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Stranger Things on America: ‘It’s not rigged!’

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My colleague Dylan Pahman posted a worthwhile reflection on the contrast between communism and free markets in the Cold War-era setting of Stranger Things.

I had his analysis in mind while watching the conclusion of the show’s third season, and in ep. 7 (“The Bite”) there’s a noteworthy exchange between Alexei, the Russian scientist, and Murray Bauman, the Russian-speaking American conspiracy theorist. The two visit the Hawkins fair, which presents an entirely new world to Alexei.

Alexei is under the impression that to “join in the fun” of the fair, he must be an American citizen. Murray responds: “Who said you had to be an American to join the fun?”

“It doesn’t get more American than this, my friend,” says Murray, as he rattles off a list of critical tropes of American culture and society: “Fatty foods, ugly decadence, rigged games.”

Alexei expresses disbelief. “They are all rigged, these games?” he wonders. “They don’t look rigged.” Alexei had already familiarized himself with the diversity of consumer options and freedom in America, expressing his clear preference for cherry slurpees. Now he is presented with a cornucopia of games, prizes, and food and cannot believe that it is all fraudulent.

Murray, quick to correct Alexei’s naivete, points to all the lights, rides, and especially the midway games, and tells Alexei that it may seem incredible, but yes, in fact, that the whole system is rigged. The genius of the system, representative of America more broadly, says Murray, is that the games “have been designed to present the illusion of fairness! But it’s all a scam, a trick, to put your money in the rich man’s pocket. That, my dear friend, is America.”

A wonderful thing about this scene is how it reverses the expected roles, as Murray becomes the mouthpiece for communist propaganda as well as the cynical, cultured despisers of capitalism more broadly. Alexei, the Russian, is cast in the role of an outsider who comes to this strange new land of wealth, lights, and opportunity, and can see its merits clearly.

And as Alexei learns himself so potently, winning a giant Woody Woodpecker stuffed animal: “It’s not rigged!”

“It’s not rigged!”

That’s not the end of the story, of course, and the system doesn’t always work perfectly. But the contrast between American free markets and Soviet communism and their consequences is stark in Alexei’s adventure at the American fair.

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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