Stranger Things 2 premiered on Netflix the same weekend that dozens of white nationalists and neo-Nazis rallied in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
Both events featured white men masking anxiety over their social status in racism and violence. In the Volunteer State on Saturday, these were the supremacists emboldened by the rise of President Donald Trump. In Stranger Things 2, it was Billy Hargrove — the older stepbrother of Max — who seethes, and eventually explodes, when his stepsister becomes friends with her black classmate, Lucas Sinclair.
Stranger Things 2 isn’t lacking for tension. But some of the more suspenseful passages in the Duffer Brothers’ supernatural thriller have nothing to do with demogorgons or shadow monsters. They instead deal with a more ordinary specter: impending racist violence. And the perpetrator is a white high schooler who embodies the white rage and disaffection that largely characterized Trump’s rise.
(Editor’s note: Spoilers for the Stranger Things 2 ahead.)
The audience’s first hint that Billy has problems beyond excess testosterone is when he sees Max, his stepsister, leaving school in a huff after talking to Lucas.
“This is serious shit, OK?” Billy barks, grabbing Max’s arm. “I’m older than you. And something you learn is that there’s a certain type of people in this world that you stay away from. And that kid, Max. That kid is one of them.”
From this point, fear of what might happen to Lucas if Billy discovers he and Max are hanging out hovers over the protagonists’ adventures. The tension is present in Billy’s glare after he sees the black boy in an arcade Max just left. It mounts when Lucas stops by Billy and Max’s house later, and Max has to sneak him around back so they can ride off to confront monsters together. Billy, cigarette dangling from his mouth, bursts out of the door seconds after Lucas moves out of sight.
The climax of this cat-and-mouse game comes when Billy finally catches Max with Lucas and her new friends. Billy fights past Steve Harrington, a friend of the kids’ and Billy’s nemesis at the local high school, and throws Lucas against a wall, where he holds the much smaller boy around his neck. Lucas’ gaze never wavers. He kicks Billy in the groin to break free. The confrontation ends when Max stabs her stepbrother in the neck with a syringe full of sedative, knocking him unconscious.
Between these incidents are scattered insights into why Billy is the way he is. Where he initially presents as merely a sociopathic bully, the audience learns later that his father abuses him verbally and physically, making their relationship one of routine power plays and insults. Central to his father’s abuse are challenges to Billy’s masculinity. He calls Billy a “faggot” for primping in the mirror and, mere hours before Billy does the same to Lucas, presses his son against a wall by his neck area.
That this violence manifests in Billy as bullying and bigotry is unsurprising. In his anger upon seeing his stepsister with a black boy, the audience recognizes a history of white male anxiety regarding black male advances toward white women. The stereotype of the rapacious black brute has been used to justify countless lynchings throughout American history. Many were framed as retribution for black men or boys allegedly approaching white women with too much familiarity.
Relatedly, white anxiety around such challenges to their social dominance have reached a new apex lately. The coalition of bigots that has grown increasingly vocal in the Trump era ranges from white voters fearful of what immigration from Latin America could spell for their economic prospects; to those who believe Muslims are a terrorist threat; to those who continue rationalizing or applauding perpetual black death at the hands of police; to those more explicit in their desire for a white ethno-state.
The more extreme wing of this broad ideology rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee there, leaving one counter-protester dead. Many of the same came to Tennessee over the weekend to reassert their claim to white hegemony in the United States.
It’s hard not to recognize some of these young men in Billy. An unknown amalgam of individual experiences and decisions have led them all to conclude that shows of strength articulated through racism were key to maintaining their sense of power. One can see Billy walking a similar path some day. Yet where Billy is defeated by a group of misfits working together, paired with the intervention of his own stepsister, such closure is far from America’s reality today.
Instead, some of this movement’s ideological proponents — Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, to name two — have been invited to shape the policies of Trump’s administration. No TV fantasy will rid America of the stain they’ve left. Where Stranger Things 2 presents a sort of catharsis, the real world remains defined by uncertainty.