Crazy Together: Shared Trauma is the Heart of Stranger Things 2
It’s been one year since the formidable events that riddled Hawkins, Indiana took place within the Stranger Things universe and we have a lot of questions. Where’s Eleven? What was that slug thing that Will Byers threw up a month after being rescued from the Upside Down? Do we finally get justice for Barb? And will Dustin’s front teeth ever grow in?
All we know up to this point is that the gang is back and they have only one rule: Friends don’t lie. So let’s be honest – if you haven’t seen Stranger Things 2 … stop reading.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Stranger Things 2 launched on Netflix Friday, October 27th, 2017, giving its audience just enough time to binge watch it before Halloween. There is plenty to talk about for sophomore season including the appropriately-paced soundtrack – launching off with Oingo Boingo, DEVO, and The Romantics and eventually concluding with the 1983 release of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Yet we must explore the reason – in our opinion – that Stranger Things 2 works so well – its dynamic duos.
Where the first season broke us into basically three groups – “The Kids” (who found themselves occupying the ethos of The Goonies), “The Teens” (surrounded by the coming of age themes of The Breakfast Club), and “The Adults” (no doubt submerged in a never-ending episode of The Twilight Zone) – Season 2 of Stranger Things allows the audience to get to know these characters on a more personal level. For Season 2, the Duffer Brothers boldly choose to move away from those dichotomous groups and instead develop incredible new character combinations while still keeping it familiar.
Psychologically speaking, Stranger Things also presents a meaningful allegory for trauma as its golden rule. Trauma disconnects. Relationships reconnect. What’s so special about the trauma allegory in Stranger Things is that we not only see how trauma affects individuals but also how it is experienced by a group of people.
More specifically, Stranger Things 2 shows people who are bound more closely together by their shared experience of traumatic events.
Although we get to see the team working as a whole once we reach the penultimate episode, “The Mind Flayer” and of course the season finale, “The Gate,” we get to this point by a series of complex character pairings. The collective “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” appears to be the sure-fire prescription for bringing Hawkins back to, well, “normal”.
Mike and Will
While Season 1 definitely centers around Will’s disappearance, he doesn’t exactly have a lot screen time. We can undoubtedly tell how deep-rooted the friendship is between Will and the rest of his friends by how much they are all willing to risk in order to find him, but we never get to see him interact with the group. That all changes in Season 2.
In “Chapter 1: “MADMAX,” we see Will (Noah Shnapp) slip into a dissociative episode when he’s at the arcade with the group. He’s not experiencing a flashback to a traumatic memory. He dissociates into the Upside Down – into, what he calls, his “now-memories.” After noticing Will is missing from the group, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) finds Will outside the arcade staring into the sky – a sky where Will sees the Shadow Monster for the first time. It’s absolutely haunting and terrifying. Then, Mike verbally, and without knowing, pulls Will back into the real world.
Best friend points for sure.
Before we get back to Mike and Will, what exactly is going on with Will? As the season progresses, we learn that Will has been infected by the Shadow Monster, which presents as a central nervous system virus perhaps somewhat like rabies. In addition, however, Will also appears to be suffering from other real-world psychological disorders which a neurological basis including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a disorder that develops when a person experiences a scary or dangerous event and continues to have symptoms after the event that impair functioning.
Although most people who experience trauma do not develop PTSD, research indicates that the severity of the trauma and its frequency are among risk factors. Check and check for Will. In fact, one subtype of PTSD causes a person to be so avoidant and withdrawn they appear “zombie-like.” Just like Will, the “zombie boy.” Similar to the scans that Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) shows Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), neuroimaging studies have shown that both PTSD can markedly alter various neurological structures in the brain. But clearly, there is more going on here.
As his symptoms progress, it seems like Mike is the only person who can completely be there the way Will needs him to be. Although Will relies heavily on his fiercely loving and badass mom, Joyce, sometimes kids just need other kids. Will confesses he still sees the Upside Down to Mike before his mom. Mike, in turn, tells Will that he believes Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is still alive. No matter, they realize that even through all the darkness that surrounds them and the monsters within them, they still have each other. “If we’re both going crazy, then we’ll go crazy together.”
With friends, it’s okay to not be okay. That is the heart of Stranger Things.
Just as we are losing Will to the “virus” in the shed, Mike is there reminding Will of who he is, or rather who they both are. Through their friendship, the Duffer Brothers give us a rare and beautiful gift – an authentic and complex friendship between two boys who can be emotionally vulnerable to one another and not blink.
