The runaway hit of 2016, Stranger Things, is back – not just onscreen, but also to its winning form with heaping doses of 80s nostalgia and terror.
It’s the summer of 1985. School’s out, so the kids are swarming in the spanking new, neon-washed Starcourt Mall, the new destination in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. But this means business is now hard for the mom and pop shops downtown– including the little general store Joyce (Winona Ryder) runs.
The boys – Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) – are all taller, husky-voiced teenagers now. They’re navigating a world that goes beyond their Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
Eleven, a.k.a. “El” (Millie Bobby Brown), drastically transforms from a telekinetic, monotone, and Eggo-loving girl into a sassy young woman “making her own rules.” Her once-rival Max (Sadie Sink) is now her BFF, there to support this character metamorphosis. Much to her adoptive father Hopper’s (David Harbour) chagrin, she starts smooching with Mike, her puppy boyfriend.
While there’s puppy love among the young’uns, a romance seems to be awkwardly brewing between Hopper and Joyce. But the trauma of losing her boyfriend Bob to a Demogorgon dog (Demo-dog) in last season’s climax at Hawkins Lab is still on her mind.
Even though Eleven sealed the interdimensional Gate, Hawkins is still threatened by the insidious existence of the Upside Down, while the shadow of the Mind Flayer lurks – and looms large, as seen in the season 2 finale.
Rappler was given access to the first half of the season, which consists of eight episodes (just like season 1), but what we saw so far – sans the spoilers that Netflix specifically instructed us to omit – convinced us that this is a return to form.
Forget that sophomore slump
The previous season of the Duffer Brothers-run show was your classic case of a sophomore slump.
It meandered, not quite knowing what to do with its motley main party. It went in different directions, leaving story threads loose and unraveling – sometimes not making much sense in the overarching story arc.
For instance, there was the case of Eleven’s strange detour and biker chick stint in episode 7, “The Lost Sister,” which gave the erstwhile test subject a gripping history, but that was nonetheless a moment disjointed from the main action.
The series’ distinct mix of 80s pop culture relics gives the mega-hit show its unique, irresistible flavor that viewers continue to have a hankering for. In this new season, the youthful romance recall John Hughes’s comedies, but with equal parts of homage to classic sci-fi horror (Finn Wolfhard specifically references Invasion of the Body Snatchers in an interview).
Stranger Things, however, at this point had to mature from its Goonies-esque start to playing off something more akin to Ferris Bueller and its ilk. Having a cast grow up playing the same characters essentially make it an 80s teen flick now – save for the existential threat thrown into the picture. It successfully does so with aplomb.
This coming of age arc for the kids – as they go through puberty – isn’t treated as a distraction for the series. It stays on track with creating even more terror for the poor small town. But at the same time, one cannot work without the other. It goes without saying: this is the Hawkins they have to grow up with.
Will, being at the center of the narrative for the past two seasons, had to bear the brunt of the Upside Down’s monstrosities. He does finally seem to catch a break, but being the victim for too long somehow made him miss out on growing up. His friends are moving on from their basement games, and it’s not sitting well with him.
Players across the board
Stranger Things 3 wastes no time in introducing the new threat for this beloved crew of characters.
But once again, screen time is divvied up among different teams. This time, though, with the players spread across the board, you get a clear sense that at some point, their paths will converge in a very satisfying way.
It makes things tense and urgent for the show, given that as viewers, we can see how the puzzle pieces already fit even though the characters don’t. You know that they should be coordinating, but they can’t yet.
Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) are interning at the local newspaper, where the former has to contend with its misogynistic male staff. While there, the two have their own journalistic pursuits that the old white men at the paper wouldn’t bother with.
The show keeps its odd, comedic duo of Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and his “babysitter” Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), sniffing around for conspiracies. After all this is Hawkins, an Area 51 for government cover-ups.
This time, they’re joined by a new standout character in the deadpan and aloof Robin (Maya Hawke, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s daughter), who Steve shares unexciting shifts with at the mall’s ice cream parlor.
Lucas’s little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) ramps up the sass with a more prominent role, rounding up this little quartet of mallrats.
El’s pairing with her new best friend Max proves to be a refreshing but still logical dynamic given their history as eccentric outcasts. They shop and have sleepovers – as most young girls their age would – albeit with strong independent women tones.
However, you get the sense that one of the show’s central pairings, which the series has beautifully built in the past, is shamefully relegated to the sidelines: El and Hopper – granted that some episodes spend time on portraying the gun-toting police chief as an overprotective father.
Will the kids be alright?
Much of Stranger Things’s appeal and strength lies in its ability to channel nostalgia, capturing the zeitgeist of the 80s from the minute details in its look – to the archetypes seemingly drawn from the culture of that decade.
As the first 4 episodes go, it seems to be building up to more of the show’s distinctly satisfying and sometimes oddball set pieces – without making us lose sight of what made its characters so lovable.
But at this point, you get the inkling that they’re running out of narrative steam with the super-powered teen that is Eleven, brilliantly portrayed by Millie Bobbie Brown. Given how linked the otherworld is to Hawkins, there’s only so much you can do with the same crew.
Stranger Things 3 starts streaming on Netflix on July 4. – Rappler.com
Paolo Abad is a film/television editor and motion graphic designer. He is also a self-confessed concert junkie.