Atimia, redemption, and internalised standards of behaviour
by Linda Rocchi
*SPOILER ALERT: major spoilers for Stranger Things Season 4 ahead*
“Hear me now – there will be no more retreating from Eddie the Banished!”
So Eddie Munson, the metal-head D&D master (and new fan-favourite) of ‘Stranger Things’ Season 4, proclaims, as he gets ready with his friends, home-made spiked shield in hand, for the final battle against their fearsome foe, Vecna. And, in a sense, Eddie – who was already a bit of an outcast to begin with – has done nothing but retreating, up to that point: since witnessing, powerless and terrified, the gruesome murder of Chrissy at the (supernatural) hands of Vecna in the very first episode of the season, and understandably running away from the scene, Eddie has been hunted down by the whole city of Hawkins, and chiefly by Chrissy’s vengeful boyfriend Jason and his cronies.
As we watch him desperately going into hiding, we viewers do get the sense that Eddie is, indeed, ‘banished’ – held responsible for a crime he did not commit (and could do next to nothing to prevent) and believed to be innocent only by a handful of his ‘outsider’ friends, he has no hope of clearing his name with the rest of Hawkins.
But then why, when the battle against Vecna finally comes and Eddie, with Dustin’s help, has completed the task that was assigned to him by the group – that is, drawing the Demobats away from Creel House in the Upside Down by shredding Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ on his guitar on top of his uncle’s campervan – does he end up sacrificing himself for the safety of a city that hates him? Why, after the most metal concert ever, and just one step away from (relative) safety, does Eddie decide to “buy more time” – something arguably barely needed at this point in the battle – and do precisely what he had promised his friends not to do: rush back to the Upside Down to take on the impossible feat of fighting the Demobats alone? Is it just that, by this point, he understands that he will never be reintegrated in the community, is tired of running, and decides to die instead? Or is there something more behind his choice?
While I sat watching Eddie’s final moments, helplessly bawling and surrounded by a sea of tissues, I couldn’t help but thinking – as you do – of Aristodemus, the Spartan soldier who, according to Herodotus (7.229–232) ended up missing the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE – either because he was on ‘sick leave’ shortly before the battle and prudently chose to prolong it a bit once he heard that the Spartans were surrounded by the Persians, or because he had been sent as an envoy by Leonidas and, sensing danger, decided to take the long way back to the camp.
Accordingly, upon his return to Sparta after the battle, Aristodemus’ reputation is forever tarnished: he gets nicknamed ‘the Trembler’ and suffers the penalty of atimia (dishonour), by virtue of which he effectively becomes a pariah in his community. However, one year later, at the battle of Plataea, he – like Eddie – effectively engages in a suicide mission: as Herodotus (9.71) tells us, Aristodemus, manifestly wanting to die, disregards the orders he’s been given, leaves the formation, and rushes towards the Persian army, getting slaughtered at their hands. And yet, although Herodotus does admit that Aristodemus is basically trying to kill himself, the mode the ‘Trembler’ selects for his suicide might reveal something more about his motives.
Aristodemus doesn’t simply take his own life (for instance, by hanging himself, as another disgraced Spartan soldier, Pantites, is said to have done in the same circumstances): he, like Eddie, finds death by doing the opposite of the very action which brought about his atimia in the first place – instead of running away, he rushes into battle, and seeks redemption by balancing out his previous cowardice with the supreme act of courage.
And it’s hard to deny that Eddie, too, has redemption on his mind when he takes on the Demobats by himself. But what kind of redemption? Not before the city of Hawkins – they believe him to be a Satanist serial killer, and do not seem inclined to believe that it’s actually a villain from a parallel dimension the one who’s perpetrating the murders Eddie stands accused of. Nor, arguably, before his friends – they already know he’s innocent, and repeatedly made clear to him that he couldn’t have saved Chrissy even if he had stayed. In terms of redemption, then, Eddie’s situation is again similar to Aristodemus’: if atimia in Sparta worked anything like atimia in Athens, chances of overturning a verdict were very slim indeed, and there was no guarantee that even a heroic death would rehabilitate a ‘trembler’ (although we should note that, at least according to Herodotus, in Aristodemus’ case it actually worked). The redemption both Eddie and Aristodemus are seeking, then, seems to be chiefly before their own eyes – they feel the need of building (or rebuilding) a positive self-image.
“Outside of D&D, I am no hero”, Eddie had bitterly told Steve the first time they went to the Upside Down. “I see danger, and I just turn heel and run. Or at least that’s what I’ve learned about myself this week.” And then again, right before the final battle, after Steve had warned Eddie and Dustin against “trying to be heroes”, Eddie tells him straight up: “I mean, look at us. We are not heroes” – even though Steve has already told him to give himself a break. So, when he decides to face danger head-on, it’s clear that something inside of Eddie has shifted – he doesn’t want his previous statements about himself to be true. He wants to prove to himself that he can live up to the standards of behaviour he has gradually come to set for himself – standards of behaviour that he has learnt (like almost all standards of behaviour) through his interactions with his peer group. But it’s not just that he’s abiding by a learned behavioural code because he’s looking for external validation: although he does admit, during the first journey to the Upside Down, that he followed the group because he was “too ashamed to be the one who stayed behind”, by the end of the season this behavioural code is so internalised that Eddie is willing to die for it.
And indeed, right before dying in Dustin’s arms, Eddie seems to be responding precisely to his own first remark about himself (“I see danger, and I just turn heel and run”) when he tearfully, but proudly, tells Dustin: “I didn’t run away this time, right?” – this is all that matters to him. Sure enough, Dustin seems determined to rehabilitate Eddie’s name in Hawkins, and, although he does manage to share scraps of truth with Eddie’s uncle, it’s obvious that the task is going to be difficult – perhaps even more difficult than cleansing Aristodemus’ atimia and restoring his honour among the Spartans. But, since it worked out for Aristodemus ‘the Trembler’, we can maybe still hope that, come Season 5, it will work out for Eddie ‘the Banished’, too.