At a time when bloodshed in our public squares is far too common, it seems odd to praise Stranger Things 4, which opens with a massacre of children. It debuted just as the nation mourned the shooting deaths of 19 schoolchildren and their beloved teachers. Versions of that opening scene kept repeating throughout the season as flashbacks as the show's heroine, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), confronts her surprising role in the tragedy, buried deep in her suppressed memories.
The season's dark violence escalated in its second volume. Countless government agents died in a hail of bullets. Series villain Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) finally killed, at least temporarily, Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), using his signature bone-cracking, blinding methods. Hawkins misfit Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) bled out after being attacked by a swarm of vicious, otherworldly bats in the Upside Down.
But as gore, horror, and mayhem dominated, Stranger Things 4: Volume 2 also put forth a surprisingly gentle message about vulnerability and the power of being seen. When these moments unfold, major characters reveal their authentic selves. They're not spurned or judged but instead embraced in some way.
Nearly every major character gets their turn, however brief, to play on this theme. When Max is in Vecna's clutches for the first time, earlier in season 2, her friends know that Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" will free her from his curse. Deep in depression, Max may have withdrawn from those who know her best, but that hasn't scared them away; they never stop seeing her. When goofball Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) roughhouses with Eddie right before the pair march into the Upside Down to save the world from Vecna, Eddie sweetly tells his younger friend to "never change."
Dustin repays Eddie, who sacrifices himself in the Upside Down, the best he knows how. Upon seeing Eddie's grieving uncle in the gym shelter following the mysterious "earthquake" that killed dozens of Hawkins residents, Dustin lets him know that Eddie is gone but was an honorable man who never stopped being himself, even in the end.
One of the most memorable emotional moments of Volume 2 arrives when Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) holds back tears while assuring his best friend Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) that Eleven will always need Mike by her side, even if she possesses superpowers that make her seem invincible. Will, struggling with his unrequited feelings for Mike and the weight of being gay in a world likely to scorn him, talks about how hard it is to be different. His brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) senses the subtext and later tenderly tells Will nothing will change his love for him.
These scenes are a timely reminder of a simple truth: There are few things more affirming, especially for youth, than genuine, unconditional acceptance.
For a series about a misfit crew of teens who save the world together, this might seem predictable or cliché. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to X-Men to Harry Potter, modern storytelling about good versus evil often features misunderstood teens and young adults who've been wounded by rejection. But instead of cultivating poisonous resentment from that pain, the heroes form a chosen family in service of a virtuous mission.
These narratives aren't without their own problems, of course. The dark side of self-appointed heroism is vigilantism run amok. We needn't look further than the rise of American right-wing militias to see how delusions of grandeur can drive violence directed at the vulnerable and innocent.
Stranger Things offers its version of this corollary. High school jock Jason Carver (Mason Dye) invokes Satanic Panic as he furiously tries to avenge the murder of his girlfriend. She was Vecna's first victim but last seen with Eddie, who heads a Dungeons & Dragons group known as the Hellfire Club. Jason draws on his Christian religious beliefs and easy access to firearms to lead a manhunt for Eddie. In our nonfictional lives, right-wing groups increasingly target LGBTQ people and gatherings with protests and threats of violence. In Idaho, members of a white supremacist group were recently arrested for conspiracy to riot; they'd planned to target a local Pride event.
Vecna, a villain forged from the familiar mold of misunderstood sociopath, sees his murderous work as righteous. The young men who commit mass shootings, who've been radicalized by far-right extremism, tend to believe the same thing.
Stranger Things would make for bleak viewing without its vulnerability. Eleven may be endowed with superhuman powers, but Stranger Things makes the case for ordinary heroism. When the protagonists see someone's authentic self and embrace it, those small but meaningful acts suggest we can actually help save each other from the darkness of self-doubt, rejection, and trauma. So many adults spend their lives searching for this acceptance. So many teens, particularly those who society won't embrace because of their sexuality, gender identity, race, ethnicity, class, disability, and other traits, desperately need it at a critical time in their emotional and psychological development.
While Stranger Things revolves around Eleven and her powerful abilities, the show understands the courage it takes to create and strength the bonds of connection, and what's possible when people affirm each other's humanity.