This Fourth of July, Netflix released Season Three of their sci-fi horror phenomenon Stranger Things directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Rather than heading to the beach or a cookout, many found themselves with their eyes glued to screens boasting neon lights, brightly patterned shirts, and synth beats. Set in the mid-’80s, the show follows an ensemble cast of characters from the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, centering around a group of best friends. In the first season of Stranger Things, Hawkins’ innocuous exterior is pulled back to reveal a government conspiracy involving horrifying monsters, menacing alternate dimensions, and a young girl with superpowers.
This season, the kids revel in the freedom of summer and their newly-minted teenage status. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Max (Sadie Sink) intend to spend their summer hanging out at the shiny new mall, the Starcourt. El (Millie Bobby Brown) is still confined to a cabin for her own safety, but yearns to spend time with the other kids. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has returned home from a month away at summer camp, where he supposedly met his first girlfriend.
As teenagers, the group begins to discover themselves in new ways — romance blooms and friendships shift. Mike and El spend every chance they get to be alone and make out. Lucas and Max’s relationship is fraught with all the drama of early teen years, as they continually break up and get back together. Dustin won’t stop talking about his summer camp girlfriend, Suzie, the smartest and most beautiful girl alive. And Will, who’s not interested in girls, desperately tries to get the rest of the group to just play Dungeons and Dragons with him, to no avail. The group splits down a gendered line, as El and Max spend more and more time together without the boys and vice versa. The show’s interest in the kids’ burgeoning understanding of — or the confusion surrounding — romance, gender, and relationships adds a layer of relatability and highlights how the once youngest of the cast are inching closer to adulthood.
The older set of teens, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Billy (Dacre Montgomery), Steve (Joe Keery), and newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) have found themselves summer jobs as interns, lifeguards, and ice cream-scoopers. If the kids’ story is about navigating newfound independence and romance, the older teens’ stories focus on all that comes with the cusp of adulthood: finding and keeping a job; gaining the respect of others; healing childhood trauma; and generally dealing with a huge, unknowable future staring them down. Their paths are grounded more in the world around them than in an individual pursuit of identity — they’re more comfortable with who they are and are figuring out how they fit into society. Their proximity to adulthood renders them more of a force to be reckoned with than their younger counterparts, whether they’re becoming investigative journalists, fighting off flesh-eating monsters in a hospital, or hiding from Russian spies in an underground bunker beneath the mall.
In a Stephen King-ian move, Billy’s arc this season merges supernatural horror with the real-life horror he inflicts upon other characters. Evil finds evil — whether that evil be an inter-dimensional monster with mind-control capabilities or a racist, chauvinist, abusive jerk. Billy’s abduction of various townsfolk in order to feed them to the Mind-Flayer (formerly known as the Shadow Monster) feels intentionally reminiscent of true crime stories. When he ties up a girl and leaves her in a warehouse for the monster to consume, the scene is framed as though Billy is some combination of serial killer and rapist — the absolute extreme of misogynistic violence. Although the show comments upon Billy’s history as an abused child, it never excuses his violent and bigoted behavior, and though he makes an ultimate sacrifice to save his step-sister Max, the Duffer Brothers make clear that Billy was never a good person. He can make the right choice for once and still not be entirely redeemed.
In Season Three, Lucas’s ten year-old sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) moves from guest to main cast. With Erica’s take-no-prisoners attitude and witty comebacks, Ferguson delivers a sparkling performance. She also provides an important element to the show that made its first two seasons such a success, and which might (without her) have gone missing in Season Three: a child’s perspective. Part of Stranger Things’ continued appeal is that the show respects children, taking both their perspectives and their abilities seriously. The Duffer Brothers use kids’ terminology for every strange thing (pun fully intended) the characters encounter: both the Demagorgon and the Mind-Flayer’s titles come from the boys’ Dungeons and Dragons escapades; the Upside-Down, the name for the alternate dimension, comes from El’s limited child vocabulary. As Erica sneaks around an underground Russian bunker with three nerdy teenagers in tow, we as an audience can still enter into that imaginative childlike mindset that earlier seasons supplied through Will, El, and the gang. Erica’s scenes feature a quirky, fun sense of humor that offsets the increased body horror and gore of the rest of the season and keeps the show feeling light enough.
Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Jim Hopper (David Harbour), meanwhile, are just trying to be good parents to kids who don’t need them nearly as much as they used to. Now that the kids-turned-teens are more independent, the show needs to figure out what to do with Joyce and Hopper outside of their parental roles (although those parental roles remain important — the kids aren’t all the way grown up yet, after all). Joyce and Hopper explore a potential romance, and they try to help and support their kids from afar. The adjustment to their new roles in their kids’ lives comes with bumps and snags — Hopper doesn’t know how to talk to El about her relationship with Mike, and while Joyce tries to offer him advice, she remains constantly on the lookout for something that might hurt her boys.
Of course, Stranger Things wouldn’t be Stranger Things without its trademark ’80s nostalgia. Apart from the childhood perspective, its mid-’80s setting has been the show’s standout feature. Past seasons have leaned on pop cultural references to Star Wars and classic ’80s monster movies as well as government ventures that came to light during the ’70s and ’80s such as Project MK-Ultra and the alleged Montauk Project. The show has previously paid homage to the ’80s punk scene, to ’80s music, and to ’80s fashion, and this season is no exception. Shot through with callouts to Back to the Future, this season lets the kids explore ’80s fashion — and by extension, self-expression — in a new way. Season Three picks out new threads from the political tapestry of the ’80s: the Duffer Brothers introduce sinister Russians as a new villain, referencing Cold War-era paranoia.
The third season of Stranger Things works because the Duffer Brothers manage to make their show feel familiar and new at the same time. Season Three’s scenes set at the mall are bright and bubbly, emphasizing the new setting and the new season. We haven’t seen summer in Hawkins before, but Hawkins is still Hawkins. As the pieces of this season’s puzzle start to fit together, the viewer feels a familiar building excitement. Even though the kids are growing into adolescence, they still ride their bikes and make frantic walkie talkie calls. And even though the season’s ending feels final and marks massive change, the Duffers set up a future season that connects back to the very beginning: Lucas and Dustin hand down the boys’ Dungeons and Dragons set to Erica, a passing of the torch that suggests preservation — preservation of nostalgia, of childhood innocence, and of monsters and magic.