Stranger Things' third season brought viewers all over the world an unlikely dark horse favorite: Alexei the Slurpee-drinking Russian scientist, who stole every scene he was in and every single viewers' heart. He's since become a viral meme star and, in recognition of this, Netflix recently released a 12-hour video of the character doing nothing but drink from his favorite beverage. Though Season 3 gave more of a spotlight to Season 2 fan-favorite, Erica Sinclair, Alexei has usurped the title from right underneath her. Just how did the ill-fated Russian do it?
Alexei was wonderfully played by Alec Utgoff, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine when it was still under the control of the Soviet Union. Utgoff's performance conveyed the evolution of a character whose emotional life and personal desires had been strictly submitted to the Soviet Union's military interests, which the actor himself mentioned in a Reddit AMA:
"I like dimensions so I would say the most enjoyable time was when my character got to open himself up. Times in the Soviet Union were very constricting so the polar opposites of the character's relationship to the outside world was pretty cool to play."
What is worse is that in the world of Stranger Things this repression was in service of a nefarious goal: to use his scientific talents to rip the fabric between dimensions.
Season 3 opens with the execution of Alexei's former boss in a scene that riffs off Darth Vader's casual officer-killings. The scene is utterly terrifying; not because of the supernatural horrors that might lurk in the Upside Down, but because through Alexei's eyes we witness the ultimate violation of the human spirit -- the complete instrumentalization and dehumanization of the individual in service of an inhuman goal.
What the Soviets do to Alexei is every bit as evil as what the Americans did to Eleven and the Hawkins laboratory children, right down to the restriction of language. Eleven can barely speak when she escapes Hawkins lab; Alexei can't communicate in English even though he's working under American soil. This communication barrier that makes them absolutely dependent on their countrymen jailers is by design and is able to effectively infantilize even a smart, healthy adult-like Alexei and to reduce him to a mere tool -- a tool that is supposed to achieve the same results for Russia than the Americans wanted to extract from Eleven.
In the '80s, the Cold War was beginning to die out and yet the number of movies where every single Russian was a bad guy was staggering. Stranger Things, through Alexei, lampshades this assumption and sheds some light on the people that had to swear allegiance to that regime if they wanted to live. In Utgoff's words:
"What was important to me is that many Russian and Ukrainian speakers sent me messages saying how this is the first character they resonated with and felt that they could get behind. Imagine how it feels going to the cinema and being told from a young age that your character is always a bad guy until you maybe start to believe it too..."
In an era where every Internet interaction seems tainted, somehow, by forces larger than a single internaut intent in polarizing everyone on every single topic, this humanization of the perceived enemy is important -- it reminds viewers that at the other side of the wall there is a human just like them. To draw another Star Wars parallel, Finn is essentially the Alexei of The Force Awakens, a faceless stormtrooper unmasked that wants the same things as the heroes. But instead of being a protagonist in a galactic fairytale, Alexei was a supporting character in a sci-fi horror-come-political allegory. He never stood a chance.
The Duffer Brothers superimpose two arcs on Alexei's character: the superficial one is the classic redemption arc, where an "evil" character has a change of heart. The other is a Greek tragedy: Alexei, like Eurydice, is rescued from the underworld (by Hopper, nonetheless -- drawing another parallel between Alexei and Eleven). He tries to fight his destiny and thinks that he has succeeded -- only to meet the same inglorious death as his former boss, and as many others before him. He was doomed from the beginning, and his ending was foreshadowed in a hundred little ways.
He chose to keep playing even after Murray, the Greek oracle of Stranger Things, warned him that the games at the amusement park were all rigged, and that's where the childlike magic of the character resides. Alexei is killed right after winning -- but Eleven, his American parallel, didn't die.
Alexei's fans are global and absolutely sincere in their adoration of the character. The hashtag #AlexeiDeservedBetter trended for one hot minute, and in Latin America Alexei is known as Smirnoff, with the cherry emoji capping off his nickname. Elsewhere, he is the official "Cinnamon Roll Too Pure for this World" of Stranger Things, unseating Will Byers and leaping ahead of the amazing duo, Robin and Steve.
Whether it was part of Netflix's marketing plan or not, the streaming service has capitalized on these echoes, both through their official social media channels and through the more unofficial Stranger Things writers accounts, as well as the aforementioned bumper video of Slurpee-drinking. Maybe in Season 4, another unlikely hero will have another shot instead of joining the ranks of other breakout characters like Barb, Bob and, now, Alexei.