“Stranger Things” needs to end. Not because it is bad, but precisely because it is so good—the latest season perfectly encapsulating the very definition of a bittersweet ending—that I fear subsequent seasons will do a disservice not just to the show and its fans, but to some of the deeper insights subtly woven into the latest iteration of the wildly popular streaming adventure-horror-drama show.
“Stranger Things” sits at the forefront of the escapist nostalgic entertainment that seems to have become as much of a cultural phenomenon today as the 1950s was for the boomer generation during the ’70s and ’80s.
Nostalgia, Trauma, and Growing Up
The show’s third season picks up in the summer after the events of season two, about nine months later. For an adult, that’s an increasingly short span of time, but for a child, especially one on the cusp of adolescence, it can sometimes feel like an eternity.
This is one of the more powerful themes of the season. Despite its eight-episode allotment, there are moments the series pauses to acknowledge the past, which becomes more important with each ensuing installment. What, at first glance, feels like an unnecessary reminder actually becomes a juxtaposition between Will’s eagerness to forget the events of the previous year, and his mother’s reluctance to let go of her lost love.
While it is Will’s character who seems to get the least amount of screen time, he remains a central figure not just in the show’s highlighting of the difference between how he and his mother view past events, but the effect of those events on Will—who seems unwilling to grow up—and his friends, who like most young teenagers are anxious to begin their adult lives. The show assumes its audience is actually smarter than given credit for and takes a deeper look at why nostalgia can be a powerful force, and the subtler consequences that traumatic events can have in people’s lives.
I admit that it almost slipped by me, as I was about as disinterested in a round of Dungeons and Dragons as Lucas and Mike were, but it is a few moments after this abortive attempt to play the fantasy game where we see that Will is clinging to his childhood because of the trauma he endured, while his friends seem in command of their faculties due to the confidence they gained in battling the monsters of the Upside Down.
If the first two seasons of “Stranger Things” were meant to evoke the coming-of-age movies that were so popular in the ’80s, this latest season sets about turning those tropes on their respective ears, and to profound effect (note to the writers of “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”—this is how you subvert expectations). The gained confidence is underscored as we see the bromance between Steve and Dustin blossom, and Dustin gets what may be the best payoff moment in the series, and certainly among the best ever portrayed on TV or film.
Steve’s character comes full circle from villainous bully in the first season to heroic mentor in the third, and intertwined throughout is the not-so-subtle message that we may all actually be nerds on one level or another.
Erica is given more to work with, but at times can seem annoying because her attitude almost seems forced for the sake of comic relief. It would have been nice to see her given some depth to balance out the sassiness, but I will leave it to others to decide if her character feels more like token than protagonist.
We learn in the first episode that Joyce is moving, with no reason given. After all, her son was abducted into another dimension and her boyfriend mauled by monsters from that same dimension. Do we really need Joyce to have better justification for leaving? Hawkins is not the kind of place for happily ever after and, when the time comes to part ways, there are the appropriate tears set fittingly to Peter Gabriel’s emotional rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes”—the song itself an echo of the events of season one.
Hawkins’ newest attraction is the Starcourt Mall, which does triple duty as villain’s lair, location for a spectacular climactic battle, and metaphor for what malls did to local small-town businesses, big-box stores did to the malls, and online retail is doing to big-box stores. Questions arise (why didn’t anyone notice the massive excavation happening beneath the mall site? Why would Soviet troops wear uniforms in a secret underground facility in the middle of the United States?), but are readily dismissed in favor of getting lost in the fun of spotting old, familiar brands, sometimes in the background, while others are glaringly shoved up against your screen.
“Stranger Things” turned its head to wallow in nostalgia for the first season, became caught up in its own storytelling in the second, and finally turns its head again to look at itself in meta fashion. This leads to some moments of pure poetic beauty, and others which are cringe-worthy show-halting instances that stop just short of having characters wink at the camera.
The amount of product placement in this show would make a die-hard capitalist blush. At one of those show-halting points, “Stranger Things 3” actually stops to have a Lucas deliver an endorsement of New Coke. Get it? It’s a product placement of a nostalgic thing that everyone hated but really Coke is awesome you guys and did we mention this show is sponsored in part by Coke? And Burger King? Hopper loves the Whopper!
If the show wasn’t so good, most of the mainstream reviews would be about the shameless (emphasis on the shame) advertising that helped bolster the revenue of a TV series made by leftists about evil Soviets (although, oddly enough, the term “Soviets” is never once used) during the end of the Cold War — a program subsidized in part by Canadian film grants and Georgia tax breaks.
But I want to give credit where it is due. That credit rests solely and squarely on the Duffer Brothers, whose creative minds went to simultaneously dark and nostalgic places, then wrapped it all up in packaged ’80s neon. When it comes right down to it, there is a time and place for everything—like childhood summers and wallowing in nostalgia.
In the final episode, Hopper’s letter about wanting to hold on to the past yet acknowledging the inevitable change that is life is a nod to what makes the show so successful even as it is letting us know that this cannot possibly last nearly as long as we want. Just like that summer you remember so fondly.
Maybe, just maybe, wallowing in nostalgia is healthy in moderation, but too much can make for some disappointing outcomes—like wishing that one decade could go on forever, as the boomers did with the ’50s, and my generation is doing with the ’80s.