Lucas and Max
What happens when you add a new girl into the mix? The boys go bonkers. Where a lot of TV shows and films get it wrong, Stranger Things 2 hits the nail on the head. Often, we see this unfold into two guys competing for the attention. Ultimately, they both try to out-alpha the other and it usually ends in embarrassment for the two. Luckily, The Duffer Brothers set out to keep the character’s true to themselves and this helped make Lucas’s and Max’s relationship work.
Sure, there were some conveniences along the way that paved some room for Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) to bond (see: Dustin accidentally loses a baby Demogorgon or Will has a demon virus sky-monster inside of him), but it really came down to Lucas hitting his stride and arcing at the right time.
When Lucas tells Max everything about what happened in Hawkins last year, he is, whether Max knows it or not, formally inviting her into the group. He is sharing the collective trauma with an outsider. In a way, Max is the first and only person – outside the core group of characters – to hear the story. The retelling of a traumatic memory to a supportive person is a core component of most trauma treatment and functions as a corrective emotional experience. Ok, so Max totally bombed this, but who can blame her? In the end, it only takes a pack of Demodogs and impending death for her to believe him. She redeems herself by following the group into the darkness and in the direction of the lab.
Lucas’s approach to his relationship with Max is a great departure from the previous season where Lucas wants nothing to do with Eleven as a new member of the group. Lucas calls Eleven a traitor and refuses to accept her into the group throughout most of the season. It doesn’t take him long to realize, whether it’s out of love or learning from mistakes, to want to gain Max’s trust. For him to be the one to bring in Max and learn a few things along the way helps shape him as an even more likable character in this season.
And the scene at the Snow Ball . . . it was a near-perfect nod to scenes from John Hughes’ movies like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink. After surviving an apocalypse, Lucas gets to just be a boy experiencing his first dance and first kiss. After the near bat-to-the-crotch experience, Max is able to be with Lucas without looking over her shoulder.
Steve and Dustin
In “Chapter 3: The Pollywog,” Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) adopts a new creature he finds out back in his trash can. Acknowledging the creature’s love of Three Musketeers bars, Dustin names him D’artagnan or “Dart” for short.
As most fans predicted, this would end up being a recipe for disaster. Not to mention, a little nod to a 1984 favorite, Gremlins!
After just a few days, the not-so-little-any-more Dart breaks out of the terrarium and eats the house cat. RIP Mew-Mew. Goodbye Pollywog. Hello baby Demogorgon – AKA Demodog.
This series of events is the ideal setup for the unlikely pairing or possible bromance of Dustin and Nancy Wheeler’s ex-boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) who went from Season 1 douche to Season 2 favorite.
In “Chapter 5: Dig Dug,” Dustin enlists Steve to bring his bat (the “one with the nails”) to help him deal with Dart who they learn has dug his way out. In a perfect Stand by Me moment, the two walk down the train tracks leaving a trail of meat for Dart.
Steve then gives Dustin some touching – albeit misguided – brotherly advice on love (I feel like you’re trying too hard… the key to girls is just acting like you don’t care) and grooming (The secret? “Faberge Organics. Use the shampoo and the conditioner, and when the hair is damp — it’s not wet, OK? When it’s damp — do four puffs of the Farrah Fawcett spray.”)
And so we get to see Steve evolve from immature well-coiffed bully to become a de facto big brother figure to a fatherless only child, Dustin. What we see play out next is supported by decades of research. Studies have found that male youth experience multiple benefits from a male mentor figure including less parental rejection and better coping skills, and it also turns out that certain benefits work both ways and benefit the older mentor.
Steve models courage by putting his life on the line repeatedly for Dustin and the other kids and character by choosing to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Through his use of humor and emotional intelligence, Dustin helps Steve keep his ego and righting reflex in check. When Steve tries to stop them from entering the hole to lure the Demodogs, Steve freaks out. Dustin is able to turn him around: “You’re upset I get it – I know that you promised Nance that you would keep us safe. So keep us safe.”
Eleven and Hopper
As the final moments of Season 1 wrapped up, we knew two things: Hopper (David Harbour) was up to something and Eleven was still out there. Out of all of the other duos presented this season – it’s Eleven and Hopper’s relationship that seems to be intrinsically defined by trauma.
