Contains Spoilers for Seasons 1, 2 & 3.
I do wonder why I’m nostalgic for an era that I never existed in.
For most people in the world the 80’s was pretty bleak. The cold war, the miners strikes, Chernobyl, Thatcherism, the various massacres the US backed Contras comitted on the people of Nicaragua… There does however exist a glossy, dreamscape image of the 80’s in our collective subconcious that Stranger Things so well invokes with its dizzying mix of music, pop culture references and unashamed product placement. Boy do I want to sip a new coke whilst watching Back to the Future then listen to some Bowie.
Stranger Things presents a version that’s distinctly woke with characters having rather modern day sensibilities. You only need to watch something acutally from the 80s like the Goonies where the overweight kid in their group is mercilessly bullied by the rest not to mention its horrific depiction of a disabled man to realise this is the 80’s with modern culturual values.
Characters such as Lucas or the newly introduced LGBT character Robin rarely face the prejudices of the era. Having said that Nancy is shown this season experiencing good old fashioned sexism in the work place. She’s working as an intern for a local paper where she’s relegated to a coffee girl but wants to do actual journalist work. It’s explored with a bit of nuance at least. She rebels against her male colleagues who keep putting her ideas down and pushes ahead investigating the leads she’s found without waiting for permission. She drags her partner Jonathan who is also working as a photographer at the paper into her investigation. It’s however pointed out him that she’s able to rebel from a position of priviledge because she knows if she loses her job it doesn’t matter financially, a position he’s not in.
That all being said this doesn’t mean the sacchrine version of the 80’s Stranger Things presents is not enjoyable to watch, much like the cheese covered nachos I scoffed while binge watching the entire season in a day it feels good but leaves a residual sadness, guilt and emptiness.
We begin with the summer of 85, Eleven and Mike are busy exploring eachothers tonsils. Lucas and Sadie are equally loved up but going for the we can’t stand eachother but not really trope. Will is rather left out. He just wants to play D&D and is mostly ignored. Spiritually I’m like Will. I just want everyone to stop fucking around so we can play some Dungeons & Dragons. I also wish my mum would stop fussing over me. At one point Mike says to Will accusingly “did you think, we’d just sit in my basement and play games for the rest of our lives?” He replies “yes, yes he did.” He’s my man.
Sadly by the end Will does abandon D&D. He ends up throwing his D&D red box and books a donation box that ends up with Lucas’s younger sister Erica. D&D is only for children confirmed?
He also symbolically destroys his nerdy hideaway which reminds me of when I peeled all the Pokemon stickers off my bedroom door when I was 12 because peer pressure. They’d be cool now. Yay the nerds won. Still I suppose once you’ve fought a literal series of elder monstrotities then D&D might become a bit dull?
Duncan returns from science nerd camp and gets the gang to the top of a hill named ‘Weathertop’ to contact the perfect girl at camp he met that nobody believes exist. He does this with a home made radio device he’d constructed from bits of scrap. Kids who built an home made radio device made from bits of scrap and put it on set it up on a hill these days would probably be shot by a drone missile. Well. Probably not white kids…
El and Mike get bored of this and run off early to do the smoochy smooch. Duncan’s girl doesn’t pick up and everybody mocks him then leaves. Whilst alone he intercepts what sounds like a russian message, he rushes off to find Steve to help decipher it and they’re joined by Steve’s colleague at the ice cream parlour Robin who becomes instrumental to the investigation.
Meanwhile Milf hunter Billy is busy flexing at his new job as a lifeguard to the drools of half the towns mothers. He sets up a bang date with Nancy’s mum Karen but his car hits something squishy and crashes near a omniously abandoned steel mill. He gets out, investigates some noises and gets snagged by the mind flayer which takes control of him then sends him off to drag others into their psychically controlled cult.
Part of me could probably have just watched 80’s kids doing 80’s stuff without the weird Stranger Things stuff but that perhaps says a lot about how current nostalgia for the era pervades even inside me.
