This article features strong spoilers for Stranger Things 3. Please use caution.
Stranger Things 3 felt like a bigger, more adventurous outing for the heroes of Hawkins, IN. They not only had to deal with the Mind Flayer and its army of zombie-slug-whatevers, they also had to face the Red Menace.
Yes, finally, in 1985, Communism came to Hawkins. Kind of. The human villains in the season are Russians, both scientists and military attempting to harness the power of the Gate to the Upside Down for their own nefarious purposes. This directly reflects both the reality of the Cold War just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the films that sprung up around it.
Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) are the ones most directly involved with the Russian plot in Stranger Things 3. It’s they who seek the counsel of conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) and kidnap the Russian scientist, Alexi, aka “Smirnoff”. The Russians are also the ones behind the Starcourt Mall, using the trappings of Reagan-era Capitalism as a front for their clandestine, anti-Western experimentation.
The ’80s were full of movies that pit America against the Soviet Union and none was more hilariously jingoistic than Rocky IV, which just so happened to come out in 1985. There are a lot of parallels between Rocky IV and Stranger Things 3, namely the Soviet Terminator guy Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko). Grigori is Hopper’s nemesis throughout the entire season. A huge, muscular, deadly force, Grigori represents the might and unstoppability of Soviet power. Hopper’s not a little guy by any means, but Grigori makes him look downright shrimpy.
In Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa has to go up against Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the enormous Soviet bruiser who literally kills the American-flag-clad Apollo Creed in the movie’s opening fight scene. Rocky then has to spend the rest of the movie training in order to beat Drago, donning Apollo’s trademark star-spangled trunks to do so.
While Hopper doesn’t do anything as obvious as throw on American flag boxers, it’s fitting that the final confrontation between Hopper and Grigori happens on the 4th of July, the most American day of all time. They even square off in the finale for a good old fashion dust-up, putting up their dukes like a couple of boxers in the ring. And Hopper is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, sporting his trademark mustache, making him the physical embodiment of Joe America. Or more accurately, Thomas Magnum.
Thomas Magnum is the titular character played by Tom Sellick in the ’80s action series, Magnum, P.I.. Magnum always wore Hawaiian shirts (probably because he lived and worked in Hawaii) and drove around in a Ferrari, beating up bad guys. While Hopper certainly doesn’t have the physique (or the legs) of Magnum, he sports a Hawaiian shirt and tools around in a sports car.
The flipside of the Hopper/Grigori rivalry is the ill-fated but pure friendship between Murray and Alexi. The kidnapped Russian scientist ends up being a pretty nice guy and he even eventually wants to help his American captors. This is specifically done through his conversations with Murray. Despite his weird methods, there’s no argument that Murray is a true patriot and a defender of American values. But he also speaks fluent Russian and is sympathetic to Alexi’s plight. Murray represents a much gentler approach to battling Communism, the one capable of winning over the hearts and minds of Soviets, one person at a time.
Hopper calls Alexi “Smirnoff” as a derogatory term for any Russian, but it also implies the way a Russian can assimilate into American culture and become a boon. Vodka is something any American can get behind. Hopper and Murray even share a drink of it at one point. In that moment, over the drink of the “enemy,” we have the might of American heroism in Hopper–the good hearted guy who goes into situations fists first–and the compassion of American wisdom in Murray. His nickname wasn’t “Bald Eagle” for nothing.
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