Stranger Things’ potent stew of nostalgia invokes youthful experiences universal and specific: If you’ve ever felt like an outcast, experienced love at first sight, or wondered what terrors and marvels lie just beyond the backyard fence, you can relate. And if those experiences were filtered through tabletop roleplaying games, the fantastical ’80s output of Amblin Entertainment, or dog-eared copies of Stephen King novels, then the hooks sink in ever deeper. Whether you praise the show for conjuring the spirit of movies that, let’s face it, never fell that far out of the public eye, or condemn it as a sorry pretender to the influences it pastiches, the fact remains that the contents of Stranger Things and our reactions to it are inextricably linked to a time in our lives that its stars are beginning to age out of.
This third round of episodes—its sequelized subtitle Stranger Things 3 once more serving as a helpful shorthand and source of frustration for self-appointed guardians of television taxonomy—provides a glimpse of what it looks like when Stranger Things tries to put away childish things. After three seasons of The Duffer Brothers’ supernatural drama, the residents of Hawkins, Indiana will never truly be able to go about their days without thinking of creatures that walk between dimensions and the juvenile telekinetics who keep them in their place. But they can start to imagine a world where neither dungeons nor dragons are top of mind. Here, that largely means giving in to the laws of attraction: Season three picks up in the summer of 1985, when Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is in the throes of Corey Hart-soundtracked puppy love with Mike (Finn Wolfhard). Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are similarly an item, and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns home from science camp crowing about his own relationship with a Mormon from Utah named Suzie—whom he swears up and down he did not invent.
With his friends either pairing off or repairing to Hawkins’ new crown jewel of a shopping mall to pal around with campus-king-turned-ice-cream-scooping-swab Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), poor Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is stranded once more, the only one who wants to play D&D while the rest of his party are dragged by their hormones into puberty’s Upside Down. New normals roil the conquerors of The Demogorgon and The Mind Flayer: The mall, Starcourt, has taken a big bite out of the downtown stores like the one where Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) works, a “death of the small town” story that’s dismissed by the editors at the local newspaper where eldest Byer son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and frustrated girl Friday Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are interning. But no one is as intensely allergic to change as Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who must contend with a disgruntled citizenry and a daughter who’s making out behind a bedroom door she can slam with her mind.
Discombobulated dad is a good look on Harbour, the series’ rumpled, meme-generating MVP. But any material about growing up starts to look like window dressing once Stranger Things 3’s heavily embargoed plot kicks in. (Netflix publicity has distributed a list of 17 bullet points not to be disclosed ahead of the premiere—not that it’s holding up the folks cutting trailers together.) It’s the thematic gloss on another epic battle pitting the kids and their adult allies against the Upside Down and the humans who keep trying to break into it. For all the craft and the care the Duffers continue to exhibit in their characterizations, world-building, and tension-ratcheting, there is an aversion to merging the everyday and the out-of-the-ordinary in season three—a balance that was a big part of the appeal of seasons one and two. The out-of-the-ordinary has become the everyday in Hawkins, but once the monsters make themselves known, they’re the No. 1 priority, tackled in three diverging storylines that, fortunately, converge in the series’ most satisfying finale to date.
El retains her position as one of the story’s emotional fulcrums, alongside Will. The former is approaching that point in her “chosen one” narrative where she yearns for normalcy, the tension between her Professor X-meets-Nell backstory and her teenage-girl present day sticking Millie Bobby Brown in some tricky territory, performance-wise: Eleven expresses her growing independence and maturity through her relationship with Mike and an unauthorized trip to the mall with Max, but the dialogue she’s given is out of step with these developments, still the awkward, clipped parroting that feels more infantilizing the older the actor and character get. Noah Schnapp has his own script-born tic to contend with: Will gets goosebumps on the back of his neck whenever The Mind Flayer is near, and Schnapp has to nervously raise a hand to touch them so many times, it could be the basis for a drinking game. But Stranger Things 3 has better luck pinpointing Will Byers, circa July ’85: He wants to turn back the clock, not only to a time before girlfriends, food courts, and the other elements of adolescence, but to when the only monsters he, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin fought were imaginary.
