Religion & Liberty Online

Supernatural thriller Stranger Things shows the all-too-human evil of communism

(Image credit: Netflix)

Season 4 of the Netflix mega-hit still focuses on the reality of supernatural evil, but has added a dose of natural evil as well. But where’s the supernatural good?

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The final installment of the fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things was released on July 1. According to Variety, season 4’s first installment “of the Duffer Brothers’ hit sci-fi series was viewed for 287 million hours during the week of May 23–29, landing in the No. 1 position.” The Wall Street Journal reports that the season’s nine episodes cost the streamer $270 million to produce. (Needless to say: This post contains spoilers.)

The fourth season features a return of the 1980s nostalgia fans have come to love in the show’s perfect synthesis of John Hughes, Steven Spielberg, and David Lynch. While the core of the plot centers once again on the small—and seemingly cursed—town of Hawkins, Indiana, two parallel stories play out within the town and across the country … even, in one case, behind the Iron Curtain. This latter plotline showcases the consequences of communism’s decimation of the rule of law, religious liberty, and economic freedom, while at least hinting at the value of a transcendent view of supernatural goodness.

Set in 1986, the Cold War serves as backdrop for the fate of Hawkins police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who though thought dead by the rest of the cast at the end of season 3, has actually been languishing for the past eight months in a Soviet prison. Harbour does not disappoint those hoping to reexperience the signature mix of Harrison Ford and Nick Nolte that make Hopper the knock-down, drag-out hero you can’t help but root for. His storyline begins with his attempt to escape from the Kamchatka peninsula against “hundred-to-one” odds, as Dmitri “Enzo” Antonov (Tom Wlaschiha), the corrupt prison guard assisting him, puts it.

Managing to send a message to Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), Hopper arranges for an exchange: bring the $40,000 of insurance money she received after he was presumed dead to Yuri (Nikola Đuričko), Enzo’s contact in Alaska, and Yuri will deliver Jim to Joyce.

With the help of conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), Joyce manages to get themselves and the money to the eccentric and jovial Yuri, who insists on counting it while they enjoy some coffee. At the same time, with the help of Enzo, Hopper beats the hundred-to-one odds against him in Harrison Ford, action-hero style, fleeing to Yuri’s “warehouse,” a closed Orthodox church in a deserted town. In a desperate moment, Hopper crowbars open a box and pulls out a jar of Jif peanut butter, eating a scoop with his fingers and nearly collapsing in exhaustion. Could freedom once again be in his grasp?

Back at the prison, Enzo gets a surprise call from Yuri:

YURI: I just got off the phone with your warden. A very productive call. It turns out, escaped prisoners are worth quite a bit of money. So Yuri thinks, why not keep the forty grand and make extra money?

ENZO: That wasn’t the deal.

YURI: But it is a better deal for Yuri, yes? And you know what is worth even more than escaped prisoner? Corrupt guards…. And worth most of all, Americans wanted by the KGB.

Fellow guards apprehend Enzo before he can escape, and it turns out the coffee Yuri gave Joyce and Murray was drugged. Instead of flying across the Iron Curtain to pick up Jim Hopper, who is shortly recaptured by the Soviets as well, Yuri brings Joyce and Murray as cargo aboard his biplane into Russia. And it is here that we get something of a glimpse into Yuri as more than two-dimensional. Joyce tries to appeal to Yuri on the basis of her own concerns. (This, it should be noted, is contra Adam Smith’s observation that, in commercial exchanges, “We address ourselves, not to [others’] humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”)

JOYCE: Yuri, I have a family. I have three kids waiting for me.

YURI: Did you know? Peanut butter is banned in Motherland. I buy for dollar-thirty here, sell for $20 there.

MURRAY: Your mother must be very proud.

YURI: My mother is dead … dead tired of living like a bum! You see, Yuri has family, too. And with money I earn from selling you, I will buy her a new house. I will buy my daughter a pony. Whatever they desire from now on, they will have. And, yes, for that, my mother will be very, very proud.

Lacking the rule of law and free exchange in the Soviet Union, people like Yuri were reduced to morally questionable dealings on the black market, where, as Joyce, Murray, Jim, and Enzo discovered, there are no institutions of justice to appeal to if a party breaks the terms of a contract. Yet Yuri’s natural “disposition to truck, barter, and exchange,” as Smith put it, and the fact that “Yuri has family, too,” lead him to risk such perilous exchanges and exploit their defects to his advantage.

Although Yuri begins with the upper hand, the tables turn when Murray—who boasts of being a blackbelt in karate—manages to knock Yuri out and crash-land the plane. Murray and Joyce then force Yuri to lead them to “Yuri’s warehouse.” “Let’s see what miracles it holds, yes?” says Yuri, gazing upon its gray steeple from a snow-covered hillside.

In addition to peanut butter, Yuri also has weapons among his “miracles” there. “Oh Jesus,” Murray exclaims when they open a crate of rifles. “Hey, not in a church,” Yuri reprimands, hinting at a vague cultural memory of piety, suppressed—but not conquered—by totalitarianism. The setting of the abandoned church has a palpable sadness to it that, I think, was intentional. It is a memory of what Russia once was before the revolution, and a hint at some good it might someday return to, despite tragic and disappointing news in the present.

Back in Hawkins, basketball team captain Jason Carver (Mason Dye) misappropriates Romans 12:21—“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”—in order to bolster support for his “Satanic panic” crusade against the local Dungeons & Dragons club he blames for the grotesque murders of several young people in the small town. In Jason’s defense, though he’s wrong about the Hellfire club, as the D&D-playing nerds call themselves, he’s right about the reality of supernatural evil at work in the town.

But while Stranger Things does a good job bringing such diabolic horror to life, we see only a small glimmer of supernatural good—and I don’t mean the series hero Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Eleven’s psychic powers, although used for good, simply meet might with might. They do not transcend evil with good as the Apostle commends.

Yet we do see at least a little of that supernatural good once again in Yuri, during a confrontation between him and Enzo in the final episode of the season. Murray, Joyce, and Jim need Yuri to fix his helicopter and fly them out of the prison, where they’ve returned to battle several twisted monsters from the Upside Down—the shadow dimension of horrors that intrudes into our world in Stranger Things.

ENZO: I have a question.

YURI: What if I don’t want to answer?

ENZO: Have you always been a coward?

YURI: Yuri Ismaylov is many things, you traitor. But he is no coward.

ENZO: If that is so, why do you continue to stall?

YURI: What do I owe these Americans? Nothing!

ENZO: This isn’t just about America, smuggler. They have warned us of a great evil in the world. An evil that does not rest, that does not respect borders. After it has consumed everything in their land, it will come for us. For our families. For our Motherland. You saw it with your own eyes. You know it to be true. And yet you continue to play tricks! I was told the Peanut Butter Smuggler was once a great man before he lost his way to drink and cards. That he led his men to victory over the Chinese in Damansky. Is it true?

YURI: It is true.

ENZO: That hero, where is he now? Because I do not see him.

Through an appeal to the higher virtue needed to overcome supernatural evil—and through shaming him for seeking only his own narrow advantage—Enzo tries to persuade Yuri to reconstrue self-interest for the sake of a transcendent good. But will it be enough?

I’ll save that spoiler for myself and simply say that, well, stranger things have happened.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.