Netflix’s The Society: The Meanings Behind 16 Cultural References
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Society.] It’s hard to talk about Netflix’s latest…
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Society.]
It’s hard to talk about Netflix’s latest young adult drama, The Society, without mentioning Lord of the Flies. Following a group of teens who are forced to build their own civilization, The Society is a clear (albeit way sexier) successor to the touchstone novel. However, Lord of the Flies is far from the only text referenced in the thrilling new mystery series. The 10-episode first season is filled with references, the meanings of which are sometimes quite obvious but other times more opaque. But one thing is true for all: “None of them are irrelevant,” creator Christopher Keyser told TVGuide.com.
Although the deeper meaning behind some references may only matter in the moment, others have a greater significance for the story as a whole. “None of this stuff is thrown away. It’s not meaningless,” explained Keyser. So what can we glean from all of The Society‘s many references to books, movies, plays, and so much more? We break down 16 of the show’s most revealing references to see what they have to say about what we’ve already seen and where the show might be going.
The Society Creator Answers All Our Burning Questions — Including What Comes Next
1. Lord of Flies: The entire set-up of The Society is playing off Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s 1954 novel about a group of boys stranded on an island and their descent from civilized students into a more primitive state. The book is largely concerned with examining the competing impulses within humans: the desire for order and civilization and the desire for personal gratification and power. Sound familiar?
The connections to The Society are obvious, but it is interesting to note that Lord of the Flies featured all male characters, and just like in the book, it’s largely the men of New Ham who give in to their more savage impulses. But even though the women in The Society aren’t as quick to succumb to these violent, primitive desires, Lord of the Flies implies that the potential for cruelty and evil is inherent in all humans. This is something we see explored through Allie (Kathryn Newton), who wants so badly to do the right thing but establishes an eye-for-an-eye cycle of violence when she executes Dewey (Seth Meriwether).
Lord of the Flies also suggests people can resist these dark impulses, as seen through the morally pure character of Simon. But as long as people like him are the few and not the many, the fate of humanity doesn’t look too cheery according to book, given that Simon is eventually killed by the other boys. It’s a super dark outlook, but there’s always the chance that Keyser will pull a Haunting of Hill House and flip the expectedly bleak ending for tales like this on its head to give us a message of hope in the end.
2. Cassandra: Fans of Greek mythology definitely caught the meaning behind Cassandra’s (Rachel Keller) name. According to lore, Cassandra was the subject of the god Apollo’s affection, and he gave her the gift of seeing the future in a bid to win her over. Cassandra agreed to love him in exchange, but she went back on her word and refused to be with him. Understandably pissed and unable to revoke her powers, Apollo placed a counter curse on Cassandra that made it so she could see the future but no one would ever believe her prophecies. Viewers clearly didn’t need to understand the deeper significance of Cassandra’s name to know that everything she said was right on the money and get frustrated as to why so few people seemed to listen. But knowing the reference definitely adds another layer to the situation.
3. The Pied Piper of Hamelin: The basic premise of the show’s mystery — parents renege on a contract with a man who helped the town get rid of an unwanted nuisance and the man gets revenge by taking away the children — is obviously drawing from the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In the original tale, Hamelin had been overrun by rats, and so the mayor hired the piper to remove the rats, which he did by playing his pipe and leading the rats to a river, where they then drowned. The mayor then refused to pay the piper the agreed-upon fee, so the piper played his pipe once more, only this time he lured all the town’s children away and into a cave where they were never seen or heard from again.
Pfeiffer is a clear stand-in for the piper in The Society (his name literally means piper in German), but what makes this connection more interesting is that there is some variation as to where the piper led the children. Although the cave is the most common answer, there are versions that say he led them to a beautiful new land, or that he led them to the river where they drowned like the rats, or even one that says he eventually returned them after he received his overdue payment. If you only knew the most popular version of this story, you might think that means the kids are doomed to stay in New Ham forever, but knowing all the different variations really opens up ways for the writers to potentially play off the tale of the Pied Piper more in the future.
4. Belshazzar’s Feast: Before the kids get on the buses that take them away from West Ham in the series premiere, they see this graffiti on the church wall: “Mene mene tekel upharsin.” The phrase is known as the writing on the wall from Belshazzar’s Feast in the Book of Daniel, and it means “you’ve been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” It’s incredibly ominous even without context, but once you dig into the story of Belshazzar, the writing on the wall may actually reveal the motives behind taking the kids to the new universe.
In the Bible, Belshazzar’s father Nebuchadnezzar had become arrogant and was thrown down by God until he learned his lesson, was humbled, and got his kingdom restored. Belshazzar, in contrast, didn’t learn anything from his father’s example, and after he blasphemed God his kingdom was given away to others. The writing on the wall is a message that invokes the question of whether history will repeat itself or the next generation will learn from the previous generation’s mistakes — which is the exact scenario we watch the teens of New Ham play out. As it stands, it seems as though while some are trying to build a better world, the cycle of history may be too hard to break, and the teens may find themselves tossed out of their kingdom too if they don’t get their act together soon enough.
5. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: The play Cassandra and Harry (Alex Fitzalan) star in before the teens are taken is an existential tragicomedy by Tom Stoppard about two tangential characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The scene we see Cassandra and Harry act out in the pilot — in which their characters toss a coin and it repeatedly comes up heads (which also happens to the Cassandra and Harry during one of their first face-offs in New Ham) — represents the occurrence of highly unlikely events despite the laws of probability, emphasizing the insurmountable randomness of the world.
In the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel as though they can’t do anything to change their fates, just like they how they couldn’t do anything to change the outcome of the coin toss. They allow themselves to get defeated by the chaos and confusion of life, in which it’s difficult to feel in control, to interpret people’s true intentions, and to discern what’s right. But rather than romanticize blindly accepting these hardships, the play shows that the worst thing you can do is be a passive bystander and give yourself over to the idea of fate rather than even attempting to exercise free will; when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do nothing upon receiving the letter ordering their friend Hamlet’s death, they pay for their inaction with their own lives. With the kids of New Ham facing similar existential questions right now, one could speculate that the inclusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a good reminder that no matter how hard things get for these kids, the worst thing any one of them could do is to not keep trying to keep making meaningful choices, even in the face of chaos.
6. “Personal Jesus”: A remixed version of the Depeche Mode song plays at the party in the church on their first night in New Ham. While the connection between the song, the show’s religious themes, and the church setting is easy to draw, the lyrics aren’t actually about a connection to a higher power. Instead, the song is about humans finding comfort and strength in one another, not God.
Although there is some force at work that brought the teens to New Ham (whether that is a higher power or just a human with the power to traverse universes), “Personal Jesus” dovetails nicely with the themes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that the idea of fate or God isn’t an excuse for humanity not to at least try to make meaningful choices and better their — and others’ — situations. Every single person has the power to play an important role in someone else’s life, if they so choose. And it’s the absence of making any choice at all that can be the most dangerous.
7. Sherlock Holmes: When the kids realize the roads out of town no longer exist, Grizz (Jack Mulhern) tries to comfort his confused friends by saying, “As a rule, the more bizarre things seem, the less mysterious it is.” He’s paraphrasing a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quote from the Sherlock Holmes story The Red-Headed League. The rest of the quote goes: “It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.”
By including this Sherlock Holmes quote, Keyser could just be showing how Grizz is attempting to rationalize the inexplicable situation they’ve found themselves in, or it could be a signal to the audience that the answers regarding the parallel universe mystery won’t be an elaborate puzzle box, but actually rather simple. Or if we want to dig a little deeper (and this show loves to dig deep), the inclusion of this quote might represent how even if the teens figure out the way they wound up in New Ham, they still won’t be able to explain why anger, violence, and pain are so commonplace in both the new world and the old. We know it’s a bleak thought, but isn’t that kind of why it rings true?
8. The Poseidon Adventure: Once the kids realize they’re all alone in New Ham, Allie uses The Poseidon Adventure to illustrate how Elle (Olivia DeJonge) shouldn’t behave by asking who she’d be in the story, which is about how the passengers of a sinking ocean liner fight to survive. But even beyond this use, the 1972 disaster movie might hold larger thematic significance.
In the movie, the ocean liner is forced to go full speed to save money despite the danger this poses, and it’s this decision that plays a key role in the ship eventually capsizing. The Poseidon Adventure may have been chosen as Allie’s reference point to play into the fact that the teens’ parents are seemingly at fault for their current predicament by cutting corners and breaking their contract with Pfeiffer. The movie also plays on Christian symbolism, with the survivors being led by a liberal reverend, and it’s only through faith and spiritual strength that they are able to live. We doubt this means something as literal as Helena (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) being the key to the New Ham kids’ survival — although she likely will be quite important — but it might be more about the importance of faith in the face of terrible odds.
9. The Marriage of Bette and Boo: When Grizz and Elle talk before the game of Fugitive in Episode 2, she mentions that she feels this entire situation is the result of God punishing her. That’s when Grizz shares the quote, “I don’t think God punishes people for specific things. I think he punishes them in general for no reason.” He’s referencing the play The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which is about the chaotic misery of life’s cruelties but asks the audience to find absolution from the pain through laughter. While we don’t see the kids laughing a lot in New Ham, the acceptance of life’s hardships — and the ability to still find joy in the face of them — is an outlook that will get them much farther than if they spend all their time brooding or bemoaning the universe’s twisted logic (or lack thereof).
10. Gone with the Wind: When Cassandra is dancing with Gordie (Jose Julian) at the prom, she says her favorite book is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind because it’s the first book that didn’t give her what she really wanted, and she found that denial to be amazing. In a broad sense, this could be hinting that The Society isn’t going to give fans what they really want (answers, perhaps?) or it could mean it’s not going to give the characters what they want (happiness? A way home?). But even just looking at the plot of the book, Gone with the Wind fits in perfectly with the themes of the show, given that it’s all about survival through adapting to new ways of life rather than holding on to the past. You could even see Harry as a stand-in for Ashley, the person who’s seemingly unable to change, and Allie as Scarlett, with her becoming more ruthless and tough in order to succeed in the new world.
