Monday, November 27, 2017

NETFLIX: "Stranger Things 2" and the Legacy of Trauma

NOTE: This blog post contains spoilers for the second season of Stranger Things. Read on at your own discretion.

After-school specials that say "Be kind to bullies because bullies get bullied" always grated on me. And they still do. I never enjoy being told that, in the midst of being beat up, I ought to grin and bear it because the beater is a beat-ee in their own life. Everyone deserves the ability to look after themselves.

This doesn't mean that the statement isn't true, though: abuse breeds abuse, and trauma breeds trauma. I disagree that I should try to smile and make friends with an abuser in case they're also an abusee, but I still acknowledge that this happens. A lot.

Unfortunately, trauma and abuse are easily handed down, and someone abused and bullied can (and often will) turn that behavior on the next person down in the pecking order. And with a town like Hawkins, where everyone is either traumatized or missing, there's a lot to work through.

Our core cast of Stranger Things may be made up of characters seemingly too badass to be real, but their lives are rocked by the events of Season 1 in much the way anyone's would be. Though, of course, the trauma is much more tangible in this horror setting. Will has returned from a horrible place, and the horrible place still remains within him. Eleven may have a semblance of a home, but she hasn't yet been given the leeway to understand herself. Barb's friends and family have no closure, and some have a major degree of guilt.

And then there's Max. Her story arc is pretty obvious from the moment we see her interaction with stepbrother Billy. This is our toe in the human iteration of the season's theme, and it's a fairly after-school special one. New blended family, siblings don't get along, and... okay, it doesn't go so well from there. We see genuinely life-threatening actions and a girl terrified for her life and the life of her friends.

Now, of course, we see late in the series that Billy doesn't just get his nature out of the ether. The abuse trickles down his side of the family. Like many abusers, he learns from a parent. Does this excuse his treatment of Max? No. It only explains it. And Max shows us how to become an end point for it.

One of the major elements of her character is what she doesn't do. Or, at least, what she stops doing. Her early treatment of the Hawkins kids is unkind, either because of her own treatment or a desire to shield them from Billy. But in the end, she opts to become the cutoff point for the behavior.

This is our basis in reality -- our simple note as to what a major running theme of the show is, and something of a decoder ring for what the other children (and older) go through.

Will's experience remains central to the series. Disappearing to the Upside Down doesn't just leave you -- much as any trauma experienced at any time of life. The "Anniversary Effect" is quite real, and the pain and darkness that the return of something like that can bring will take over a household. Just as with the absent Will, the grief that surrounds his family fills the house -- from crayon maps to freezing rooms. The influence is deep and cutting, and affects the friend group long before any sort of physical signs manifest. This is someone who has not had a chance to heal.

Saying Joyce handled Will's trauma poorly, though, would be unfair. She didn't. And even her overprotectiveness on his return is understandable. All things considered, she has a reason to be paranoid. We might laugh self-consciously at Joyce's behavior, but it's hard to find fault with it.

That said, Will's recurring trauma is one that required that wider support group, and not just family help, to get past. We're fortunate in Stranger Things to see two boys using the word "love" as a descriptor of their friendship, and that's important. Use of the word "love" tends to be relegated to romantic couples, and men and boys of any age are conditioned to avoid close friendships. This series doesn't even play -- these friends love each other, and it's this love that helps to eventually effect a recovery.

And then there's Eleven and Eight. And that one episode that apparently I'm alone in liking.

Despite Will's trauma being the most central to the events of Hawkins, it's Eleven's journey that we see in most detail. And it's a very, very true one for many people: the cycle of everyone else knowing what's best.

In Eleven's case, there was a lot she needed to learn -- just as, for many children, the full scope of their trauma is unknown to them and they have to do some digging. During her search for some degree of truth, she found a variety of realities. None could exist without the rest, but each branch of it was convinced they were the One Answer to her problems.

And this is where things get difficult.

An abused, neglected, or traumatized child does affect more than just the child. But in that process, the different camps surrounding that child all become "what is best." Normally you won't see a situation in which the child has been rescued from unethical experimentation, but there are plenty of other dark times. Custody battles. Adoptions. Downright abusive parents. Et cetera. And in those cases, all parties trying to help the child are -- in their minds -- the right parties. The ones who want what's best. But who, under the surface, do in their own ways want what they want, whether it be justice or revenge or peace.

Eleven's journey away from Hopper was important. Regardless of his parenting techniques (and big ups to the guy for trying to ground a girl who probably could have smashed his skull), she needed to see the other parties. She needed the other stories, even if their telling was biased. Only then could she come to terms with her own issues and begin to grow.

It's a problem in many situations that involve children, especially if the issues are within a family. Children are shielded from what happened to them so they can be safe... but often, that decision is ill-advised, or it's subconsciously for the benefit of the guardians who simply don't want to have this darkness intrude into their lives again. But the exploration and the understanding is important for the child at the center. Even if they come to the exact same conclusion as the shielding parent. Hell, especially if.

As ever, Eleven and Will are two sides of the same coin. Will is guarded, protected, and shielded to the point that his trauma explodes and takes him over; Eleven nearly encounters this, but instead gains agency to explore her story for herself. Neither Hopper nor Joyce was cruel, uncaring, or unloving. They only did what any parent wishes they could: work to stop their child from being hurt.

What does this mean, though, in a world that isn't Hawkins, and doesn't lie just an awkward dig from the Upside Down? It comes out pretty much the same, really.

Parents desperate to protect their children will shield them from things they absolutely should be shielded from; but in the process, they also sometimes shield those same children from information that is necessary to understand their own situations. Growing up without that information, be it for closure or simply to understand why people come and go from their lives in odd ways, is damaging, and can really alter an adulthood.

Fortunately, it seems the kids of Hawkins have a better life ahead of them... and, er, two more seasons, at least. I at first saw no point in a second season, but the exploration of trauma and aftermath made sense to me. A third and fourth? We'll see where they go when Stranger Things returns to Netflix.


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