally different worlds.
Stranger Things is not simply Spielbergian nostalgia porn with an objectively stellar cast and top notch production quality.
It is a reminder that cynicism is a dangerous choice.
Season one features many examples, such as Joyce holding steadfast in her belief that her son is still alive, even when no one has a rational basis for believing or supporting her. There are also several redemptive arcs, like Steve going from bully to hero in the first season alone.
The whole shows asks that question: At the end of the day, based on everything you have been through, what kind of person are you going to choose to become?
And these characters have definitely been through hell.
Jim Hopper became a divorced alcoholic after his daughter died of cancer. Joyce left an abusive relationship, and almost lost her son as well. Nancy lost her best friend. And most importantly, Eleven. Her entire childhood is pretty messed up.
And yet, even these characters endure. In fact, in Eleven’s case, they thrive. Much of season two’s arc is devoted to whether or not Eleven is ready to face the world of consequences. Her arc is actually the thing that got me to realize that this whole show is about choices, and not random acts of cruelty from an unfeeling universe.
When faced with an ethics question, the characters are rewarded for taking a deontological approach, rather than a consequenstialist approach. In philosophy, deontology refers to morality as a priori, meaning pre-existing. So something can be wrong regardless of outcome if it is originally wrong, such as in the question: “Is it wrong to kill a child in order to save 1,000 other lives?” A deontologist answers no because the original act of killing is wrong.
This very scenario is presented to Sam Owens, the Hawkins Lab exec that seems to actually have some kind of a conscience. He opts not to continue burning the vines, much to the chagrin of his colleagues, because of the effect it will have on Will.
Hopper is a character that starts off as a consequentialist, believing that the potential harm that could befall Eleven were she to become discovered is far too great a risk, and so imprisonment seems like a just choice. By the end, he discovers the error in this thinking, to the point that letting her go to a school dance seems like the right thing to do.
Consequentialism is often seen as being more realistic or objective or reasonable, because in the real world, there are consequences to every action. It seems selfish and sometimes cruel to allow great harm to come to others for the sake of a possibly flawed, pre-existing morality. And yet, Stranger Things seems to reward the latter.
Spielberg seems to have been almost too good at this sort of deontological challenge. The moment we see the giant mudpile in Roy’s living room in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it challenges us. The pursuit of truth is considered ethically just, and placed by the protagonist above all other things. It results in social alienation, but he is rewarded in the end for it. Most of his films have this sort of arc in them.
And the fact that the characters in Stranger Things are rewarded for taking a deontological view means that the show is Romantic, preferring to see the world as existing with purpose and a clear sense of right and wrong from the beginning. It is the opposite of Nihilism. It is compatible with Stoicism, even if the very idea of looking to the past seems to be at odds with it. And there are moments of Existentialism, like just after Hopper is saved from death by the vines, but this philosophical relationship is mostly fleeting throughout the series.
Mostly, the series seems to be saying that, regardless of your experience, you can choose to change yourself and the world around you. It suggests that inaction is a sin, and knowledge is a virtue.
The way knowledge is treated throughout the second season is truly remarkable. On the one hand, too much knowledge, given to people that are not ready to receive it, can be a very dangerous thing. Eleven is a big part of that. Usually, though, this is seen as overwhelmingly positive, as when Bob is introduced to Joyce’s puzzle for the first time, and when Eleven meets her mother.
Knowledge also introduces the virtue of pragmatism into the mix, leaving the door open to having one’s moral views amended. Case in point is just before Eleven makes her decision to take a different path than Kali by not killing one of the men responsible for torturing her and her mother. Being given new information about the existence of children of his own affects her judgment of the situation.
It will be interesting to see how the show continues to explore the idea of how knowledge influences behavior, as it so often does. The fact that the Hawkins Lab exec is fully humanized by the end of the season is a remarkable experiment to this end.
In the beginning, he is the big bad antagonist that is in the way of our heroes, and is to be blamed for the ongoing operations. As we get to know him, we are tempted to put ourselves in his shoes, until we are asking that same question: Is it wrong to keep this a secret, knowing it will cause panic to tell everyone?
Some movies and shows never bother showing its audience anything more that a probable scenario in which the decision is made to keep it secret until it’s too late. This reflects that cynicism I talked about at the beginning.
We’ve grown accustomed to storylines in which a group of anonymous men behind a curtain are keeping secret knowledge hidden from the masses, and so it is not questioned that this information will never see the light of day. It is “naive”, as one character puts it, to expect it to be any other way.
But this just begs the question: Is there anything wrong with that? Most people, if you asked them whether they think the world is getting better or worse, would answer quite negatively. They would also concur that most people scare easy. So perhaps this really is a good thing?
Stranger Things doesn’t seem to suggest that keeping this sort of thing a secret is a good thing, but taking the time to humanize the man in charge suggests that the opposite might not be true either. There is this grey area involving human action that must be addressed, which has no clear path. The show is an exploration of many philosophies, but it definitely accepts that there is a meaning to our existence.
When you see the unexpected success of films like Wonder Woman this year and Zootopia last year — both films with a refreshingly optimistic yet reasonable worldview about human behavior — it starts to look like there may be a shift happening.
We’ve had years of deconstructionist superhero movies, gritty and ultra-violent war movies, and depressingly ironic, awkward comedies. Feel-good, escapist spectacle has been with us since the dawn of cinema, but the zeitgeist of optimism comes and goes.
Stranger Things suggests that, when done right, and even despite our rather cynical society in general at present, we are looking for someone to just tell us we’re going to be alright. And that’s not that crazy when you think about it.