Since the rise of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, and Dexter, contemporary dramatic television has focused on morally ambiguous characters. Audiences are confronted with the issue of whether or not to support these “anti-hero” characters, putting the viewer in the judgment seat. More recently, shows like Narcos,Ozark, and House of Cards carry on this tradition, but Stranger Things offers something refreshingly nostalgic: the clearly defined role of the good guys.
Perhaps the best example of the anti-hero is Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Using him as an example, we can see the moral dilemma the anti-hero gives audiences. Of course, most people would not openly say they supported the work Walter White did, but something intriguing keeps them entertained. Whether the viewers are inspired or repulsed by Walter’s actions, the show clearly keeps them connected to him. This connection often leads to viewers addressing their own moral compass.
Each triumphant feeling the viewer has when Walter defeats a rival comes with an existential question of good and evil. In short, the show disrupts the viewer's concepts of morality. As Richard Lawson wrote in The Atlantic, “He’s a drug maker and a drug deal and a killer and a sneak and a vicious liar. But we love him, root for him with fervor, because he’s more fully alive in bad mode than he ever was when he was on the straight and narrow. It’s a moral conundrum that seems germane to, well, the entire human condition.”
In Stranger Things, however, viewers experience something entirely different. Instead of the moral-bending anti-hero, Stranger Things offers a generally innocent group of kids that triumph over evil. The few adults who aid in the fight show up as a police officer and a mother: two clear archetypes of morality. Together, they fight against a pretty generic idea of evil manifested in scary monsters and darkness that want to kill. Why do they want to kill? It does not really matter. Only their evilness matters, and the good guys must stop the evil from spreading.
The salvation for the young group of heroes has more to do with morality than combat. Guns cannot kill the evil monsters. Instead, the triumphant power of friendship and unity stands out in the fight, especially in Eleven’s character. Her desire for relationship draws her to Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas because they accept her as she is. The bond they build gives Eleven the confidence and security to know she can win the battle against the present evil, which benefits everyone.
The friendships are not without trial, though. Season Two mixes in difficult tensions with everyone. Dustin and Lucas begin to separate as they both grow feelings for Maxine; Dustin chooses to take in the baby demogorgon instead of protecting Will, and Eleven feels betrayed when she sees Mike with Maxine. At times, it seems that the bond that held them together begins to fall apart, but even within these disruptions to the group, viewers see unwarranted forgiveness and grace amongst the friends. The season ends with them all together at the school dance. Each of them having grown up but remaining united.
Even more than friendship, love fights off the evil. Bob dies serving a family he loves. Joyce continually sacrifices everything for Will, even to the point of seeming insane. She allows Christmas lights and odd drawings to take over her entire house because she loves Will and trusts him. Her greatest sign of love comes when she exercises the darkness out of Will. The desire to save her son pushes her to the extreme when she must hurt him to bring him back.
Even as Jonathan and Nancy try to settle her down, she persists. Of course, the loving mother does not want this. It nearly wrecks her, but she knows what she must do. She sacrifices her own comfortability for the sake of Will’s life.
The anti-hero focused dramas came during the rise of moral relativism. Now, we hesitate to tell others they are wrong. We do not want to act as the morality police, so we have come to a place that generally rejects universal good and universal evil. Instead of these being existing concepts, culture gets to decide, and of course, when different cultures disagree, whichever one the individual agrees with comes out on top. The anti-hero perpetuates this by confronting the viewer with moral questions. Can Walter be redeemed? Should Sky leave him? Is Jesse just a victim or is he active in his role? These shows give the viewer the chance to answer.
Stranger Things,on the other hand, makes more clear decisions. The goodness of the group is hardly questioned, and when it is, it does not last long. Even Eleven’s brief exploration with her anti-heroesque “sister,”Kali, who kills the people responsible for her hurt (a very Dexter-like task), ends before the episode does. In her one task with Kali and her crew of misfits to kill one of the men responsible for her mother’s psychosis, Eleven shows mercy and stops Kali from killing the man. Quite literally, she saves the man’s life despite the desire for revenge. In this, the viewers do not get presented with a moral question, but rather, a moral answer: Eleven should not take revenge on that man.
Despite the seemingly popular rise of moral relativism, the popularity of Stranger Things suggests that people may be growing tired of it. The clear roles of good and evil present the audience with pretty standard definitions, and so far, the show has not strayed from them. The kids continue to be good, and the monsters continue to be evil. At this point, Stranger Things not only presents a hero against a villain, but it presents the idea of a hero against an anti-hero, a sort of anti-anti-hero message throughout the show. Maybe the fact that Stranger Thingscan be so bold and still gain such a following shows that morality is not as questionable as culture likes to think.
Joseph is a writer, editor, husband, and perpetual student. He is passionate about telling the world how the Gospel meets the needs of culture. He is the co-founder of Grounds and currently serves as the editorial director.