Spoilers below for Stranger Things 2.
On the page, Paul Reiser’s character in Aliens dances near the border of anti-Semitic stereotyping: Carter J. Burke is the clever capitalist, eternally devoted to the dollar at the expense of human dignity, smarmily ingratiating himself while secretly planning your sacrifice at the altar of mammon. To make matters more dangerous for us Members of the Tribe, Reiser is one of the great Jewish character actors, able to deploy a nebbishy panache that almost makes you wonder whether Burke was the name that the Rabinowitz family was assigned at the interstellar version of Ellis Island. And yet, as Burke, Reiser gives us a fully realized (if despicable) figure, not an offensive caricature. The only stereotype he embodies is one well worth throwing tomatoes at: the male gaslighter, always willing to insincerely and half-heartedly apologize after he does damage to the women around him — only to make things even worse for them afterward.
Given how much Stranger Things 2 trumpets its devotion to Aliens, it’s no surprise that Reiser is included, nor is it a surprise that he eases back into some of Burke’s traits. Once again, he plays a Jewish archetype: this time, the silver-haired doctor, full of quips for both the kids on the examining table and their parents. Once again, he’s not exactly who he pretends to be. And, once again, the more we learn about his loyalty to his shady employers, the less we trust his genial grin. But therein lies the magic of Reiser’s stunt casting as Dr. Sam Owens: Just as Burke wasn’t an ethnic caricature in Aliens, Owens isn’t simply a pastiche of Burke. All is not as it seems, even after we think we’ve figured out that all is not as it seems. With Owens, Stranger Things is doing what it does best: not just mimicking the art of the 1980s, but twisting it into something new and delightful.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t also a ton of outright aping of Aliens. James Cameron’s bullet-riddled masterpiece is everywhere in Stranger Things 2, especially its back half. In both works, the action is built on a single beast from the previous chapter, multiplying into a slew of toothy murder-machines. These monsters operate with a hive mind and obey a giant, master creature, and any attempt to research them puts innocent lives in danger. A single female figure, with a mess of short, brown curls, drops into the lair of the supreme monster on an industrial elevator and stops the madness at the 11th hour. When a group of soldiers with mounted cameras went on an ill-fated mission into some slimy catacombs in Stranger Things 2, I kept expecting to find out one of them was named Wierzbowski.
But Reiser’s Owens is something else — even if it doesn’t seem that way at the outset. Before we go any further, a brief Burke refresher is in order. When Reiser stepped into the Aliens role in the mid-1980s, Mad About You was years ahead of him. He had achieved some level of renown as a stand-up comedian, but was perhaps best known for his role as the sandwich-craving Modell in Barry Levinson’s Diner. (And, to a lesser extent, as the put-upon co-worker of Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop.) As such, he was an unlikely choice for an operatically violent sequel to Ridley Scott’s deep-space monster movie Alien.
Nevertheless, Reiser delivered in Aliens, playing a stooge for the devious Weyland-Yutani corporation which recruits Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley — the sole survivor of the previous film — to join him and a group of space marines on a voyage to the planet where Ripley had found the titular Xenomorph. When it becomes clear that the alien’s brethren have overrun the planet’s human colony, Burke follows his secret orders to smuggle some specimens back for Weyland-Yutani’s bioweapons division — by arranging for Ripley and her young ward, Newt, to be impregnated with alien fetuses. When he’s found out, he tells Ripley she’s crazy for thinking that’s what happened. Not long afterward, Burke runs like a coward when the group is attacked, and he meets an appropriately violent end, but his ample time in the film is filled with terrifically sleazy dialogue. Perhaps the best bit comes when the group learns he sent some colonists to their deaths in order to retrieve alien material, and his only defense is this classic non-apology: “I made a decision, and it was wrong. It was a bad call, Ripley. It was a bad call.”
