If I were to tell you “a great deal of American television is dedicated to portraying the glories of capitalism and tearing down anything that looks like an alternative system” you would probably say “thank you, that’s the most obvious thing I’ve ever heard.” All the same, the third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things merits special mention, since it takes the love of all things corporate to a supersized extreme. Product placement crawls across the screen, more frightening and insidious than this season’s body-snatching monsters. A legion of “Evil Russians” (they are literally referred to as “Evil Russians”) builds a gigantic evil laboratory under a good, law-abiding, honest American mall. A 10-year-old Black girl gives the following unlikely speech: “Know what I love most about this country? Capitalism. Do you know what capitalism is?…It means this is a free market system. Which means people get paid for their services depending on how valuable their contributions are.” Stranger Things has always been a Reagan-era nostalgia-fest, but generally through its popcorn-movie source material rather than as a hammy reimagining of the time period itself. There’s no hint whatsoever of acid irony or critique: Watching the third season of Stranger Things is the equivalent of bathing in the undesired sugariness of New Coke.
So you may be surprised to learn that the very same Netflix that brought us The Plucky Mallrats vs. the Red Menace has also created a show called The Society, in which a group of stranded teenagers—with hope, fear, clumsy wonder, and a lot of mistakes—explicitly, directly, textually, try to do socialism. I mean it: They actually say the word “socialism” and it’s presented as something quite positive.
How can these two shows exist on the same streaming service? I suppose The Society is simply being paid for the value of its contributions to art. That being said, The Society is only a good show, not a great one; for starters, the title is too vague, and guaranteed to get buried in Netflix’s black-box algorithmic rankings, even though Get In Losers, We’re Doing Socialism was a perfectly available choice.
So how do the teens come to embrace socialism? It’s not, alas, through a student revolution planned in the cafeteria, but through a series of mysterious occurrences. First, a weird smell pervades a small upscale Connecticut town. Then the local teens are all bussed away for an overnight school trip. The trip is suddenly canceled; the teens are turned back and dropped off in the town square, only to find that everyone else is gone. No parents, no teachers, no younger siblings, no grandparents. The town is deserted except for the teens. All roads and train tracks heading out of town now end in a massive, eerie wood crawling with snakes. There’s still electricity and water—for now—and cell service, but the characters can only reach each other, not the internet or the outside world. Where are they? Is it a parallel universe? Why is all this happening? Who has done this to them? These questions are not fully answered in the first season, and they’re ultimately unimportant. In the tradition of what’s commonly called “soft” science fiction, The Society is a thought experiment about power, gender, and civilization, with the mysterious premise serving mostly as a backdrop and a framing device.
Here’s our thought experiment: What would happen if a bunch of mostly affluent Connecticut teenagers were suddenly forced to form their own society? On the opening night in their strange new town, the teens—not yet realizing that everyone else is gone forever—throw a dance party in the empty church. But once the full reality of their situation sinks in, there’s lots of moping about and missing their parents. As boring as this is, it’s appropriately realistic. These aren’t just any kids, but the children of the upper middle class in a New York City commuter town (as one character says: “everyone’s parents are lawyers. It’s like a zoning requirement or something.”) With a few exceptions, these high schoolers are bound for Ivy League universities and private liberal arts colleges. They don’t really know how to let loose and have real fun, because they haven’t been raised to have a good time. They’ve been bred as room-meat for the professional-managerial class order, which has suddenly vanished along with their parents.
The sudden lack of social expectations throws them completely off-balance.
Cassandra, the student body president, initially attempts to instill a sense of social responsibility and communal effort. “There’s no civilization here, not until we start one,” she says. “So what are we going to do? First, I think we have no choice but to share. Share food. Share resources.” She’s joined in this effort by the only working-class character, the biracial orphan Will; and virulently opposed by the rich kids, led by the outrageously wealthy Harry and Cassandra’s own sociopathic cousin Campbell. Harry and Campbell’s position boils down to “keep what’s ours”—that is, hold on to their private property (even in the absence of their parents or any other governing authority) at all costs. Harry, in an effort to impress his estranged girlfriend Kelly and convince her of the rightness of his ideology, shows her a stack of gold bars that his father put in a safe “in case things go to shit…You can’t trust anybody. All you can do is have an advantage, and this is mine.” Kelly, skeptically eyeing a gold bar, replies, “It’s just a chunk of metal, Harry. I don’t think that’s gonna matter now.”
