Stranger Things Reminds Us of the Lessons We Keep Forgetting
This article is part of Christ and Pop Culture’s STRANGER THINGS WEEK and contains spoilers for Stranger Things seasons one and two.
Stranger Things has been lauded as one of the best shows on television, in spite of, or maybe because of, its tropes. With constant salutes to ’80’s movies and almost predictable rhythms and twists, one could almost conclude that viewers aren’t necessarily interested in originality, but repackaged nostalgia. The writers of the show have clearly listened to this criticism, as the second season includes a character who voices the show’s self-awareness by quoting its critics. When Lucas tells Max the story that played out in the first season, she responds: “It’s crazy, but I really liked it. I mean, it had a few issues. I just felt like it was a little derivative in parts. I just wish it had more originality, that’s all.”
In a culture that is rabid for the new and inventive, it can be difficult to understand why Stranger Things has such an enthusiastic cult following. The endearing pop culture references are just the beginning—the show also relies heavily on familiar motifs and themes. Perhaps the most obvious trope in Stranger Things 2 is the subplot involving my favorite character, Dustin, and his pet monster, D’artagnan.These truths seem obvious, but perhaps we need a reminder.
D’artagnan, or Dart, shows up in Dustin’s garbage can. In typical adolescent boy fashion, Dustin evicts his turtle from his terrarium and gives Dart a home in his bedroom. His failed attempts to identify his new pet do not discourage him from caring for it. Dustin shares his prized nougat with Dart, makes a show of bringing him to school to share with his friends, and ignores their concerns about the nature of the beast. He dismisses its steady growth, hoping that it will continue to subsist on nougat. It won’t. After awhile, it becomes clear that Dart is not a lost lizard species, but a real monster from the Upside Down. That realization places Dustin in a difficult dilemma, as he is forced to reckon with the beast he loves.
If any part of the show is a tired story line, it’s this: Unsuspecting Boy Tries to Raise Monster as Pet, Realizes Too Late That Monsters Aren’t Domestic Creatures, Panics When Monster Wreaks Havoc. From the moment Dustin’s garbage can rattles, we know how this story will end. But perhaps the point of this subplot is not to surprise us. Perhaps it is a reminder—indeed, a more-timely one than the show’s creators could have possibly realized when they wrote it.
Let’s examine the plot line more closely. First, Dustin isn’t totally clueless about the nature of the animal when he adopts it. He isn’t sure exactly what it is, but he knows enough about its nature to take care of it. As he learns about the creature, several red flags appear. It’s not easily identified by standard measures—this is an entirely different kind of animal. His friends are wary of it. It resists light and water, traditional agents of purification. But the most important warning sign is that the monster disrupts Dustin’s relationships. After the monster gets loose in the school, Dustin finds it—then immediately lies to the other boys about its whereabouts, choosing to protect his monster over protecting his friendships. Even though Dustin immediately learns of the danger the monster poses, particularly to his most vulnerable friend, he holds on tightly to it in an attempt to convince himself that he can be a good friend and maintain a dangerous secret.
But he can’t, of course. The monster isn’t content to stay in Dustin’s terrarium, eating nougat and squeaking. It grows and morphs right in front of him until Dustin can’t deny the danger it poses. And isn’t that the way with secret habits? They appear to be harmless—maybe a little quirky, or even weirdly charming. Boys, as they say, will be boys, hiding things in their bedrooms that belong in the trash. Those things may seem innocent at first, but eventually, the things get bigger, less docile, more ominous. The warning signs increase, but they’re easily ignored—that is, of course, until the day you come home and find your “pet” eating your cat.
Dustin’s adoption of the monster is certainly a childish decision, but the consequences aren’t child-sized. What begins as a misstep of manners turned into a life-threatening situation, one that has to be dealt with. Dart grows until he is a terror that could not be contained, one who has to be approached with weapons and extreme caution.
As I mentioned earlier, I like Dustin. He has always been my favorite. He has a funny, endearing personality, and his many good qualities could be constructed into a sizable, if weak, defense for his behavior. But once he knows that Dart is a threat to the people he loves, he has a responsibility to deal with that danger, and his refusal to give up the monster is inexcusable.
Dustin knows this. He resists the truth at first, but eventually, he’s forced to reconcile with the party’s resident truth-teller—Lucas. After a few hours of frustrated silence, Dustin apologizes for harboring Dart, admits that he broke the rule of law, and volunteers to give up his spot in the party. He’s immediately forgiven, and the friends are able to unite and fight against the shadow monster. It would be easy to brush off Dustin’s apology as ceremonial and unnecessary, but it’s actually essential. Without an admission of guilt, the breach of trust remains, and Will’s defense is weakened. Dustin cannot minimize, dismiss, or ignore Lucas’s accusations. He cannot appeal to his likability or their years of friendship. He cannot gesture toward the “real issues” at hand or conflate his pet monster with the other monsters the boys have faced. To move forward, Dustin has to make things right again by regaining control of Dart and demonstrating his true loyalties.
These truths seem obvious, but perhaps we need a reminder. Charm should not trump accountability. A person’s contributions to society do not negate his or her sins. We are all obligated to protect the most vulnerable among us and failing that responsibility requires repentance. There is no such thing as a pet monster or a domesticated vice. We must separate ourselves from evil before it separates us from those we love.
Once the relationship is repaired, all is forgiven. Dart is returned to the Upside Down, Will is saved, and Dustin’s social life thrives, especially his newfound friendship with Steve (which may be the best part of season two.) He is still the funny, loquacious kid we know and love, but perhaps a little more aware of his weaknesses, and a little more grateful for his friends. They may be tropes, but they are lessons we may need to learn again: Monsters don’t belong in houses. Friends tell the truth. And we all can be forgiven, thank God.