‘Stranger Things’ Just Became About Political Things

By  · Published on January 30th, 2017

More fuel for your think pieces ahead of Season Two.

While everyone is more focused on the distracting facial expressions of Winona Ryder, the more important Stranger Things SAG Awards acceptance moment last night was David Harbour’s speech. It was the kind of thing where suddenly you’re no longer disappointed that the popular Netflix series beat out Game of Thrones, The Crown, Downton Abbey, and Westworld in the Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series category. It was surprisingly powerful. Here is what was said:

In light of all that’s going on in the world today, it’s difficult to celebrate the already celebrated Stranger Things. But this award from you, who take your craft seriously, and earnestly believe, like me, that great acting can change the world is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper. And through our art to battle against fear, self-centeredness, and exclusivity of our predominantly narcissistic culture, and through our craft to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired, they are not alone.

We are united in that we are all human beings and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive. Now, as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 Midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no homes. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters.

And when we are at a loss amid the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the disenfranchised and the marginalized, and we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy. We thank you for this responsibility. Thank you.

Unlike a lot of political statements made by celebrities at awards shows, this one represents the entire ensemble up on stage and to a degree the series itself. Based on Ryder’s reaction(s), the barely veiled jab at the Trump Administration might seem to have come without warning or vetted approval from Harbour’s co-stars, though at least some of them were aware of the speech ahead of time. He told press backstage:

“We were at dinner the other night and it was Cara [Buono] and the teens and myself, and I was like, ‘Guys, I want to say this kind of crazy speech. Can I run it by you?’” he told reporters backstage in the press room. “Charlie [Heaton] was like, ‘No, no, you’ll ruin it. You’ll jinx us.’ But finally we beat him into submission and I did do it for them.

“But it even changed last night based on the protests going on at the airports,” he noted. “But they did help me and they did reassure me that it was an OK thing to say, and that it wasn’t pretentious.”

Harbour didn’t expect the show to win the award, and if it hadn’t then the speech would have remained unheard and fans could continue enjoying Stranger Things as rather simple nostalgic entertainment. But the speech did happen, and with it the plot of the series has been deemed by the actor analogous to current events. As the “darker” second season continues filming with release expected for this summer, we may also anticipate with it our projections of more political metaphors.

Season One of Stranger Things wasn’t immune to political discussion. The series inspired think pieces of all varieties, including address of its literal Cold War themes as well as claim that its popularity also explains the rise of Donald Trump. “Arguably we were winning under [President Ronald] Reagan. We won the Cold War. We were a superpower in the ’80s. The economy was booming,” Republican strategist John Thomas told Business Insider. “So I think that’s what a lot of people want to go back to.”

The show could also be read in support of the other side of the aisle. President Obama is a fan, after all, and told the cast that he dug what they were all about. Maybe homophobia is the true monster of the show, especially when its setting is the state which now-Vice President and known homophobe Mike Pence was governing. Or perhaps it’s a series for Libertarians since the government is the villain? Really, though, it is just a common story involving the theme of distrusting authority, ideas still particularly resonant just a decade after Watergate.

Stranger Things is no more specifically and definitively political than the many movies it’s inspired by and references, from The Thing and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Firestarter and The Goonies. Or more so than Star Wars, which has very easily drawn parallels to conflicts throughout history and up through today. Yet while most of these entertainments are rejected by their creators or higher ups as making direct statements ‐ such as Disney’s Bob Iger claiming Star Wars, specifically Rogue One, is not political at all ‐ Harbour’s speech gives weight to the political intentions or interests of at least some involved with Stranger Things.

We needn’t go back and apply everything in the first season to how Harbour aligned the elements with political innuendo, but it will be difficult going into Season Two without thinking of the current political climate and how its plot might similarly be relevant. With the setting advancing to 1984, all the Duffer Brothers need to do is have the kids mention that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom isn’t as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark because there’s no Nazi punching. Or the very year itself could be seen as significant to the claims that the Trump presidency is scarily Orwellian.

Obviously Harbour’s speech isn’t officially aligned with the series, no more than was Matthew Modine’s personal statement last fall against Trump’s candidacy for the White House. But could it be more collectively linked to the Netflix property in a way that has Trump supporters turned off from watching? Conservatives are used to celebs spouting political opinions in the spotlight of awards shows and those favoring even this administration may not pay any greater attention to this particular speech.

When You Love a TV Show But Don’t Want a Second Season

So far neither the Duffer Brothers nor Netflix has acknowledged the speech in one way or another (though Ross Duffer reportedly said “we’ll see” regarding the chance of modern political echoes a day earlier), and maybe they won’t need to. Maybe the SAG Awards aren’t recognized enough for the moment to have legs. Perhaps all the Ryder gifs will distract enough from the words being spoken at the same time. It was nevertheless a bold idea for Harbour to make such a notable and memorable political statement while speaking for at least the entire cast of Stranger Things.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.