At first, most of the teens follow Harry and Campbell’s example, and anarcho-capitalism reigns supreme, with everyone just hoarding and hiding while the trash accumulates behind their houses. But 10 days of chaos culminate in a violent, drunken riot, with smashed windows and burned-out cars. Almost all the perpetrators are boys. The next day, Cassandra gathers the girls and organizes them into a socialist feminist liberation front. “Right now it’s just pillage, but how long until someone’s raped walking home one night and no one gives a shit because that’s just how it is?” Cassandra argues. “Women aren’t safe in a world that’s run by brute force and stupidity. If we want peace, we need order. And to get order, we need to exert our power.” From this moment follows a delightful series of scenes, cutting from conversation to conversation across town, in which different groups of girls organize, recognizing their power (“We’re like, half the town. Women. More than half, I think. I mean, if we all just said ‘stuff needs to change’, would they be able to say no?”) and discussing how to convince their boyfriends.
Interestingly, however, these grassroots feminist organizers are not the first characters on the show to directly say the forbidden word “socialism”: that comes out of the innocent mouths of the jocks.
The jocks are easily the funniest characters in the show: I’ve transcribed their conversation in full, because it’s great.
I’ve been thinking. What if we like, didn’t… take stuff? Like food or whatever? Wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, right? Sharing? It could be like… socialism. There’s no “I” in team, right?
Erika give you that talk?
Oh really? ’Cause Gwen said that exact shit to me last night. Lukey?
Well, it’s not like it worked in China. Socialism…
It kind of worked. Everything’s made in China.
Grizz (the smart one):
China’s a poor example. The party took complete priority over the workers. In reality, we’ve never seen a true socialist state.
Maybe all the Chinese women said they wouldn’t put out unless the men got on board.
Jason (with horror):
Gwen said that TOO?
(Jason, Clark, and Luke all take a moment to realize they are being Lysistrated).
Luke (after a pause):
Well, socialism it is.
Letting the silly jocks introduce socialism by name, and agree to it reluctantly in exchange for sex—rather than having the earnest, organized girls declare themselves openly and seriously in favor of socialism—feels like a deliberate narrative choice, and if it is, it’s a clever one. Introducing socialism in an offhanded, funny way makes the concept more palatable to an audience that’s been wired by decades of propaganda to see socialism as inherently dangerous and doomed. The script even brings up the classic “what about China/Venezuela/the Soviet Union” canard, but then allows it to be shot down by the well-read Grizz. This is simply not done on mainstream American television, or at least quite rarely.
Few reviewers grasped the significance of this socialist theme. One critic writes that the anger later directed at Cassandra by the some of the boys “who blame her for their girlfriends’ sudden unified assertion of power—[is] no doubt a pointed and intentional storyline in the aftermath of the 2016 election.” This is a fascinating misapplication of the politics in play—Cassandra is doing socialism, deliberately and explicitly: organizing the other girls, instituting communal housing and communal dining, conserving the town’s limited resources, and creating fair work schedules. There is nothing Hillary-like about her approach, her policies, or her ideology. Another review compares Cassandra to Elizabeth Warren. That’s arguably a hair closer, but still entirely missing the point: The feminist empowerment of Cassandra and the other girls is inextricable from the socialist society they are forming; their socialism is feminism. Could you give an American audience—accustomed to a media diet of rah-rah capitalism and praise for patriarchal control—a show in which a united front of girls say directly “hey, we’re going to do socialism?” Of course not; it would be interpreted as propaganda. (Whereas the third season of Stranger Things, of course, is “just a show,” even though capitalism just so happens to be portrayed, at every turn, as an unadulterated good.) So the boys of The Society say the forbidden word, jokingly, while the girls institute socialist policies. The show challenges our conventional propaganda model subtly, instead of too directly for audience comfort.
The burst of organization, activity, and creativity under Cassandra’s reign doesn’t last long. The rich kids grumble at the work schedules, but everyone contributes. The jocks are formed into the Guard, and station themselves outside the grocery stores (unarmed, but wearing intimidating letter jackets) to discourage looting. Since there must be roses as well as bread, Cassandra and Kelly organize prom. Everyone seems fairly happy—everyone, of course, except Harry and his group of malcontented rich boys, who have been forced to open their five-bedroom mini-mansions to their fellow students. In an ironic mirroring of the way Cassandra deliberately gathered all the girls together for socialist organizing, Harry casually summons a select group of rich guys to complain about the new feminist order. Kelly has officially dumped him because, as Harry claims, “she’s just copying Cassandra… she wants to turn the whole world upside down.” The conversation escalates into misogynist mudslinging at Cassandra’s expense. A scrawny, background nobody named Dewey takes what he hears seriously and decides that something must be done. He shoots and kills Cassandra.
