Stranger Things
For a show set in the '80s, Russian villains feel a little too on-the-nose. (Illustration by Nick Spearman, Savannah College of Art and Design)

Why Russians Should Not Have Been the Villain in ‘Stranger Things 3’

We’ve reached the death of the show’s subtle Cold War commentary.

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Stranger Things

We’ve reached the death of the show’s subtle Cold War commentary.

The third season of the sci-fi smash hit “Stranger Things” premiered on Netflix on July 4 to mostly positive reviews. Fans immediately fell in love with the brightly-colored 1980s aesthetic, as well as the Independence Day theme and, of course, the new, even gorier direction the Duffer Brothers took their beloved show in.

It seems that this goliath of a television series had solidified itself at the top of everyone’s watchlist, and no matter how crazy the plot gets, it won’t be leaving our screens anytime soon. In my opinion, this season really only had one downfall: the Russians. (And just to warn you, this article is going to have some major spoilers.)

Some might argue that the insertion of Russian forces in Hawkins, Indiana was heavily foreshadowed in past seasons, but others could say that that’s exactly why they shouldn’t have been introduced. Part of the genius of “Stranger Things” seasons 1 and 2 was that they didn’t give in to corny tropes; they followed the typical conspiracy theory plot line but never strayed into paranoid, crazy territory. And the ’80s were a time of particular paranoia.

In what some refer to as the third Red Scare, the ’80s were a time when citizens and political officials across the U.S. lived in a constant state of fear of Russian infiltration in American life and government. It was slightly different from previous Red Scares because the fear was that there would be a direct Russian takeover, rather than the fear of communist influence on America and other foreign countries that characterized the first two.

During the third Red Scare, everyone was afraid that the USSR was building up its forces, both at home and in the States, to launch an all-out attack; we were still in the tail end of the Cold War, and both the Soviets and Americans poured significant work into research on weaponry and possible paranormal activity, just in case the other decided to make a move.

For the most part, however, this fear was all for nothing; neither side ever really did anything, and, by the early ’90s, tensions had dissipated. That’s precisely what was so brilliant about the refusal of “Stranger Things” to make Russians the villains in seasons 1 and 2: It felt like a commentary on the unnecessary paranoia of that decade. From the very beginning of the weird events in Season 1, all the characters in Hawkins were quick to assume that Russian spies must have been responsible, only to find out later that it was their own government all along.

In Season 3, that all changes and, suddenly (and without any real explanation), there are indeed Russians in Hawkins; not only that, but they’re attempting to do the exact same thing that the U.S. government had been doing in the previous two seasons. This creates some major issues.

Firstly, the critique of unwarranted, Cold War-era Russian suspicion goes right out the window, because if the Russians really are behind it, everyone’s fear is right. Gone is the allure of a subtle political statement; now, “Stranger Things” stands as just another hyper-patriotic, capitalist popcorn show with no real message. It’s just reality-blind entertainment.

The second issue is that it just doesn’t make any sense with the plot. There was no tangible sign of the Soviet Union doing anything within Hawkins in past episodes. Sure, the people running the lab were afraid that Russians might be working on the same things that they were, but there was no substantial evidence that the Russians were anywhere near Indiana.

And then here we are, only a few years later, in a mall full of Russians. How did we get here? How did all of this happen so fast? And how did everyone’s previous fears, that we thought had been squashed, come to fruition without explanation?

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In a time that could be considered the fourth Red Scare, making Russians the main villains might seem appropriate. We are living in Trump’s America that worries about foreign — namely, Russian — intervention in our elections and the corruption of our government officials in the interest of their foreign businesses. But in “Stranger Things,” this nod to the past could have been executed in a much better way.

The spirit of “Stranger Things” lies in conspiracy; the first season fairly quickly establishes a level of distrust in the government, as they were the ones who opened Hawkins to the Upside Down, and they were the ones who abused children like Eleven.

Yet, in Season 3, this distrust vanishes almost completely and is replaced by an overwhelming patriotic response. When Hopper learns about the Russians, he contacts the federal government to come and stop them without a second thought, and Erica has an entire speech about her love of capitalism. Heck, the whole thing centers around an Independence Day festival. How are viewers supposed to just accept that the government went from villains to heroes without explanation?

With its third season, “Stranger Things” lost its conspiracy theory appeal. Instead of a clever commentary on Cold War-era relations and suspicions between the United States and Russia, it became a simple sci-fi series meant to give cheap thrills and good spooks.

Don’t get me wrong; “Stranger Things” is still an amazing show, full of lovable characters and plenty of action, and I’m sure everyone will once again stay up all night to tune into Season 4. It just doesn’t have the same political undertone and subtle genius it once had in abundance because the Russians had to step in and ruin it. Our only hope is that some of our questions will be answered when we travel all the way over to Kamchatka next time.

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