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Deep inside section 7 of Stranger Things‘fourth season, Dustin triggers a very good joke. He, Lucas and Max are at the edge of Lovers’ Lake looking out while their friends search for what they think may be an underwater portal to Upside Down. As he watches them search, he realizes that this new passage to the underworld could have a very funny name: Watergate.
This current season of Stranger Things takes place in the spring of 1986, a dozen years after the scandal that took over Richard Nixon’s presidency. Some of Dustin’s friends – mostly the elderly – get his gag. Others react just a little awkwardly. But looking at it in 2022, as congressional hearings on the January 6 uprising take place on another channel, it’s hard not to want to go back to a time when a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC looked like it would be the most embarrassing thing ever to end an American presidency. To be kind and rewind.
Much has already been written about what nostalgia is like Stranger Things‘secret sauce. It’s true that part of its fandom is composed of Gen Xere and millennials who still remember a time when someone could sincerely ask “What is the Internet?” People who miss Clear Pepsi and The Police Academy and lock childhood spent on runways.
And while watching Stranger Things now still pressing all the same nostalgia buttons, it also hits some more. It may contain references to Nintendo and Nightmare on Elm Street (and a cameo from Freddy himself, Robert Englund), but one of its most important underlying plots is Satanic panic and fear that Dungeons & Dragons would lead children to necromancy. It also centers again on deep-seated fears from the Cold War era of Russian interference in American life. And in 2022, when Russia invades Ukraine and the January 6 hearings take over the airwaves in much the same way as the Watergate hearings did in 1973, thoughts of a time when D&D was a more frequent PTA topic than active shooting exercises give a very unpleasant feeling of comfort. And then we look at.
Part of this, however, comes from historical details Stranger Things have chosen to forget the 1980s. There is no mention of the AIDS crisis, no discussion of the catastrophic effects of War on Drugs (although a “Just Say No” poster is clearly visible at some point). Nobody talks about the Iran-Contra affair, though The Tower Commission began only later in 1986, so it may be on its way. Most of the action stems from events in the otherwise bucolic suburbs of Hawkins, Indiana. Vecna may kill teenagers, but otherwise the problems of the outside world feel like distant memories. Stranger Things do not have to include these events, but their absence helps with escapism.
And then there’s Kate Bush. The iconoclast singer / goth predecessor’s song “Running Up That Hill” has a prominent place in the current season, and as a result, it has topped the charts 37 years after its release. Some have declared a Bush renaissance. It’s apparently a song about getting to walk in someone else’s shoes, but in the show it helps a young child (I would not say which one, because spoilers) fight against the evils of the world. Both, to borrow a sentence from the song, are worth making a deal about. As above, then below.