Even as our favourite American TV shows are owned and trademarked by enormous conglomerates with massive influence over the entertainment industry, prestige television has often been shy about interrogating where it comes from. Yet the latest season of Netflix’s biggest hit, Stranger Things, chooses quite openly to buck that trend. Stranger Things remains primarily the story of scrappy outsiders in small town America fighting monsters from another dimension, but as its narrative progresses into the midpoint of its nostalgically-rendered 1980s, the show appears to be unable to hide any longer from its wider political context.
The thematic choice is a surprising one, given the firmly apolitical bent of Stranger Things’ first two seasons. There might have been something potentially provocative in its presentation of American scientists and bureaucrats operating in the heart of the heartland as antagonists, but the links between Hawkins Lab and the American government itself were hazily defined at best, allowing the shady bad guys to be enjoyed in isolation from political critique. Season three recycles the theme of the evil which lurks within, placing its secret lab beneath Starcourt mall, the institution of neon-drenched capitalism which becomes a key location for the fight against the Mind Flayer, but it flips the script with its human villains. The nefarious force of season three is the famous bugbear of 1980s American pop culture, the Soviet Union – and unlike the obfuscated ideologies of Stranger Things’ American villains, its Soviet bad guys are absolutely and continuously connected with the wider political apparatus which they serve. There aren’t any particularly identifiable villains like Matthew Modine’s Dr. Brenner – the Soviet Union is an unintelligible sea of absolute conformity to Communist ideology. The one character Stranger Things chooses to delineate is Alexei, a likeably goofy defector, who is motivated primarily for a desire to participate in American capitalism, be it cherry-flavoured (and only cherry) slushies or a Fourth of July carnival. To a certain degree, this doesn’t have to be politically controversial. Stranger Things has always been a work of nostalgic recollection, filled to the brim with Easter eggs and painstaking recreations of pop cultural moments from the era, and cartoonish Soviet villains such as those of Red Dawn, a kids vs. communists wish fulfilment tale which season three consciously riffs on, are part and parcel of that setting. It’s hard to argue that the Soviet bad guys aren’t consistent with the approach that the show has established over three seasons.
But Stranger Things’ interest in capitalism, and the threats against it, doesn’t merely stop at the resurrection of the evil Soviet trope, and that’s where questions about its wider political attributes start to become difficult to avoid. The totemic presence of Starcourt Mall, a new attraction to Hawkins which has become a social hub for Hawkins by the start of season three is an obvious example. Stranger Things doesn’t present Starcourt in a wholly uncritical fashion. There’s some time dedicated to pointing out the detrimental impact of the mall on the traditional town centre and its independent shops, and the mall is also linked to season three’s most explicit instance of critique of the American political system: the sleazy Mayor Kline, who is revealed to have colluded with the Russians (natch) to sell off vacant property which they could use to conceal their secret science experiments. But this effort to interrogate American capitalism can sometimes come across as tokenistic. The mall hurts Hawkins, but it’s also presented throughout the season as a place of wonder, especially through the eyes of Eleven and as a place where the show’s teenagers can bond and have fun. Meanwhile, Mayor Kline is an ineffectual villain who mainly serves to move the plot along; his actual motivations are explained as greed and foolishness, and he is rendered ineffectual and eventually removed from office. There is little indication that he embodies a wider political culture within the state – he’s an isolated and very specific incident.
Things only get weirder when Stranger Things starts to talk openly about capitalism. The precocious fan-favourite Erica, elevated to series regular status this season, gets a two-minute monologue about the virtues of American capitalism and how it informs her decision to get involved in the central mystery, with the reward of free ice cream. It’s kind of a ridiculous comic moment, and we’re not meant to take it wholly seriously. But Erica is a character who became popular for her surprisingly piercing insights last season, and ultimately her speech is the closest Stranger Things comes to giving its protagonists an ideology, one which slots neatly into the battle against Communist Russia. There’s also the matter of product placement. It was reported before season three’s launch that Netflix was teaming up with Coca-Cola to relaunch limitedly the company’s memetic, short-lived New Coke, which hit shelves around the time which Stranger Things is set. It seemed like a harmless bit of obvious corporate synergy, but this advertising campaign makes its way right into the text of season three. New Coke cans are ubiquitous from episode one, but it’s the moment where the fast-moving plot takes a quick detour so Lucas can extol the virtues of New Coke compared to its predecessor that things begin to get a little troubling. Netflix has sold itself on the total absence of advertising on its platform – its users even revolted against having to watch trailers for Netflix’s own content. The rampant product placement, and its apparent centrality to the season’s concerns, is a troubling repudiation of that, especially when the larger context of the Soviet villains and ambivalence towards criticising America are considered.
Season three is far from a work of regressive flag-waving jingoism – the storyline involving Maya Hawke’s Robin, who comes out towards the end of the season, is some of the show’s more sensitive character work yet, and it’s come leaps and bounds in elevating its female cast members to more important roles since season one. Moreover, Stranger Things is one of the most popular shows in the world, and it’s inevitable that it would eventually transition from being just a television show into a brand that can be sold and franchised to Netflix’s heart’s content. But there’s enough evidence in season three that its status as a lucrative and quintessentially American IP has crept into the narrative itself, and introduced some complications which the show seems afraid to address.