In Season 1, we learned that Eleven had been abducted from her mother and experimented on and isolated like – as Hopper later describes – “some kind of lab rat.” Her trauma is severe, lifelong, and relational. She has never known anything but an Upside Down life.
Although we don’t know much about Hopper’s childhood, we discovered in Season 1 that he suffered one of the most horrible losses a person can experience – the death of a child. In the Season 1 finale, Hopper sifts through detailed flashbacks of his daughter’s death when he and Joyce are trying to save Will. In a sequence that is despairingly brilliant, Hopper appears to be using the emotional pain of losing his daughter to fuel his determination to save Will at all costs.
In Stranger Things 2, the intensity of Hopper’s protective instincts are thrust onto Eleven. Like many people – especially those who experience trauma – Hopper has difficulty distinguishing between primary (natural) emotions and secondary (manufactured) emotions. Here’s the Cliff Notes version of this component of the social cognitive theory of trauma.
In “Chapter 4: Will the Wise,” we painfully watch Hopper’s reaction to El’s very normal questions about when she will be able to see her friends. Hopper’s primary emotion is not only fear for her safety but also his guilt over keeping her hidden and isolated. He clings rigidly to the safety rules so that he can avoid the reality that she is always in danger from the “bad men” and whatever is coming out of the Upside Down. When El says, “you’re just like Papa,” she hit that guilt, and he lost it. Because deep down he knows she is dead on. Given that she is basically a wizard who could leave whenever she chooses, Hopper – just like Papa – uses the only weapon that he has to control her – her innate longing for love and connection from an adult attachment figure.
Yet, at least in this episode, Hopper cannot be that vulnerable with El. To avoid the more uncomfortable natural emotions of fear and guilt, Hopper goes with the more comfortable reactive emotion that, in his mind, is stronger and provides more control. Not the smartest tactic, given that she can kill monsters from another dimension—quite literally-one handed, but the brain goes with what it knows.
In the last episode, Hopper comes full circle. When he and El are riding to the lab, he apologizes and is vulnerable with her. Yet still seems he is working through his guilt over his daughter’s death. He first tells her that he is a black hole—“It sucks everything towards it and destroys it,” before saying that the black hole is what “got” his daughter. Hopper shows that he is loosening the reins on protecting Eleven by letting her go to the Snow Ball – although he wouldn’t have felt so great if he would have seen the giant Shadow Monster watching them from the Upside Down. We haven’t even scratched the surface with their relationship – or the complexity of El’s character this season, but hopefully Stranger Things 3 will shed more light on this.
Honorable Mention: The Duffer Brothers
It’d be a great disservice to omit the duo that created the duos…*Dustin, drum roll please* Let’s give credit where credit is due: The Duffer Brothers.
Stranger Things 2, like its predecessor, explores a ton of motifs. But it’s clear that the theme we keep finding ourselves exploring is that of shared trauma. It’s exploration of relationships between kid and kid, parent and parent, friend and outsider is what makes Stranger Things 2 not just a synth-heavy dose of nostalgia.
Like the vines that connect our world to the Upside Down, our relationships reconnect us when the trauma disconnects. And let’s be fair: There are plenty more relationships we could explore – The Original Monster Squad, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), for example, and of course Bob The Brain (Sean Astin) and the fearless Joyce Byers.
Stranger Things 2 is so rich with character combinations that we just couldn’t fit it all in, but we’d love to hear who some of your favorite dynamic duos were this season. Comment below (in our comment section, not in the Upside Down) with which characters you’d like to see us further explore.
Whether we’re sharing actual trauma in day to day events like Will and the gang or re-experiencing the communal agony of having to wait at least a year for Stranger Things 3, the important thing is that we go through it together. Because with friends, it’s okay to not be okay.
Meet the Authors
Sean Beck is the Director of Audio and Video at Shrink Tank and occasionally contributes to articles when he’s not producing podcasts and video content. Although he is mostly an introverted nerd person, he enjoys tapping into his more adventurous side when he’s climbing mountains, playing music, or trying to a hold a yoga pose too difficult for disproportionate arms. Some say his best friend is his wolf, Ziggy, and those people are correct. Although he was hired for his degree and experience in film, he stays around for the free food on occasional Wednesdays.
Dr. Jan Newman is a clinical psychologist, university researcher, and published author. She is passionate about leveraging pop culture to make psychology and behavioral science more accessible to everyone. When she’s not working with superheroes, she enjoys exploring the outdoors and traveling with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @jan_newman or on Facebook.