The second season of Netflix’s hit series, Stranger Things, has some stranger things than the first season, but it continues to have a lot of the familiar, too.
As strange as the monsters or the characters are, traditional themes that speak to most Americans continue to dominate the show’s narrative and drive its continued appeal. It might appear that the show is about the paranormal, but in fact it focuses on family, the epicenter for American drama, and that’s what makes it so good.
Stranger Things 2 makes family the source of the central conflict of the second season’s plot. Joyce Byers (played by Winona Ryder) the frantic mother of the first season, is again willing to fight to the death to find out what’s wrong with her son, Will, but in the new season, her boyfriend, Bob Newby (played by Sean Astin), also steps up and tries to help out.
He tells Joyce, “I like you so much. Not just you, everything that comes with you. Your family, your boys.” During the course of the second season, Bob becomes a father figure to Joyce’s children by taking responsibility for them and making them a priority, which shows that fatherhood is something you do, not merely an accident of birth. Bob is able to exemplify his sacrifice as a father in critical ways as the season goes on.
Another example of a father in action is Sheriff Jim Hopper, who cares for Eleven by keeping her safe and bringing her food and making sure she remains unharmed. Hopper is a genuine example for fathers everywhere because of his dedication and love for Eleven, even if he sometimes errs on the side of being overprotective (understandable given the unexpected loss of his young daughter in the first season).
The story between Hopper and Eleven drives the second season forward as both learn to love and understand each other in their new roles as parent and child. There is likely no one who watches the show who hasn’t experienced a time when they were at odds with a parent, a time when they felt wronged or misunderstood by a mother or father. Stranger Things shows dramatic versions of such interactions, while also emphasizing that working through difficult times in a relationship is rewarding and ultimately makes a family stronger.
Stranger Things also offers some negative examples of fatherhood: Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Sinclair, for example, are weak and passive compared to Bob and Hopper. They both defer to their wives’ authority on just about everything and tend not to interact with their children, in whom they express little genuine interest.
There are also bad fathers that damage the whole community. Mad Max’s stepfather is abusive toward her step-brother, Billy, who, in turn, becomes abusive toward her and her friends. The stepfather’s bad parenting affects not only his son, but also the entire community because of the trickle-down effect of abuse. The abused Billy hurts those around him so that he can try to feel like he has some control.
Eleven’s damaging father figure, Papa, also emerges in the second season. He’s ultimately responsible for all the otherworldly damage done to the community because he made Eleven open the portal to the Upside Down in the first season. This is perhaps the greatest comment on parenting the show makes: raising a child has consequences that impact the whole community.
I’m not arguing that the parents in Stranger Things should be more controlling. The show does a good job of depicting the freedom that a safe community offers children; today, by contrast, too many parents choose to monitor their own children (electronically or otherwise) rather than forging bonds of community and cooperation with other parents in their neighborhoods. As a result, the children in Stranger Things enjoy freedoms with which many of today’s kids are unfamiliar, such as heading out on their bikes with a group of friends to explore their town without constant monitoring by adults. In this sense the show recalls pop culture offerings of several decades ago, before helicopter parenting took hold, such as the movie, E.T., or the T.V. series, A.L.F., that placed an alien among middle-class suburban family life.
It’s a popular formula: Stranger Things was the third most popular show in the U.S. the last few weeks of October. It’s also a reminder that not every effort to portray men as fathers in pop culture needs to make them look ridiculous or incompetent (or murderous). Instead, why not make them look like what so many real fathers are: decent, hard-working people trying to do what’s best for their families.