The death of the charismatic Cassandra throws the fledging socialist order into disarray, and highlights one of the most thoughtful conceits of The Society: It portrays socialism as difficult, but not inherently impossible. There’s a common right wing argument that socialism can’t succeed because “human nature” (that clear, obviously-defined concept) naturally forbids it. As John O’Sullivan writes in the National Review, “Human nature is the set of hopes, ambitions, and ideals that explains why socialism succeeds politically, but also the hopes, ambitions, and ideals that explain why socialism eventually fails economically, socially, morally, and thus politically too.” Accustomed to this right-wing framing, I fully expected that, at some point during The Society, a character would turn to the screen and say, with wisdom and gentle regret, that socialism just can’t work because of The Way People Are. But this never happens, at least not in the currently available season. The teens struggle with socialism, but their problems all descend from the inequalities, hierarchies, and technologies of violence they’ve inherited. Cassandra’s unready younger sister, Allie, who is pushed into the leadership vacuum left by Cassandra’s death, optimistically claims, “This [town] is a new place with no history.” But she’s wrong. Even these young, inexperienced people have brought their history with them.
In the aftermath of Cassandra’s murder, the immediate problem is gun violence: Belying the myth that guns are a red state problem, this rich Connecticut town is filthy with guns. Even the pro-“socialism” characters can’t extricate themselves from the history and imagery of institutional violence. When Allie and the rest of her council figure out who murdered Cassandra, the Guard tries to initiate a pre-dawn raid to arrest Dewey. But they have absolutely no idea what to do besides imitate SWAT/cop TV tropes, like kicking down the door (and failing), and arguing over whether to read the suspect his Miranda rights. Jason says, “Law and Order, man. You don’t read the bad guy his rights, he gets away like every time.” Grizz retorts, “There’s no more legal system, Jason! We’re living in some sort of fucking blackhole anti-universe!” Less humorously, Clark—the most sadistic and impulsive of the jocks—later beats the shit out of the imprisoned Dewey, trying to get him to confess. But can you really blame Clark? He saw it on TV, in shows like 24 and movies like Zero Dark Thirty, in photos from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The teens may have arrived in a blackhole anti-universe, but all the evil arrived with them.
In addition to misogyny, the teens have also inherited racism. After Dewey is sentenced in the best imitation of a legitimate trial the teens can muster, he spews hatred: “Cassandra was a fucking bitch. So is her sister and her black boyfriend that makes all the rules.” This is a reference to Will, who is just Allie’s friend and like totally not even her boyfriend at this point, but the mere hint of miscegenation is enough to send Dewey over the edge. He didn’t invent his racism or his misogyny, but learned it all from the old world. At the conclusion of his speech, he sounds exactly like a 4chan-inspired incel killer: “… the women here. Fucking bitches who won’t give us the time of day, who think we owe them everything? I killed Cassandra for everyone, because she had it coming.”
After Dewey’s confession, Allie and the rest of the leadership council face a dilemma: What are they to do with him? They can’t imprison him in a wine cellar forever. They have no knowledge of restorative justice. Rehabilitation never occurs to them; they simply don’t have the education, the institutions, or the training. (Grizz, despite his broad humanities education, apparently hasn’t yet read Angela Davis or Mariame Kaba). All the teens know is coercion, authority, and the threat of violence. They execute Dewey in the woods.
From here, the teens devolve into semi-authoritarianism—often encouraged by Will, who obviously fears what will happen if the rich white boys get their power back. Allie is a weak, vacillating executive at first, and she’s invested with too much power, reigning as a sort of quasi-queen. She lacks her sister’s charisma, and also Cassandra’s understanding of the collective nature of socialist power. Eventually realizing her mistakes, Allie does attempt to rectify the damage she’s caused by opening up free elections, but by then it’s too late; there’s too much distrust of the violence she and her Guard have caused. But again, this is never framed, implicitly or explicitly, as “human beings must naturally devolve into authoritarianism.” Time and again, the teens are portrayed as kids who are just trying to do what’s right, despite the evils they’ve inherited, and the general lack of creative solutions available to them from the old world. A review in Variety insists that “despite—or maybe thanks to—their best efforts, [the teens’] attempts to make a revolutionary new order end up looking an awful lot like the more rigid, heteronormative one in which they all grew up.” This is of course, exactly the point—it is very difficult for the teens to shed the awful attitudes they’ve been raised with. Grizz, who finally comes out as gay, says to Sam, his semi-closeted sort-of boyfriend, “We might be in a new fucking universe and we also might starve in here. How do you want to live, Sam?” He’s referring to their sexuality, but also of course to the entire situation; the teens have arrived in a new world, and they can make choices. Those choices are constrained by the history of the old world they brought with them, but at the same time, they can still choose how they want to live.
