This article contains major Stranger Things 3 spoilers up to the fourth episode.
We’ve seen this grisly sight before. A tragedy of such cruelty, folks are crowding the streets, protesting in anger, and a lone sheriff has been summoned by a deputy to keep the peace. Meanwhile a mayor in a blue and white striped shirt stands waiting, coolly collected and prepared to pressure law enforcement into seeing the big picture, even at the expense of a town being preyed upon by a monster. Yes, this is where we find Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) early in Steven Spielberg’s seminal Jaws blockbuster, but it’s also the predicament of his spiritual, beefier descendent in Stranger Things 3. Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) arrives at Hawkins’ town hall to find his community in crisis, but not because of a 25-foot leviathan waiting for bathers off a nearby coast. This terror is something much more abstract but just as devastating in the fiscal long-term: a new mall just opened.
This is the metatextual reference or “easter egg” most at the heart of Stranger Things’ hazy summer days (alongside Invasion of the Body Snatchers parallels), and it’s not just done to elicit nostalgia and a smile. Of course there is plenty of both. In Jaws, the local business community was descending on the mayor to keep their shops and summer dollars open, and in Stranger Things 3 it is much the same thing except that in the series’ 1985 setting (as opposed to the Spielberg movie’s 1975 release), the mayor no longer stands with them. In fact, he is who they are aiming most of their ire at.
Cary Elwes makes for an especially slimy politician in his nostalgia-based casting too. Following in the tradition of Matthew Modine, Sean Astin, and Paul Reiser in previous seasons, Elwes is here due to being one of the perennial faces of your ‘80s movies memories—in his case as Wesley, the farm boy turned pirate of The Princess Bride (1987). However, what he’s actually playing in Stranger Things is an even nastier variation on Murray Hamilton’s Mayor Larry Vaughn in Jaws. He wears similar attire to Vaughn and obviously has the same first name. But what makes Elwes’ Mayor Larry Kline nastier is his greedy choices are not only shortsighted about the safety of his flock; they’re intentionally designed to prey on them.
Like the mayor in Jaws, Larry Kline cares more about Fourth of July celebrations than he does about the local copper’s concern. “At the end of the day that’s all the voters remember,” Kline says of the upcoming fireworks show. Similarly, Jaws‘ Chief Brody struggles to protect Amity Island from an oversized guppy because the mayor does not want to close the beaches with the Fourth of July on the horizon, and then only agrees to it after a second swimmer is eaten… albeit for a meager 24 hours. Larry Vaugn’s rationale isn’t that he thinks the man-eating shark which consumed Chrissie Watkins has swum away (as it would in real-life), but because he’s afraid even letting the press know there was a shark attack would scare off tourists. And when it happened again, he jumped on the first shark killed as evidence the crisis was over, let the Fourth of July feeding frenzy commence.
He did this for small town America, hoping to save all the local businesses who relied on tourists for their seasonal-based incomes. The Fourth of July is, after all, the event of the season. What a difference 10 years can make though. Whereas Larry Vaughn stood by the supply side concerns of small businesses, Stranger Things’ Larry Kline is feeding on them himself. As Kline eventually reveals via torture, he is getting backend dividends by the money the mall brings into Hawkins.
As a major supporter of the local mall, Larry Kline initially tells Hopper, “It’s helped their economy grow… Now that’s not me, that’s just good old-fashioned American capitalism.” Like any good product of the Reaganomics that dominated that decade, Kline views corporatism as a godsend and knows greed is good (that quote would appear a few years later in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street). Instead of a shark scaring away tourists, a giant mall is absorbing all dollars, summer or otherwise, and the same businesses that the money-obsessed conservative politician protected in Jaws are now being put out of business. Worse in Stranger Things 3, the mall is actually housing a Russian operation that’s carelessness is producing real-world monsters that are killing citizens by scores bigger than any shark. It is a comical commentary on the economics of the ‘80s that we’re still being drained from—the pivot of the the United States toward being a service-based economy that is mostly controlled by an ever shrinking handful of corporations.
It also leads to a more esoteric cynicism in Jim Hopper, who after having a particularly bad day quotes Brody when he says, “I can do whatever I want, I’m the chief of police.” Granted Hopper says this because he is about to drive drunk after being stood up by Joyce Byers, and Brody says it because he wants to disobey the mayor and cut up a big fish downtown, but the sentiment remains the same—plus Brody was also pouring himself half a bottle of wine when he asserted his thin authority.
Unlike Brody though, there is nothing thin about Hopper getting physical with his mediocre mayor and nearly feeding his finger to a cigar cutter. It is after that when Elwes’ Larry confesses he helped a Russian company buy up property in his town in order to bring their money into the mall (and presumably his coffers). It would seem the dear mayor would sell out his own community and country in exchange for some financial kickbacks from Russians. I’ll leave it to you, dear readers, to unpack the implied parallels between that and our modern American politics.
With that said, there is a more overt reflection of the modern world given that we are now likewise experiencing the death of the American mall. The shopping epicenters that drained countrysides across the nation of small business dollars in favor of centralized convenience are now the ones fading away due to the proliferation of the internet absorbing most of Americans’ small purchases and free time. With more shopping online, the think-pieces that once decried the death of small businesses now weep for the malls that were once viewed as the economic enemy 30 years ago. In a modern world where Barnes & Noble goes from the big bad of Hollywood’s You’ve Got Mail to the booksellers industry’s last champion against Amazon, another truism about Jaws’ sequels is revealed: there’s always a bigger fish.
Listen to our analysis of Stranger Things on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: