Judging by my Twitter feed over the past week, America’s biggest July 4th sensation this year was Netflix’s release of Stranger Things‘s third season for a massive fan base eagerly waiting to follow the further adventures of the pluckiest teens ever to come out of the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. As you can imagine, there was no shortage of pre-release coverage, articles, and advertisement here in the good Hoosier state. I’m getting better at finishing new seasons of streaming series as they’re dropped and had this one wrapped up Saturday afternoon. My thoughts didn’t quite streamline themselves into a narrative, but I did have a few.
Most of them are SPOILERS AHEAD, so there’s that. Some of this also won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t watched it, especially if they’ve never seen an episode. This is virtually stream-of-consciousness, not a pro recap. It’s faster and more fun for me to get it out of my system this way.
Bullet point time!
* The larger an ensemble grows over a show’s lifespan, the harder it is for writers to find reasons to keep them all teamed up in one place. Splitting up into separate subplots was inevitable yet no less disappointing. It goes without saying Best of Show among the competing factions was Scoops Troop — Steve “The Hair” Harrington, who soon discarded the paper hat that oppressed his once-defining feature; Dustin the science camp graduate, whose tech skills and totes-adorbs love life had quite the upgrades; Lucas’ kid sister Erica, riding her funny season-2 cameos into a job promotion, a chance to tackle a Die Hard crawlspace, and the surprise gift of prodigious math skills; and best new cast member Maya Hawke as Steve’s annoyed coworker Robin, who accelerated from exasperated comic relief to full-fledged teammate and fully formed character in minutes. (In her final speech, the haranguing of the video store guy, you can see echoes of both famous parents shining through, but remixed in her own style.) If the season’s depressing coda means not all the cast will return for season 4, then my vote is for Scoops Troop: The Spin-Off, even if it means rebuilding the mall as their HQ.
* About that finale: whoa. By which I mean: WHOA. All those threads eventually tied together in dynamic, emotionally devastating fashion. Of all the ’80s things packed into this season, that’s the best ’80s thing of all. Forcing Our Heroes to find a way to finish the final battle without Eleven’s help was particularly shrewd. Much as Millie Bobby Brown excels at finding new ways to scream and wave at empty spaces later filled with fancy monster doodles in post-production, it was refreshing to see her costars stepping up to bat while she was benched.
* To our ancestors, I imagine “nostalgia” meant reminiscing about your childhood home, or remembering that maple tree you used to climb down by the river, or reflecting on faces of dearly departed family. To a good number of folks today, nostalgia means products. Flashbacks to pervasive corporate logos, reminders of our favorite purchases, yesterday’s packaging whose very reuse is blatant advertisement feigning sincerity. (Cereal! Candy! Cartoons! Eggo!) I’d be more impressed and less annoyed if the show had touted more dead stores and bankrupt companies. Waldenbooks was a good start, but alone in a sea of items you can run out and buy now now NOW.
* The Duffer Brothers waste no time in showing the audience they were blessed with a far bigger budget this time around — not just with those expensive effects in the first five minutes, but in the number of top-shelf pop hits they could afford to insert. I imagine they drove up to the front door of every major rights-holder from the era and plundered their top-40 catalogs like kids in a name-brand candy-store.
* Least favorite subplot: Nancy and Jonathan as interns at the Mad Men Tribune, which didn’t amount to much beyond a critical look at the awfulness of 1980s small-town newspapermen, or something. In an era when journalism is mocked and undervalued by a population that craves confirmation bias more than awareness outside its comfort-zone bubbles, the Hawkins newspapermen — as represented by Mindhunter‘s Michael Park and Jake Busey distressingly transformed into his own dad — seemed a cruel, ill-timed spoof.
* Episode four missed out on extra credit points when Nancy’s mom encouraged her to aspire to publishing “in the Indianapolis Star“. That isn’t wrong, but I would’ve been more impressed if she’d said “in the Star or the News“. Once upon a time our Midwest metropolis enthusiastically supported two different newspapers. The Indianapolis Star published in the morning; the older Indianapolis News (my mom was a daily subscriber) published in the early evening. The two merged in 1995, and the News folded in 1999. As of 1985 they were separate but eminently equal publications.
* I maintain my stance that death in fantasy and sci-fi is meaningless without a body, and often not even then. Even the final victim’s own actor doesn’t seem 100% convinced in an AV Club exit interview, where you’d expect lots of bridge-burning if that really was his final bow.
* Very related note: memories of poor Bob Newby still hurt. Too soon, Duffers. Too soon.