The repeat misunderstandings of the show’s depth by its critics are not surprising: Its political orientation is atypical, plus its admitted aesthetic flaws (too many characters, frequently portentous dialogue, a slow second half) obscure a lot of its real thoughtfulness and originality. What The Society is trying to do is fundamentally hard. It’s asking a question many people are asking themselves right now in a time of frightening upheaval: How do we want to live? And it’s asking it in the context of emergency. The teens have arrived in a strange, unknowable world that could hurt them suddenly and inexplicably. In the longer term, their resources are also running out. The feeling of living in a familiar place suddenly turned dangerous and mysterious is a clear echo of climate change anxiety; by the end of the season, the teens have realized they will probably have to transform from comfortable house-dwelling suburbanites into grubby farmers. Their lives are going to be difficult, physically taxing, and utterly different from the ones their parents led. Judging by the current dire climate predictions and the difficulty of halting global capitalism’s runaway carbon emissions, this is probably going to be the case for our real-world teens also.
This imagery seems worthy of serious critical engagement, but most reviews missed its impact entirely. In a New Yorker piece titled “A teen dystopia but with, like, socialism,” Doreen St. Felix displays a snotty disregard for both socialism and teens:
…there’s an irrepressible optimism to this guilty-pleasure watch; the town-hall meetings, in which the kids earnestly debate the benefits of participatory democracy, gun restriction, and reproductive rights, would thrill Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Keyser [the showrunner] has described “The Society” as a “kind of post-Parkland conversation about what this generation of kids is thinking, and how they’re interested in remaking the world in some ways.” The writers have clearly read the polls and trend pieces that declare that “Young Americans are embracing socialism.”
No worries, parents: Socialism is just a phase, a market trend, a fashion. The kids will grow out of it, as they always do, as the hippies did. Like the father of the punk protagonist says in the movie SLC Punk, referring to his wild hippie past and currently respectable present: “I didn’t sell out, son. I bought in.” The kids will abandon leftism as they always do, once they’ve bought in. But grow out of it… into what? Buy into… where? What future, exactly, do you plan to sell to teenagers when scientists believe the planet could be reduced to a boiling stew in 30–40 years? Do you expect your kids will become respectable liberals or conservatives once they just settle down and own property? How and where on earth are you even expecting them to do that? As the Youtuber Hbomberguy said in his hilarious rejoinder to Ben Shapiro’s assertion that under climate change, people will just sell their houses and move: “Sell their houses to who, Ben? Fucking Aquaman?”
It isn’t the Kids These Days who are foolish dreamers, soon to be disabused of their childish beliefs: It’s their parents. Looking at climate projections, the rates of mass shootings, spiking economic inequality, and the rise of fascism worldwide, it’s simply a fantasy to believe that the world will go on as it once did, that children today will grow up to live more or less the same lives as their parents. Teenage activists are well aware of this. From Greta Thunberg to the Sunrise Movement to the Parkland teens to young BLM activists to the Gravel campaigners, there is a heartening rise in leftist organizing among the teens. Socialism is alive and well, and it’s not going anywhere. At the same time, a terrifying number of other teens are attracted to fascism instead; the Deweys and the Harrys of the world are also probably not going anywhere. We’re at a tipping point, and young people realize it, while too many older people think we can return to business as usual, the quiet, civilized brutality at the end of history. But the world has changed, and will not change back. The future may be harsh and mysterious and full of risk, but it’s also rich with possibility.At the end of the first season of The Society, we catch a glimpse of the parallel reality that the teens’ vanished parents are still living in. To them, it’s the children who have disappeared. Trapped in another dimension, the parents have no knowledge of the new world that the teens are inhabiting, the new civilization they’re trying to build, the dangers and difficulties and losses they’ve encountered. But the teens, on Netflix and in real life, understand much better than the adults. We can’t rely on the old hierarchies and established structures of the previous world: We have to choose, now, how we want to live.