None the less the plot muts go on so things escalate but at this point we’ve seen the beats before. The gang split up and all find different weird things going on. These include rats eating fertiliser then exploding, people going missing then coming back again all strange, magnets falling off fridges and a massive clandestine group of russians building a secret energy sucking laser cutting machine under the mall. The gang all inevitably meet back up together to share the information and confront the bad guys for an epic showdown where spoiler warning Hopper makes a noble sacrifice at the end. Much like Sam Gangee does in Season 2.
The big monster gets banished back from whence it came and the military turn up to clean everything up. Flash forward 3 months. Summers end. Winona and kids are leaving. Tears and loss. Coming of age over. Cue that 80s soundtrack. It works but we’ve basically seen it twice now, at this point i’m getting nostalgic over Stranger Things watching Stranger Things which isn’t doing many favours to my desire to stay somewhat attached to reality.
The human element this time are the Russians who have built a huge energy laser cutting machine under the mall in Hawkins. They are using it to cut open the portal to the upside down that was sealed by Eleven at the end of Season 2. I was waiting for them to develop the Russian involvement more but it never really came to fruition. We don’t find out much about their motivation beyond they want to open up the portal again for reasons, perhaps to weaponise the monsters inside. An echo of cold war conflict, if the Americans can do it so can the Russians but I’m not sure that it works. The Russians are so stereotypically portrayed that I thought a bait and switch was going on and they’d end up secretly doing something clever but they were just bad guys for bad guys sake, which let them be both comic relief and useful cannon fodder depending on whatever beat was happening.
It was jarring that the Russian’s had the resources to build a scientific military base in the heart of a town already on the secret services radar due to prior events. Yet they were incompotent enough to get their secret base repeatedly infiltrated by a group of school kids. Those are I suppose the tropes of the genre.
The actual problem is a real lack of a human antagonist for anyone to oppose. There’s a stereotypical russian general and his tough as the iron curtain body guard as well as the corrupt mayor of the town but they don’t quite hit home like the evil scientist who raised Elven as a machine, or even Billy. There’s no complex human character to bounce off the protoganists. Billy acts as a pseudo-antagonist this season but since he’s under the spell of the mind flayer it doesn’t really have the impact it needs. As usual the monsters aren’t widely explored though it does get a voice in this season and has some intent towards a goal of primarily killing Eleven.
The invasion of the body snatchers idea could have been a really good one. Trust was an obvious theme with both Mike having to learn to trust Eleven can look after herself and Nancy’s boy to trust her judgement. What better way to test the groups trust than nobody being able to know who was real as more and more of the town fell to the mind flayer?
Instead the mind flayer was simply collecting biological hosts in order to absorb them into itself so it could become really big? Then when it’s really big it can just stomp everyone to death? That’s how it played out with the monster absorbing biomatter until it got big enough to do the stompy stomp and then just got easily defeated.
I don’t understand why the elder god like monster acted so stupidly. The monster had a clear goal of killing Eleven as revenge for bringing it into the world and to end her as a threat. It then wanted to kill the rest of the gang and eventually all of humanity. The smart way to do this would be to take control of as many people as possible and use them as weapons when they’re least expecting it. We could have gone full town paranoia, with everyone watching their back and having to find tests like in ‘the thing’ to differentiate between who is and isn’t a monster. Instead none of that happened and after a lot of running around big monster stomp stomp. If all it needed was biomass and it was established it could absorb rats why not just continue to absorb non-human organic matter? There’s plenty of it and it will arouse a lot less suspicion than kidnapping people.
Still we got an explosive 4th of July firework fuelled finale at least with fireworks being hurled at the beast in the name of American freedom. This is at a time when the US president is hosting a military parade on 4th of July. Perhaps comforting nostalgia should be light on the social commentary.
I’d wager a lot that there will be Season 4 and I can only hope it goes in a bolder direction. The gang have split by the end with Eleven, Mike, Nancy’s boy and Winona all leaving town. The show has a lot of potential but currently feels like watching a rerun of a rerun of a rerun, oddly comforting but ultimately rather lacking substance.