* The gag with Dustin, Suzy, and the NeverEnding Story theme was both hilarious and an impediment to dramatic momentum. I didn’t watch the film till I was an adult (my full capsule review: “eh”), so I’m not quite as blown away by its return to the limelight as other 40-somethings were. Admittedly it was a cool way to learn that Gaten Matarazzo is a Broadway veteran.
* The obstacles Dustin had to jump to include Suzy took so long that it might almost have been faster if someone had been freed up to go break into the Hawkins Library or a Hawkins High science class and look up Planck’s constant. Better yet, imagine the time saved and efforts redoubled if they’d ever invite Mr. Clark the science teacher on their escapades. Why is he continually kept out of the loop? He would love to be on the front lines discovering all this new interdimensional science.
* Starcourt is the right size for a town of its size, but a six-screen multiplex in that same town? And with one screen playing Larry Cohen’s The Stuff? (Not that I’m knocking The Stuff. My fading teenage memory recalls it as sharp, anti-consumerist satire — the complete opposite of Stranger Things in that regard, frankly — but it wasn’t really a 1985 wide-release kind of film.)
* At first I laughed at the notion of a small Indiana town having a two-story mall. Anchor stores routinely had two or more stories; the malls themselves did not. Then my mom reminded me Glendale Mall on the northeast side had a main floor and a robust basement, so that’s technically two stories. (I can’t believe I forgot — their basement is where the Game Preserve used to be.)
* Hot Dog on a Stick wasn’t a thing in any Indiana malls I ever visited, though I did discover faint online evidence of a (now-defunct) location in Merrillville and perhaps a couple other distant places. I’d be tremendously surprised if they reached here by real-world 1985.
* 1985 is a bit early for Family Video in Indiana, though not impossible. They didn’t proliferate here in Indianapolis until at least the late ’90s, when (or possibly after) Blockbuster was on its last legs. Their closest location to our house just shut down a few months ago and is being replaced by a Dollar General, but we have another one a few miles down the road, still going strong and now proudly pushing CBD oil in addition to physical-media entertainment. I guess sometimes it pays to double-major.
* I couldn’t tell you what metal was used to make DC Comics’ New-52 version of Cyborg, but as of 1985 his father had proudly made his robot parts from molybdenum, not promethium as Robin declares. I say this not as a guy thumping his chest while bellowing, “HAW HAW, ROBIN IS A FAKE GEEK GIRL!” but as a former kid who had a keen interest in comics and in the periodic table. When Marv Wolfman and George Perez name-checked molybdenum way back in New Teen Titans, that caught my full attention and lodged itself firmly in my long-term memory. I can’t help it if, as of this writing, the word “molybdenum” appears in Cyborg’s Wikipedia entry exactly zero times. (I mean, sure, I could help it and go insert it myself. Maybe some other night.) I tweeted supporting documentation from an actual 1985 DC comic, but nobody cared. Story of my life.
* I didn’t recognize Beth Riesgraf from Leverage as Billy’s dead mom. She looked…different.
* Billy, incidentally, wins Most Improved Character. He was a serviceable foil for Steve in season 2, but this time around he was given much more heavy lifting to do, shouldered all of it with creepy flair, and, in his final moments against the Mind Flayer, yanked on my heartstrings much harder than Sheriff Hopper did. (Granted, Hopper’s episodes-long devolution into a thuggish bully didn’t help.)
* My favorite part of Winona Ryder’s performance is that I appreciated the acknowledgement that sometimes grief can last months, regardless of how long you knew the dearly departed. Fictional characters are often quick to heal from tragedy, and…well, I guess poor Joyce still won’t be healing anytime soon. If she begins season 4 as a wound-up, deadly misanthrope like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, I’ll completely understand.
* I trust everyone else saw that yes, there’s a scene during the end credits of the Stranger Things season-3 finale. Considering the USSR’s previous experiments with the Upside Down were shown as catastrophic failures, the appearance of a Demogorgon in Russian captivity is, um, curious. I have no theories as to the identity of “the American” jailed in the same facility, but if we viewers get to vote, I’d love to see a surprise resurrection for Bob Newby.
* Related note: with Starcourt demolished and owned by them evil Russkies, it’d be nifty if season 4 also gives new life to the Main Street Radio Shack and the other stores driven out of business by the mall. On the other hand, if the mall must live on, or be replaced by an even better one, this time there must be a video arcade. In my book this season’s largest, saddest oversight is the complete lack of video games. Bedford, Indiana, was less than half the size of Hawkins, and even their meager mall had an arcade in the ’80s. And don’t tell me the Duffers don’t have the money to license all those brand names.