[Minor spoilers for Season 3 of Stranger Things]
They grow up so fast.
When we rejoin the little dweebs from Hawkins, Indiana, they are very different. El and Mike are attached at the lips and Lucas is giving advice on girls like a mid-80s version of r/ihavesex. Even Dustin has found himself a (maybe imaginary) girlfriend. Poor little Will Byers just wants to play D&D like the good old days, but he’s been left behind for girls and shopping at the new mall in town.
Nancy and Jonathan are working the small town newspaper trope, Hopper is dealing with the crushing reality that his adopted superhero little girl is becoming a superhero young woman, and Steve is slinging ice cream wondering when his reign as King of Hawkins High ended. All around us, it’s clear that things are moving forward.
And that goes for the show as well.
Stranger Things made a living off of remixing strong nostalgic vibes in its first two seasons, referencing classic films of the era both overtly and by mirroring other influences. That tradition continues in season three: in just the first episode, we’re treated to the kids watching Day of the Dead and Max’s evil stepbrother Billy reenacting this iconic scene from Caddyshack.
Still, the point of all that referencing isn’t to just pay homage to what inspired Duffer 1 and Duffer 2, but to get you in the mindset of reminiscing. In that vein, moving the show to summer is a move that feels so right that you can’t help but be surprised that it hadn’t already happened. The long, hot, sweaty days of no school is the perfect ecosystem let your imagination run wild and to focus on the season’s central theme: growing up.
It’s impossible to watch this season of Stranger Things and not think about how far its stars have come. We are treated to more than a few scenes from the show’s past and juxtaposing the actors before and during puberty is almost jarring at times. Clinging to the past is impossible, and for those critics who wondered if the show would be able to maintain its magic once the kids grew out of their cute phase, this season is the show’s answer, one that I think is a resounding success.
The mechanics of the plot in Stranger Things 3 don’t make a lot of sense, but that’s okay, because they’re secondary to the vibe the show is chasing. The show has made it fun to hang out with these kids as they figure out what’s going on with the rooskies and the mindflayer (because if there was one piece of 1980s Americana Stranger Things was missing in its first two seasons, it was the big bad commies). It doesn’t particularly matter that a gigantic Russian military presence in a small Indiana town makes about as much sense as their plan to reopen the gate to The Upside Down. We’re here for the kids, to relive our childhood through them, and to watch them take on the world together.
Although it dropped on July 4th and takes place at the same time, Independence Day has very little to do with the actual plot of Stranger Things 3. There are some fireworks in the background of one scene and an action set piece that takes place in a fare, and that’s about it for the actual story. But, don’t get it twisted: Stranger Things 3 is very American.
Let’s set aside the explicit “capitalism good, communism bad” lecture we get from Lucas’s little sister Erica. The body count in season 3 is alarmingly high. Sure, El smushed some brains in season 1, and we saw our favorite Goonie get eaten alive in season 2, but most of the violence was demagorgon related. But now we have an endless supply of Soviet redshirts, who get taken out with a Wickian indifference set to goofy music. Violence as comedy is as American as anything.
It’s more than welcome that the show has largely become a “hangout sitcom with periodic monster attacks” because that hangout time is spent watching our friends — and the show — evolve.
Eleven’s friendship with Max might mark the first time that the show has passed The Bechdel Test (a point magnified by Lucas and Mike’s inability to stop obsessing over them), LGBT representation also took a step this season, and Erica is the first WOC to get a storyline. Without giving anything away, the final notes of the season refer strongly to the ideas of life moving forward and change being an inevitable part of growing up.
Beyond the show’s cute kids or its ‘80s nostalgia, Stranger Things 3 taps into just what made its first seasons so great: we get to feel things for the first time again.