There are three scenes in Stranger Things’ third season that are incredibly disturbing and problematic, but no one seems to be talking about them. CW: Rape allegory; Spoilers
In Stranger Things 3, the Mind Flayer is back but in a much more menacing form, and the stakes are higher than ever — multiple lives are lost. However, the darkest aspect of the season is something the show handles so poorly that it seems to be both a misguided attempt to highlight the tragic effects of domestic abuse and an exploitative plot device for the sake of added horror.
For starters, a strobe light warning is featured at the beginning of each episode — as it should be — but viewers are given absolutely no warning about the rape allegory, by which I mean the manner in which Billy offers up Heather, Heather’s mother and Eleven to the Mind Flayer.
For context, if you haven’t watched the entire season, the Mind Flayer’s new agenda is to build an army by mind-controlling people. Its first victim is Billy, but we don’t actually see what it does to him. We just see the aftermath.
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When Billy starts acting weird in episode two (written by the Duffer Brothers), his co-worker Heather, who is around his age, checks up on him. He proceeds to violently knock her out; bind, gag and kidnap her; carry her into the Mind Flayer’s lair; and lay her down on her back.
When she starts waking up, he pins her down, leans down and says menacingly: “Don’t be afraid. It’ll be over soon. Just stay very still.” Then, the Mind Flayer appears, Heather screams, and the episode ends on a close-up of Billy being unfazed.
The implication of the scene is jarring and horrifying, and it got me thinking: How had I not seen a connection before between mind control/possession and rape when Will was possessed last season? Looking back now, it seems obvious.
In episode three, written by the executive producer Shawn Levy, he screams at the Mind Flayer to go away, and instead, it swirls around him and goes inside him through his mouth and nose. It’s extremely horrifying, but the sci-fi elements of the scene also distract from the true nature of what’s really happening, which is seemingly what the writer intended.
For comparison, let’s turn to an episode he wrote this season, episode three, which continues to establish the pattern that Stranger Things only overtly uses the rape allegory when its women are being offered up for possession.
Now under the Mind Flayer’s control, Heather works with Billy to kidnap her parents. When her parents wake up in the lair, they are bound and gagged, but they’re not lying on their backs. Instead, they’re sitting upright, connoting that they are hostages, not sex slaves — until Billy speaks to Heather’s mom.
Heather speaks first to her father, who begs her to come to her senses because “she can stop this.” She replies matter-of-factly, “There is no stopping it, Daddy. You’ll see.” Then, she strokes his cheek and walks away. It’s chilling, but not in the same way. It’s chilling in a sci-fi way because it’s clear the Mind Flayer is speaking through Heather about its plan.
Then, Billy approaches Heather’s mom and removes her gag. She immediately starts calling out for Heather, and Billy forces her mouth shut. Then, once again, he leans in and says menacingly: “Try not to move.”
See that difference in dialogue? Just like her husband, she’s literally tied up. She literally cannot move. And yet, that is the one and only thing Billy says to her. What purpose could it possibly serve other than to reinforce the allegory?
The allegory is revisited for a final time in the finale (written by the Duffer Brothers), but it is the most disturbing instance by far because Eleven, a child, is the one being offered up. In this case, it’s because the Mind Flayer knows she’s the only being powerful enough to defeat it, so it wants to kill her. Having been so badly injured in a previous battle with the Mind Flayer, she can’t walk on her own and her powers no longer work (I guess the Mind Flayer doesn’t know that, though?), Eleven is unable to fend off Billy.
He knocks her out, kidnaps her and lays her down on her back. Once again, he leans down and says menacingly, “Don’t be afraid. It’ll be over soon. Just try and stay very still.” Just as the Mind Flayer appears, El’s friends start attacking it with fireworks, and El tries to escape. Billy drags her back kicking and screaming and slams her down to the floor as she continues to resist.
Ultimately, El saves herself by appealing to the innocent, happy kid Billy used to be. She “meets” his younger self in episode six while she’s exploring his mind to try to find him. In the memory flashback, we see him transform from that kid into a bully after his warm, loving mother leaves his abusive father and leaves Billy behind, seemingly in a misguided attempt to protect Billy.
Back in the present, Billy is so moved by El reminding him about his mother that he changes his mind and sacrifices himself to the Mind Flayer instead and dies a martyr. Is it better than him letting the Mind Flayer kill El? Yes, obviously. But it also feels problematic.
After all, what are we supposed to take away from the story exactly? Were Billy’s actions entirely the result of the Mind Flayer’s influence? Or did it merely heighten Billy’s abusive impulses?
The latter seems more likely, especially when you consider the manner in which Billy interacted with the women. Why would the Mind Flayer need Billy to treat them in such a manner? He didn’t treat Heather’s father that way, and yet the Mind Flayer was still able to mind control Heather’s father. In other words, the Mind Flayer’s plan did not depend upon Billy using rape-coded language and behavior, so why did he use it?
Was it partially because the writers were exploitatively trying to add an extra dark element to those scenes to amp up the horror? And if Billy already had these deeply disturbing impulses/fantasies inside of him that the Mind Flayer was simply encouraging him to act on, then I ask again: What are we supposed to take away from the story? Is it that a proxy rapist can still be a hero in the end, as long as they change their behavior… when it counts (aka when the character we care most about is in danger)? That’s a pretty messed up takeaway.
It’s also worth noting that not only is there no content warning of this rape allegory in any of the episodes in which it is featured or about domestic violence in episode six in which Billy’s father is shown physically and verbally abusing his mother, there is also no message about resources for domestic violence survivors at the end of any of those episodes.
If the Duffer Brothers were earnestly trying to raise awareness about this issue, how could they not have thought to include either of those messages, especially when not including them could hurt the very people they’re supposedly trying to help?
And, lastly, let’s talk about their treatment of Will, Stranger Things‘ first survivor of Mind Flayer possession, in season three. He’s relatively sidelined for the first few episodes, but it has a narrative purpose, which becomes clear in episode three. Will calls out Mike and Lucas for ignoring him and spending all their time with El and Max. It’s heartbreakingly well done, thanks to Noah Schnapp, but the show also doesn’t dwell on it for long. Mike and Lucas apologize sincerely, and Will forgives them but only because he feels humiliated and wants to just move on.
It’s a realistic reaction, but it also serves a purpose. The show wants to move on with its overarching plot, so the writers sideline Will, exactly like Mike and Lucas did, because he’s deemed relatively unnecessary to the plot for the rest of the season outside of his connection to the Mind Flayer.
Every time, the Mind Flayer is near Will senses it on the back of his neck and warns his friends. The vast majority of Will’s dialogue this season is something in the vein of: “It’s here.” He’s literally relegated to being a plot device. So what is the takeaway from that? Frankly, it’s that the writers do not view Will as being inherently important to the show. Instead, being a Mind Flayer survivor is what makes him important, which is once again a pretty messed up takeaway.