Like many horror protagonists, El and Will are stuck living and reliving past traumas—more Stranger Things means their most haunting memories don’t stay memories for long. When Brown and Schnapp are allowed to explore this, it can be quite moving. But the way Stranger Things 3 shifts its gears makes it apparent that the show is starting to run low on story for them.
Ultimately, the signs of forward progression are less about character development and more about bringing the show into the world of 1985. This being Stranger Things, that’s reflected through the pop culture of the day: Season three takes place during Back To The Future’s opening weekend, and nods to the time-warping Amblin comedy abound. But ’85 was also the year that John Rambo went from vengeful spirit of the forgotten Vietnam vet to Uncle Sam’s very own POW-liberating ass-kicker, and that Hollywood evolution courses through these episodes. If Stranger Things 2 took its cues from “the bigger, the better” sequels of the decade, Stranger Things 3 is the ’80s action movie Stranger Things, with all the automatic-weapons fire, car crashes, and stars-and-stripes patriotism that implies. It doesn’t make for a deeper version of the series, but it does make for a more entertaining one, the second half of the season barreling across Hawkins in a string of white-knuckle, scenery-wrecking visits to the community pool, the hospital, Hopper’s cabin in the woods, a Fourth Of July fair, and, finally, the Starcourt. With a renewed, slime-and-squish emphasis on body horror, it’s the most visceral Stranger Things has ever been—as the premiere points out, Day Of The Dead came out the summer of ’85, too.
Splitting up the protagonists makes a certain amount of logistical sense, considering the way the cast continues to expand without the narratively induced contractions of other, bloodthirstier modern genre shows. The season’s top candidate for permanent addition is Maya Hawke, who plays Robin, Steve’s status-unconscious Scoops Ahoy! co-worker. In the grand, “you might also like” tradition of Stranger Things, Hawke endears herself with qualities she could’ve inherited from her ’90s power-couple parents: the terminal chill of her father circa Reality Bites and Before Sunset, the grace-under-fire resolve of her mother’s Kill Bill turn. But she’s also a tremendous foil to Keery, the safety pin puncturing a balloon that’s already deflating after some post-graduation defeats. (Never fear: His hair retains its unreal volume—though it spends most of the season under a sailor’s cap that makes the uniform at Captain Hook Fish & Chips look dignified.) As it was with Dustin and Steve’s blossoming friendship in Stranger Things 2, the give-and-take between Robin and Steve is a frequent highlight of Stranger Things 3.
Not every newcomer fares as well. Cary Elwes is the latest ’80s icon to play one of the show’s untrustworthy authority figures, but his Mayor Larry Kline fails to make half the impression of Michael Park, Jake Busey, and the other detestably smug members of the Hawkins Post boys’ club. There’s a bigger letdown in what happens to Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson), a reliable source of comic relief in season two whose schtick descends into catchphrase hell when she’s drafted into Dustin, Steve, and Robin’s Starcourt adventures. For two seasons, Stranger Things appeared immune to the precociousness that infects so many projects with young casts. That’s not the case for Erica, whose lines alternate between expressing her love of capitalism and her hatred of nerds like her brother. Like an ice cream cone in the July heat, it’s sweet and refreshing until you realize it’s lost its shape and it’s getting all over the place.
The series’ embrace of something else that was cloying, sticky, and inescapable is cause for asking where a zeal for verisimilitude ends and where extreme product integration begins—the same could be asked of the Starcourt, an immersive piece of set design that also stamps logos across Stranger Things 3 like it’s a race car. But the mall’s also an important, resonant symbol of the characters’ newfound autonomy, and New Coke isn’t just another piece of Reagan-administration kitsch—it was a brazen experiment in messing with a good thing, and a cautionary tale for anyone who might attempt something similar in the future. It was change people couldn’t believe in. As time goes on and their stars get older, the Duffers and team will need to similarly continue tweaking the Stranger Things formula. They don’t have everything flawlessly calibrated in Stranger Things 3, but there’s enough of the taste that got viewers hooked in the first place to keep them cracking open one episode after another.