This article is part of Christ and Pop Culture’s STRANGER THINGS WEEK and contains spoilers for Stranger Things seasons one and two.
In the midst of all the otherworldly action toward the end of Stranger Things 2, there’s a moment that has nothing to do with the Upside Down. It’s a brief scene, the first and only interaction we see between Billy Hargrove and his parents. As the resident bad boy and foil to fan favorite Steve Harrington, Billy largely comes across as a two dimensional bully. In this one tense moment, we get a clearer picture of the life Billy has lived under the fearful rule of his abusive father. Billy the bully is revealed to be Billy the bullied, lovelorn son. While certainly not excusing the pain he inflicts on others throughout the series, this scene does humanize the character. His actions are laid bare as desperate attempts to reclaim a sense of control and, more importantly, validation. If he can keep others under his thumb, then maybe his father will still see him as a man.
Thirty years later and miles away from Hawkins, Indiana, 40-year-old Kevin Pearson of This Is Us spirals down an alcohol-induced binge in the middle of his high school football field. He looks out into a phantom crowd, imagining his deceased father cheering him on. He gives a play-by-play of key moments in his life, mentioning a major injury from which he would recover “just in time to bury his beloved father.” Later in the same episode, we see Kevin break down because he lost a necklace, the last physical link to this father. In many ways, Kevin’s life stopped the moment his father’s did, leaving a void where a father’s pride in his son should be.These stories remind viewers of humanity’s universal, never-ending need for validation—to be fully seen and understood.
Both Stranger Things and This Is Us have been hailed as standout shows of the past year, with no end of fans singing their praises. Each has been hailed as groundbreaking in its own way: Stranger Things for its successful take on 80s pop culture, and This Is Us for its non-linear take on the trials and travails of the Pearson family. But they have more in common than it might seem. The real reason for these shows’ popularity transcends the gimmick of their genres. Beneath the trappings of supernatural capers and episodic issues, these stories remind viewers of humanity’s universal, never-ending need for validation—to be fully seen and understood. The characters occasionally find ways to fill this need, but those efforts inevitably fall short and the search continues. We resonate with that endless pursuit, and these shows ably demonstrate that no matter how good their intentions are, the people around us cannot see us like our heavenly Father, El Shaddai—the God who sees and knows us fully.
When the telekinetic orphan Eleven breaks free of the protective confines of Chief Hopper’s home to search for her long-lost mother, we feel for her. We want her search to be successful, and we’re certainly glad for her when it is. But her hopes are dashed when she finds that her mother cannot provide the emotional connection she was hoping for. Eventually, she returns to Chief Hopper and her friends in Hawkins, the only real relationships she ever had. We long for this moment and are excited when it happens, but we know this is only a temporary reprieve. In many ways, Eleven still feels alone and misunderstood.
We see a similar situation play out in Genesis 16. Hagar, the servant of Sarai, flees to the wilderness after spiteful treatment from her mistress. Hagar too has an encounter that compels her to return home. Unlike Eleven, Hagar does not return to Abram and Sarai because she feels more alone in the wilderness. Quite the opposite. After God speaks words of comfort directly to her, she feels prepared to face whatever mistreatment might come her way because her needs have already been met by “the God who sees.”
As the adopted member of the family, Randall Pearson felt out of place among his siblings, yet intimately connected to his adoptive parents. In the second season of This Is Us, we see him and his family take on foster parenting as a means to further that connection with his parents. We rejoice with him when a foster child is introduced to the family, but quickly realize this path will not be easy for him. His anxious personality isn’t quite ready for the emotional insecurity presented by a foster child. Far from being a quick fix that provides greater emotional connection, Randall’s sense of himself as a father is rattled. This journey is just beginning for him.
In similar fashion, Moses repeated phases of his adoptive past. After fleeing the Egyptian life in which he had been raised, an encounter with God emboldens Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. He takes on the role of a spiritual foster father, often interceding on behalf of the stubborn people who have been entrusted to his care. Similar to Randall, freeing his people was just the beginning for Moses. But he had the advantage of direct communication with the great I AM, the God of his fathers, who strengthened him for the journey.
The cycle of unmet needs will continue to play out for the characters in Stranger Things and This Is Us. We expect it to. This truth is the resonant power that propels the success of these shows. We root for these characters, and we celebrate each little victory they achieve in their attempts to be seen and understood by one another. Just as we mourn each failure. I’m cheering for Eleven and Randall on their quests to find the family they’ve always longed for. And I’m far from cheering when Billy, fresh from crying at the mercy of his father, shows up at the Byers’ door and beats Steve senseless. But I do still feel for the crying son inside. I have hope for Billy, just as I do for Kevin; I’m hopeful that they’ll come around, that they’ll find real family and community in the people they’ve taken advantage of. Even if they do, though, they’ll have more to learn. It’s what keeps bringing us back to them. These characters are still on their journey. And so are we. Ultimate relief, the satisfaction of our struggles, won’t come from any human relationship or effort on our part.
In the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes that “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” We act out for attention, seeking the comfort and validation of our parents and loved ones. We yearn for the sense of fullness that never seems to arrive. As long as we’re here, we’re seeing “through a mirror darkly.” But a time is coming when we will be able to “put away childish things.” Until that time, we need only to listen to that still small voice of the God who sees to remind us that one day we will “know fully, even as we are fully known.” That’s the sort of Upside Down world I can’t wait to be part of.