(Note: SPOILERS ahead. Lots of 'em. You've been warned!)
Although it was released to Netflix a full three months ago, on July 15th, the 1980s-set supernatural thriller Stranger Things continues to dominate popular culture. Its characters make surprise appearances on awards shows, its credit font continues to appear in memes, and internet petitions are still going around demanding justice for Barb. It makes sense that this show should have become such a phenomenon; apart from simply being good, well crafted television, its Spielberg and Stephen King-influenced retro vibe is catnip for genre fans like myself who grew up with the original influences. And apart from that, the characters (and performances) are all solid. We all love the quartet of kids, we all cry when Winona Ryder cradles the Christmas lights, we all (as mentioned above) demand justice for Barb.
There’s another pair of characters, however, who have been overlooked in much of the discussion about the show, whom I think are absolutely crucial to the impact and resonance it's had. That would be Troy and James, the two bullies who torment our main young heroes (Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven). Sure, a pair of school bullies may not seem like much of a threat in a town where the government is conducting clandestine experiments and Demogorgons are roaming the countryside – but the emotional impact of their story arc is crucial to the show’s effect, rooting everything in an emotional truth we might otherwise not want to face.
When first we meet this pair, they behave in ways familiar from a hundred other shows and stories. Troy and James are bigger kids, our heroes are smaller and nerdier, and so the bullies go to work. We’ve seen this so many times that we’ve allowed ourselves to believe this is a perfectly normal rite of passage. But as the story progresses, we sense that something is off – these bullies are nastier than we’re accustomed to seeing. They’re not just mocking our heroes, after all – they’re mocking their missing friend Will. They hurl homophobic slurs at a classmate who is presumed by all to be dead, and they do it at his school memorial service. When confronted by it, they’re quick to violence. And when Troy is humiliated by Eleven at that service, the conflict escalates into something I don’t think I’ve ever seen presented as starkly on television.
In Episode 6, seething and vowing revenge, Troy and James stalk and physically attack Mike and Dustin as they’re riding their bikes by the quarry outside of town looking for Eleven. Grabbing hold of our heroes and holding a switchblade to Dustin, they present Mike with a psychotically sadistic choice – commit suicide by leaping into the gorge, or watch his friend be murdered in front of him. That Eleven is there to save them in the nick of time hardly mitigates the shock of this set-up – the sheer hatred emanating from these bullies, the raw fear in the eyes of these kids (who are already dealing with government forces and monsters, mind you) who know their lives genuinely hang in the balance.
This scene isn’t the only one of its kind, mind you. Stranger Things’ 80s source material has many bullying scenes for the Duffer Brothers to have drawn from. Sometimes, these bullies realize they’ve gone too far and repent – sometimes Johnny is sorry his sensei made him sweep the leg. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes they’re exactly this homicidal. One of the key reference points for this show is the Stephen King novella The Body – later the film Stand By Me – and it too features a bully with a switchblade, advancing on our young heroes with every intent to kill a child in cold blood.
Nowadays, the very word “bully” has become politicized. Mindful of larger themes of oppression, we see issues of racism and homophobia involved in the act of picking on those who were different. (Even as regards this specific show – see this Advocate think piece here.) And in response, there are those who have crawled out of the woodwork to claim that “bullying” somehow represents masculinity in crisis, a normal aggressive impulse that’s become misplaced precisely because “social justice warriors” have been trying to stamp it out. But back in the 80s, when these discourses hadn’t quite come to the forefront yet, and the authors of those classic horror tales knew they were talking to an audience who truly understood, we were perhaps a little clearer about who bullies really are. Not misguided kids who needed direction, not a set of symptoms to be medicated, not a set of social problems to be solved.
Bullies are murderers who haven’t succeeded yet.
Do they need understanding? Sure. Are there larger forces at work? Of course. Do these need to be addressed? Absolutely. But none of that changes the impulse at work. The need to dominate those weaker than ourselves is never healthy, never good. And left unchecked, it leads to behavior more monstrous than anything to be found in the Upside Down. You don’t attack somebody if you believe they have any worth, and if they have no worth you can indeed hurt them, kill them, with impunity. Does it always escalate like this? Of course not. But the whole point of civilized behavior, of any kind of community, is to ensure that it doesn’t escalate. That this behavior is not celebrated, not condoned, not allowed to continue. Ever.
In other news, the presidential election is now three weeks away. Please vote responsibly.