11. Aeschylus: After Cassandra’s funeral in the fourth episode, Grizz gives Allie a handwritten note containing one of his favorite quotes: “Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair and against our will comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.” It’s a quote by Aeschylus, an ancient Greek tragedian, and what the quote asks of the audience is to look inward at times of tragedy and examine how you got to this place; it’s about not looking for revenge for one’s suffering, but about learning from it.
Most notably, it’s also the same quote Robert F. Kennedy shared on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. RFK had lost his sibling, John F. Kennedy, to assassination and was later assassinated himself. So if The Society is really seeding hints here, the inclusion of this quote could be foreshadowing Allie getting assassinated like her sister Cassandra. And seeing that the first season ended with her locked up and largely at Campbell’s disposal, she’s definitely in danger right now (although we can’t see the show killing her off anytime soon, to be completely honest).
12. The Princess Bride: For the first movie night in New Ham, a tradition founded by Elle, they show The Princess Bride, an apt choice given its themes about how life is pain, yet true love can still persist. It’s a message of hope in the face of darkness that, frankly, all the New Ham citizens could stand to be reminded of more often. The film also focuses a lot on revenge, but it ends on a message of rising above it when Westley spares Humperdinck’s life, breaking the eye-for-an-eye cycle — something Allie maybe should have considered after Dewey killed Cassandra.
13. The Judgment of Solomon: After Allie decides to free Campbell (Toby Wallace) but execute Dewey for Cassandra’s murder, Campbell quips, “Solomon. You split the baby.” This is referencing the biblical story in which two women both claimed to be the mother of a child, so King Solomon suggested they cut the baby in two, with each woman to receive half. However, Solomon never had any intention of doing this and used it as an emotional test to figure out who was the true mother, aka the one who begged him to not cut the child in half even if that meant she wouldn’t get her baby back. Solomon’s judgment is a symbol of wisdom, but Campbell saying Allie “split the baby” implies that she made a grave error and failed as a judge. Then again, Campbell is a psychopath, so maybe we should take his perspective with a grain of salt.
14. (500) Days of Summer: Once Campbell stops Elle from going to the public movie nights, they are shown to be having their own. In Episode 7, the two watch (500) Days of Summer on a laptop. This movie is a perfect choice for the pair to watch since it’s all about a relationship that is defined by the male’s point of view, with Tom’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) interpretation of his relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel) not being based in reality. Tom never accepts the fact that Summer doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. The situation between Elle and Campbell is far more dangerous and toxic, but there are aspects to Tom and Summer’s relationship that mirror Elle and Campbell’s — and it’s important to remember that in the end, Tom never gets his way, and Summer gets her happy ending with someone else.
15. Walden: Before Grizz leaves to look for farmland, Sam (Sean Berdy) gives him a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. After finally finding land and animals, Grizz reads the following passage out loud to his fellow expeditioners: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it has to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau wrote Walden after spending two years living on Walden Pond, where he practiced simple living and immersed himself in nature. He had hoped to gain more understanding of society through introspection and believed in self-sufficiency. Based on Thoreau’s philosophical ideals, the teens of New Ham have actually been given a gift, not a punishment, something Gwen (Olivia Nikkanen) wonders about after hearing the Walden passage. The inclusion of this book could mean that the audience and the teens have been looking at this parallel universe from the wrong perspective this entire time and should embrace the opportunities this affords the kids — or at least be equally open to the chance that this could be the best thing that’s ever happened to them as much as it could be the worst. And it really seems as though the answer to this question will be determined based on what the kids make of this opportunity and not any outside force.
16. Peter Pan: The final moments of the season show us our first glimpse of the world the teens left behind, as Allie’s mom attends a library reading in honor of the kids who disappeared. She reads the following passage from Peter Pan: “But Wendy had a better plan. ‘Let’s all slip into our beds and be there when she comes in, just as if we had never been away.’ And so when Mrs. Darling went back to the night nursery, all the beds were occupied. She saw them. But she did not believe they were there. You see, she saw them in their beds so often in her dreams that she thought this was just the dream hanging around her still.”
Peter Pan is probably the most famous precautionary tale about what happens if children avoid the responsibilities of adulthood, but it’s rare to see the book brought up in a way that highlights the perspective of the parents, not the children. In the book, Wendy and her siblings decide to grow up and return to their regular lives, something they slip back into fairly easily. But by spotlighting just this passage, it seems to hint that even if the teens do find a way back, it won’t be so easy to pretend as if they “had never been away” at all, reminding viewers of the trauma the parents are currently going through in addition to the hardships of the teens.
The Society is available to stream on Netflix.