That’s the biggest takeaway from Stranger Things 3 (now on Netflix), picking up in the summer of 1985 as the younger crew has reached their early teens while the older ones are joining the workforce (well, interning, scooping ice cream and lifeguarding). Of course, navigating puberty, first loves and early adulthood are small hurdles when you’re dealing with evil forces from across the globe and another dimension.
As teased in a video a year before the Season 3 premiere, a new mega-shopping mall has opened in Hawkins, providing a fun new setting for our characters — like the smitten El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and unlikely buds Steve (Joe Keery) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) — to interact. The O.G. gang’s all here, and we learn more about bad boy Billy (Dacre Montgomery) and his stepsister Max (Sadie Sink) who were introduced last season, and meet newbie Robin, Steve’s food-court co-worker-in-crime, played by the impossibly cool Maya Hawke (her real-life parents are Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke).
But the cheerful ambiance of neon-washed shops and eateries of a bygone era belie something sinister. If you thought closing the gate to the Upside Down in Season 2 would stop the supernatural scaries from rearing their ugly heads again, you were mistaken. This season brings monsters and corrupt politicians and Russians. Oh my!
The Fourth of July is the perfect backdrop for this season (also the Netflix release date). What’s more American than kicking Russian ass and saving your hometown from destruction? It’s a refreshing change from the typical gloomy Midwestern fall we’ve seen in the last two seasons, and it’s visually reflected in the excellent costuming as well. Honorable mentions: Sheriff Jim Hopper’s (David Harbour) pastel Hawaiian shirt and El’s makeover montage quintessentially set to Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
Like a lackluster fireworks display, the season sparks off with a promising start but sputters out, splitting the group in a million directions and leaving too many lingering questions. Much of the plot felt more like a setup for another season than anything, which begs the question: How long can the show last? The young cast is aging at a faster rate than their respective characters — Will (Noah Schnapp) especially is in desperate need of a more age-appropriate haircut — and if the time between Seasons 2 and 3 is any indication, it might be 2021 before we get another installment. The rising stars are taking on more individually, too: Wolfhard is starring in the recent/upcoming It Chapter Two, Addams Family and Ghostbusters movies. (Everything old is truly new again.)
Whenever Stranger Things returns (and yes, despite its flaws I am already counting the days — the Duffer Brothers are great at hooking you), there will be some shake-ups, no doubt. Some characters look to be making the wise decision to leave Hawkins. Could they relocate to Chicago, where we last saw El’s siblings in superpowers? Will our beloved party be phased out in favor of a new group? Lucas’ (Caleb McLaughlin) little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) could be poised to take center stage with her friends.
Once again, what Stranger Things does best is capture a heartfelt nostalgia that rings true for many — especially for a time when so many reboots and throwbacks try and fail to capitalize on the feeling. While this season left us with some plot holes, pacing issues and unnecessarily gut-wrenching blows, Stranger Things 3 continues to nail not only the essence of the ’80s, but so many aspects of childhood. This time around, that includes coming of age. El can’t grow up in a cabin in the woods without friends her own age — she has to be allowed some risks so she can experience the many stages of life. Will, meanwhile, seems stuck in childhood while the rest of the crew becomes more interested in young romance and less in D&D. (Can you blame him? He missed out on some peak boyhood time while in the Upside Down!)
Wherever Season 4 brings us, I hope Stranger Things continues to nail the experience of growing up, even if that means watching our faves grow apart.
Contact Jac Kern: @jackern