Burke is, in other words, the real antagonist of Aliens — not the creatures he pursues and is mauled by. For a little while in Stranger Things 2, it seems that history is repeating itself: Dr. Owens is the new guy in charge at the Hawkins National Laboratory, and, unlike Matthew Modine’s Dr. Brenner in season one, his demeanor is avuncular, not serpentine. “Sir Will!” he declares when we first see him, popping into an examination room to take a look at the formerly Upside-Downed Will Byers. “I see you shaved off a pound since we saw you last. Must be making room for all that Halloween candy. What’s your favorite Halloween candy? Desert-island candy, if you had to pick one?” Will reluctantly selects Reese’s Pieces. “Good call. Good, good call,” Owens muses. “I’m more of a Mounds guy?” — he phrases it like a question, raising his eyebrows and gesturing skyward like a rabbi in prayer — “but, I gotta say, peanut butter and chocolate, c’mon, hard to beat that.” After the checkup, Owens assures Joyce Byers and Chief Jim Hopper that he can be trusted. “Those people are gone,” he says of Brenner’s crew, deploying an exasperated little smile. “They’re gone. Okay? So if we’re gonna get through this, I just … I need you to realize I’m on your side. I need you to trust me.”
For the following few episodes, we’re given plenty of reasons not to: Owens spends much of his time with a crew of government underlings, his pediatrician’s smile utterly gone. When Jonathan and Nancy attempt to seek #JusticeForBarb, they get scooped up by Owens’s minions and brought to the government facility, where he openly informs them that deceit is his craft. Ostensibly, it’s because he fears the extra-dimensional material of the Upside Down falling into the wrong hands, but how can we be sure? Owens shows them the weedlike tendrils that emerge from the rift and says, “You see why I have to stop the truth from spreading, too, just the same as those weeds there — by any means necessary.”
And yet, Reiser’s performance is remarkable because it turns out that Owens is on the level. Yes, he’s lying to the public about Barb’s death; yes, he gaslights Hopper when the chief comes to him with a theory about why local crops are dying out; yes, he’s eternally condescending with the adults in the show. But he’s anything but malevolent. One of his finest moments comes when a group of fellow scientists proposes enacting a plan that would entail killing Will. Owens is the sole dissenting voice. When one of them says the kid is expendable, he stares at the guy like an aging prizefighter with enough fire for one last fight, raises his meaty index finger and thumb in his foe’s direction, and rhetorically mutters, “Say that to me again.” It’s a quiet moment for Reiser, but a virtuosic one. The season is full of them. His Owens is a creature of small hand gestures that accentuate themselves when he’s trying to explain something to an idiot — of plainspoken vocal intonations that betray the earned condescension of a well-meaning genius.
His well-meaning aspect is, of course, the key to what makes the performance interesting. On the surface, Owens is a charmer; below that, he’s a Burke-ian schemer. But even farther below that, he’s a kindly uncle. When the shit hits the fan near season’s end and he gets trapped with others in Hawkins Lab while the monsters run amok, he fully subverts Burke’s role in Aliens: While everyone else runs in search of safety, he sticks around to help Bob the Brain get out alive. He’s unsuccessful — R.I.P. Bob, you deserved a life that was much more easy-peasy — and he himself gets chewed by some of the mini-Demogorgons. Nevertheless, he survives and meets up with Hopper at — where else? — a diner. He’s ready with some dad jokes and nicknaming (who among us wouldn’t like Paul Reiser to call us “Chief-o”?), and reveals that, instead of being a tool of the bureaucracy, he manipulated it to get Hopper legal custody of Eleven. Not only has the ghost of Burke been exorcised, but so has that of Modell from Diner: Instead of requesting a bite of Hopper’s sandwich, he proactively offers a bite of his own. Death to ’80s Reiser; long live the new Paul.
It’s all an example of Stranger Things defying its critics. There’s a strain of conventional wisdom that the show is merely a jukebox musical of pop culture, with scenes and ideas from the films and television of the past presented with slight alterations to fit a new plot, but no other significant engagement. At times, that’s an earned critique. The Duffer Brothers said they called Reiser’s Stranger Things character “Dr. Reiser” while writing him, so they clearly knew at an early stage that they wanted to wear their adoration on their sleeves. But they weren’t content to simply replay Burke’s actions from their beloved Aliens. Instead, they gave audiences a surprise — and, in doing so, allowed Reiser to construct an unexpectedly layered performance. They didn’t just cover a great song; they added key changes and new verses that took it from sinister to ecstatic. In Diner, Modell famously complains about how much he hates the word “nuance.” Thankfully, in the ensuing decades, Reiser and the Duffers have learned to embrace it.
Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival L.A. panel on November 18! Tickets are available here.