From Criticising the US Government to (In)Directly Praising It: “Stranger Things” Over the Seasons

Stranger Things 2024
Image Source: Variety

During my yearly rewatch of ‘Stranger Things’, I noticed quite a dramatic shift in terms of tone
and content between seasons 2 and 3. I’m not sure how I hadn’t noticed it before because now
that I have seen it, I can’t un-see it.

What was the tone shift I noticed? Well, seasons 1 and 2 quite heavy-handedly criticise the US
government and depict them as the overarching big bad of the narrative. Season 1 has the young
kids attempting to escape Eleven’s captors – her ‘papa’, head of the secret government lab that
held her captive and tried to train her telekinetic powers for nefarious purposes – and the older
kids escaping a government mistake, the ‘Demogorgon’, which managed to flee the alternate
dimension that the government types were poking around in.

Of course said poking around lead to the death of a Hawkins teen Barbara Holland, and the disappearance of Will Byers. Season 2 is the continuation of this storyline which explores all of the aftermath of the season prior: how the government tried to cover up what happened, how they have no control over the situation, and whether meaning to or not this time, are actively making things worse.

Season 2 also explores the emotional effects of the trauma endured during the first season at the hands of the government. So why do seasons 3 and 4 seemingly take a 180-degree turn and change the big bad to the scary evil Russians and a dark magical wizard, completely erasing the first two seasons’ setup of
the Upside Down being a fault crafted at the hands of the US government? This is seemingly a result of several reasons, though not all make little to no sense.

Something that Stranger Things heavily relies on to bring in viewership is 80s nostalgia. After all, this
was the gimmick that drew audiences in at the time of its initial release in 2016. At the time, there
weren’t many nostalgic TV shows on the air or available via streaming services. It more or less
singlehandedly set the trend of 80s nostalgia in the late 2010s.

A key element of 80s nostalgia is the rise in capitalist consumerism thanks to the invention of the
shopping mall. So, it wasn’t completely unexpected for the inclusion of ‘Starcourt Mall’ and to
have a main storyline focus on such a location in the third season. What was slightly more
unexpected, however, was how the mall and everything it stood for was portrayed,
i.e., American capitalist values. This isn’t even subtext at this point, it’s explicit in the text.

Another focal point of the series is the Cold War which is present in seasons 1 to 3, and for some
reason disappears in the fourth season, only portraying Hopper as a prisoner in a soviet prison.
The first two seasons mention it a few times and it’s not a main focal point, but present in the
storyline. The ‘Russians’ (used interchangeably with Soviets, presumably to mean the USSR
government) aren’t the big-bag evil people, they’re simply another example of villainy because
they are a government. They are, interestingly, depicted on the same side as the first two seasons’
big bad, the US government.

This all changes in season 3 when the Russians are the main villain and suddenly we’re all
supposed to care about being ‘American’ and supporting ‘our country’ because look at all of the
good it’s done us so far. Weird, right?

What’s weirder is that season 4 continues with this strange whiplash of who the ‘real’ villain is.
Towards the season’s finale, it’s revealed that the true mastermind behind everything is actually
Vecna/Henry/One, a boy who grew up in the same lab as Eleven, who became a dark wizard and
is plotting to take over the world because of revenge or something. It gets quite convoluted. Whilst one of the villains to the narrative of season 4 is a strand of government officials hunting Eleven because they think she’s behind the string of murders in Hawkins, it’s more framed as a misunderstanding than it is a malicious entity in the seasons prior. So, what happened to the US government being the overarching villain?

In my seasoned and professional opinion, I think as the show grew in popularity to one of
the defining and most popular programmes of the 2010s/2020s, the Duffers and Netflix or
whoever’s in charge decided that the show needed to appeal to mass audiences and popular
advertisers, thus having to conform to less risky financially speaking messages, lest they offend
certain audiences with spending power and advertising bodies. I mean, the criminally obvious sponsors only started appearing in seasons 3 and 4. Just think how many times there were close-up shots of Coke or how many characters are wearing a pair of Reebok trainers.

In conclusion, Stranger Things sold out. Sort of. They sold out just enough so that they could
guarantee huge viewership and advertising money, whilst still having enough surface-level weirdness
to mimic what made the show originally attractive to viewers: a group of weirdos coming together
to save the world. Because that’s truly what’s at the heart of the show, whether or not the
message has been diluted or modified over time, it still has enough of its original charm to still be
redeemable. I can only hope in season 5 they take another 180 and start slandering the US
government again.