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Stranger Things swaggers home in a comfortable, confident season premiere

Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown
Photo: Netflix
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In the first few minutes of Stranger Things’ third season, not much seems to have changed. In a familiar-looking underground lab, scientists and soldiers steeped in a familiar frisson of stress and sweat blast an elaborate beam into a familiar portal, one that opens to a Cronenbergian world beyond our own.

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But those scientists and soldiers aren’t a new crew at Hawkins National Lab, operating secretly under the U.S. Department Of Energy. This distant lab, buried in the bedrock of a bleak mountain range, is the U.S.S.R. counterpart to Hawkins. These experiments are taking place in June of 1984, months before the events of season two. And in this lab, promotions follow the style of the Vader administration: As his henchman chokes the senior researcher Vader-style, Comrade-General croaks out, “You have one year” to the unhappy successor.

Cut to one year later in Hawkins, Indiana. “Chapter One: Suzie, Do You Copy” don’t pack a lot of action, but the episode doesn’t miss a step as its actors swagger through the summer of 1985. That’s a tough feat for show with so many young and growing (physically and professionally) stars. These child actors are growing into lanky little near-adults, their faces glowing with potential. The styles of the ’80s enhance their vulnerability, with baggy shorts exaggerating their limbs while their heads float above slouchy necklines and the bulk of their huge backpacks.

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If El, Will, Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Max were a stew of burgeoning hormones, daring outbursts, and awkward pauses before, now they’re swimming in a perfume of possibilities and just a hint of swagger. Together, El (now legally Jane Hopper) and Mike have the familiar selfish ease of first love, giggling and whispering secrets. Lucas and Max, with their clichéd bickering, are just as stereotypical a teenage couple. Returning from science camp, Dustin is overflowing with news about his girlfriend Suzie, and ready to reclaim his position as “Gold Leader, returning to base.”

Of all these friends, these children who walked through hell together, only Will still feels its horrors hovering over them, prickling at the back of his neck. Noah Schnapp’s performance is characteristically quiet and understated, letting Will’s big, haunted eyes convey his concern, and most of all, his lack of certainty. Will is afraid, but he doesn’t know of what.

Mike has more than certainty, more than confidence. Mike does more than swagger. Mike barges. This once hesitant boy now shoves his way down crowded escalators, pushes through crowds, delights in insulting Jane’s adoptive father, blows off his friends or keeps them waiting, and appeals to the worst instincts of his (incredibly powerful telekinetic) girlfriend. Mike Wheeler has become, in Jim Hopper’s words, a “smug son-of-a-bitch.” Finn Wolfhard eats up the role in big chomping bites, swinging his arms and singing his words with the unassailable confidence of a teenager on top of the world.

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All the familiar beats of the episode—the on-the-nose musical cues, the mixed nostalgia and disbelief of the period styling and setting, and especially the character consistency, even as they grow and change—don’t mean this season is predictable, for us or for its characters. “Suzie, Do You Copy” is about the familiar, and it is not. Like a walk through the Upside Down, this episode is where the familiar becomes strange. It’s the cheerful neon of the mall fizzling out as the whole town goes dark. It’s a old steel plant on the edge of town hulking in the dark, drawing masses of rats to it for reasons unknown. (In Hawkins, Indiana, when something is truly unknown, that’s really saying something.)

But “Suzie, Do You Copy” is also about the inevitability of change. It’s about the necessary losses that accompany our gains, and how hard it is to move on, even when change is welcome. “Just a little more time is all we’re askin’ for,” wails Corey Hart as El and Mike kiss, and kiss, and kiss. Joyce can’t go out with Hopper; she doesn’t have time, or maybe she means she needs more time. Will watches his friends moving on to other interests, and he just wants more time with them, more time to play D&D, more time being the way they used to be. Most ominous of all is the Russian researcher pleading, “We just need more time—” before time is choked out of him forever.

It’s Dustin who shows how delicate the balance is between certainty and doubt, and how just a little more time can make a big difference. Before he’s even home from his month at Camp Know Where, Dustin’s already sending out a transmission for his crew: “This is Gold Leader returning to base!” When his mother gently suggests “maybe they just… forgot,” the look that creeps over Gaten Matarazzo’s face is one of pure loss.

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He hasn’t lost his friends, not for sure. But after a month away, he’s lost his certainty in them. Maybe his friends, lifelong friends and new ones, maybe they haven’t been waiting on the other end of a walkie-talkie for his return. Maybe they won’t be there for him. Maybe they haven’t even missed him. Maybe they just… forgot.

Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink
Screenshot: Netflix
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They didn’t! Sure, they have their problems, together and apart, but these kids are flourishing.

The rest of Hawkins isn’t. The once-busy downtown is abandoned, its business and bustle drained off by the new Starcourt Mall. The adults of Hawkins look as rough as downtown. Hopper sits, sweaty in the sickly glow of Magnum, P.I., shoveling down tortilla chips as he broods over his daughter (HIS DAUGHTER!) and her boyfriend (HER BOYFRIEND!). Joyce Byers, still working at Melvald’s General Store, still waking up two sons for breakfast every day, speaks the soothing language of self-help books. But in her clothing and her expression, she’s as ragged as ever, and as alert to the possibility of disaster.

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David Harbour, Winona Ryder
Screenshot: Netflix

In the aftermath of a big victory, it can be easier for the young—with a presumption of long life and growing abilities ahead of them—to swagger. Both Joyce and Hopper feel their losses (and their responsibilities) more keenly. Joyce lost Bob Newby, Superhero, and it hit her hard. But she’s also lost her certainty in the world, her understanding of what the world is. Joyce has lost what swagger she had, and what remains of Hopper’s has curdled into cruel jokes. (“Maybe I’ll just kill Mike. I’m the chief of police. I can cover it up,” he says cheerfully to the mother of a boy whose disappearance was covered up.)

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Dacre Montgomery, Cara Buono
Photo: Netflix

But swagger alone is meaningless, even dangerous. Billy Hargrove is all swagger, whether he’s strutting to his lifeguard stand with all the suburban moms’ eyes on him or yelling insults at a helpless kid. It’s swagger, not confidence, that makes Billy lash out at a noise in the night after crashing his car. And it’s swagger that gets him swept into the dark by a creature he can’t imagine.

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Stray observations

  • SCOOPS AHOY, STEVE!
  • There is nothing to say about Bruce (Jake Busey). His character is exactly as obnoxious and unreflective as his counterpart in any 1985 B comedy.
  • Joyce isn’t the only one remembering Bob Newby, at least unconsciously. On Hopper’s TV, Magnum mutters “forget the dogs, work the locks,” and that’s the moment Hopper starts seeking a distraction.
  • The opening scene of Day Of The Dead scarred me when I was right around the same age as these kids, and I didn’t have to sneak in through the back corridors of Starcourt Mall, so reminiscent of the underground compound’s cinder-block walls.
  • It looks like two underserved actors are getting their due this season: We’ve already seen more from Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson) and Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) than in the rest of the series to date.
  • I’ve prepared for the season by watching selection of 1985 releases—including Day Of The Dead, the queer-subtext goldmines Fright Night and Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, Return To Oz, and, yes, Fletch. But Stranger Things’ reference bank has always been broader than any one year or genre, so stay alert for other homages, and I will, too.
  • Thanks for joining me for Stranger Things 3! I’ll publish reviews for episodes one through four from 9:00 a.m. to noon on the hour on July 4th, and the remaining four from 9:00 to noon on the 5th. As always, I’ll review each episode before moving on to the next; please be considerate of your fellow readers by not posting spoilers from future episodes in the comments of each review. Friends don’t spoil.
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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.