Stranger Things 2 has been slow to reveal many secrets in its first three episodes, which is why even though the Shadow Monster was introduced early in the premiere, it hasn’t been clear exactly what kind of threat it poses to Hawkins.
But episode four, “Will the Wise,” finally brought the monsters of season two into the open. That includes both the real ones the characters will have to face, but also the metaphorical ones that are terrorizing them, the kind that never go away. And its their battles with past traumas which are defining the season.
Superb police officer Chief Hopper pieced together, literally (thanks to Will’s drawings and his mother Joyce’s own impressive sleuthing skills), that those rotten pumpkins were destroyed by the soil itself. (You might say he got to the root of the problem…actually, forget the pun, that’s exactly what he did.) He found that the Upside Down has taken hold in our world, with a series of tunnels and vines spreading like tentacles.
The government, which may or may not be less evil this time, has been burning the main portal, but that hasn’t stopped the dark plane from burrowing down and growing outside the building, up into our world. Much like Will described himself as existing somewhere between the two worlds, the line separating them is disappearing.
In season one the fear was the Demogorgon entering our world, or someone ending up in his, but now the danger is much greater as the barrier between worlds crumbles. The Upside Down itself might consume the real world, and whatever the Shadow Monster is exactly (Will referring to it as “he” made it so much more terrifying), “he” is coming for everyone.
Of course we also found out we aren’t done with Demogorgons (Demorgogii?), because Dustin’s adorable “Dart” really was a tadpole, only instead of a frog, he’s growing into a killer beast. It wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was still a great, natural way to connect this year to season one. There is a chance this time the Demogorgon will prove to be an ally, if Dustin is right and “Dart” trusts him (nougat unites!), but it certainly didn’t seem friendly while eating the family cat.
But the real monster of this episode, and of the entire season, isn’t some creature, it’s the horrors of the past. Yes the Shadow Monster is a literal danger, but it’s also a metaphor for the traumas these characters have experienced, the events and losses that hang over them like a dark cloud.
When Will comes out of his trance and finally opens up to his mother and Hopper about what has been happening to him, he describes the Shadow Monster as a “feeling.” He later says the tunnels he sees are like “old memories in the back of my head.” Those memories are fear and confusion from what happened in season one, which won’t go away. Why did this happen to him? Why won’t it stop? Will he ever be free from this horror? Those emotions/the Shadow Monster are so strong they/it physically manifest and make him cold, because they are feelings devoid of joy and warmth.
The effects of past traumas on the characters are found throughout the entire episode. Hopper and Eleven get into a screaming match after she disobeys his three rules. She doesn’t want him to keep her locked away like papa did, but he doesn’t want to lose her the way he lost his daughter Sara. They are both in pain, and while they find comfort in each other, they need things the other can’t give without risking even more suffering. Their pasts hang over their present–like that giant world eating shadow.
That’s also why Jonathan and Nancy take such a risk to reveal the truth about Barb to her parents. Most everyone else walked away from season one, except for Nancy’s forgotten friend, who was only at Steve’s house that night because of her. And not only does Nancy have to live with that loss and guilt (which has pushed her away from Steve), she knows Barb’s parents are bankrupting themselves in a hopeless search. Barbara’s death is haunting Nancy, and she can’t move past it.
Eleven’s disappearance haunts Mike the same way. He can’t accept Max into the group because that would be like replacing Eleven. He is just one more victim of the Upside Down who can’t escape its grasp. Even Eleven’s vision of her mom, which brought her to tears ( Millie Bobby Brown‘s acting never ceases to amaze me), was a literal shadow.
Even Max, whose past still remains a secret to us, clearly carries pain with her. What did possible racist Billy do that resulted in them living in Hawkins? And what about poor Steve (who has entered Jaime Lannister territory for characters who we once hated but now totally love), who gave up his place as the king of the school only so he could lose Nancy? Didn’t he stand up to the Demogorgon that night, the same way Jonathan did?
The Duffer Brothers said this season wasn’t a traditional follow-up year of television, but rather a sequel to the first, and that’s how it is playing out. Season one was about friendship and family, and about facing the dangers of life together. But this year is proving to be about what happens next. Just because you defeat the monster doesn’t mean the trauma you experienced goes away when it does. It stays with you. It haunts you.
The citizens of Hawkins will have to defeat a literal Shadow Monster, but that’s this year’s plot. The real story being told though is much more interesting, because the actual monsters they are fighting are the figurative ones they might never escape.
Will said those “old memories” are really “now memories,” because the traumas we experience don’t ever leave us. They stay with us like a shadow.
What did you think of this episode? What about the monsters of this season? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.