An extraordinary exploration of trauma and depression
This review goes into spoilers in Season Four, Part One of Stranger Things, if you intend to watch it, bookmark this and come back later
As well as channeling most of 80s pop culture, Stranger Things has been a lot of things over its three seasons, but amongst the Demogorgans, Mindflayers, mall battles, Dungeons and Dragons gaming, telekinesis and portals to the Upside Down, the story at its heart has been about the relationships of a group of teenagers navigating life and its challenges.
As it enters its’ blockbuster fourth season, the core group of teenagers — Dustin, Max, Lucas, El, Will, Mike, Steve, Nancy, Robin and Jonathan — are split both geographically and emotionally from each other. From sleepy Hawkins, to California, Utah, and Russia, season four has the groups separated with their own problems to solve.
Early on it appears that the villain for this series adopts psychological warfare to target his prey, targeting Hawkins residents whose pasts involve trauma and loss.
Since season four has aired much commentary has sufaced online with people who have suffered depression and trauma relating to the way Stranger Things is depicting it.
“Ironically enough, I called depression my monster or alter ego, because I can’t always tell which thoughts and feelings are in fact my own. During a depressive episode, I’ll start thinking to myself, ‘No one cares about what you’re feeling, they’ve got problems of their own,’ which isn’t true. But, in the moment, it’s incredibly difficult to reason with yourself, especially as an insecure and hormone-filled teenager,” writes a reporter from the Maimi Standard. “I cried as I watched this scene, because depression really does feel like a fight against an all-powerful being. It’s a lot to grapple with when you’re a teen.”
Mental health is as important as ever and as Stranger Things cast member Winona Ryder told E! News, “A lot of people write that off as like, ‘Oh, kids are kids,’ but it’s actually like they’re going through a lot of pain and confusion. It’s like a war for them.”
Using a fantasy construct to provide an allegory for real world problems and issues is not new in television and cinema, what is most effective in this season of Stranger Things is that it is done very effectively. This season has definitely upped the ante on its depiction of horror, but like the Harry Potter franchise, the Stranger Things fan base has matured with the show since its debut in 2016 which enables more mature themes to be explored.
From the outset of the series it is alluded to in episode one that the series’ villian Vecna’s first victim, Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien), has an eating disorder and that Fred Benson (Logan Riley Bruner) is still haunted by the fact he accidentally had something to do with the death of his family the year prior.
Patrick McKinney (Myles Truitt), too, is targeted, although we have little detail (currently) about his psychological trauma and what led to Vecna’s attack.
It is one of the series regulars Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), who, after her brother Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) death in the fateful battle at Starcourt Mall in season three, is suffering from grief, guilt, and trauma in its wake. Believing that she stood by and watched him sacrifice his life to save everyone else, Max retreats from her friendship circle and becomes increasingly isolated.
It is during one of her regular visits to the school counsellor that we learn of her headaches, trouble sleeping and nightmares/flashbacks – symptoms of depression and PTSD. As the story moves on, we understand that these are mostly affections caused by Vecna’s attack, but it doesn’t make it any less poignant to those who identify with themes of mental illness and depression.
Episode 4 in Season 4 Part 1, titled Dear Billy, is where the show really examines this in detail. With Max at risk of attack, not only does she prepare letters for her friends and family, she visits Billy’s graveside to explain to him how she’s feeling and to apologise for not doing more – even though she was in no way to blame. This is often a technique used to treat those suffering with trauma, to help them put past events in order.
At the headstone, she is captured in her thoughts by Vecna, who appears as Billy to facilitate the trauma in her mind. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery) all rally around their friend in her hour of need, and most strikingly, they bring her back from the edge and let her know that no matter what demons she is facing, they are by her side.
In a particularly touching moment, Lucas tells her: “I see you.”
Sadie Sink recently explained in a round table how she approached season four and the real-world issues intersecting with the fantasy storylines: “I mean, yeah, [Max] had some heavy stuff this year. It was kind of a nice challenge, figuring out what these types of colours looked like on Max and [to] find something that felt true to her,” she explained. “It was kind of a more careful process than I think I was used to in previous seasons. Because, I mean, we were always dealing with supernatural elements and heavy stuff like that. But season four, it feels a little bit more human.”
She added: “So it required a little bit more attention and, and focus. I mean, we’re always very focused. But season four was like… I don’t know, it’s kind of good to be delicate with it.”
Stranger Things, aside from being insanely gripping and entertaining, brings the fantasy genre back to its roots in allegorical storytelling. It might be about a supernatural horror terrorising a small town, all the while riffing on 80s pop culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s without purpose – and the first half of Season Four proves it.
Along with Seasons One to Three, Season Four Part One of Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix, with Part Two arriving on 1 July.