“They’re not kids anymore—they’re teenagers!”
Stranger Things has never had much use for subtext; this is a show whose villain’s primary motivation is “because.” It fits, then, that the Duffer brothers would drop this bit of blatant metacommentary not 20 minutes into the premiere of their breakout hit’s third season, via Winona Ryder’s long-suffering Joyce Byers. Back in 2016, Stranger Things became a surprise sensation on the back of a compelling cast of child actors and the chemistry between them. About 10 seconds later, the series faced a roadblock that becomes inevitable for any franchise relying on a group of wildly popular kids: What happens when those kids grow up?
Stranger Things Season 3 steers its titanic appeal directly into the iceberg. If Stranger Things Season 2 proved the Duffers could extend their creation’s nostalgic charm past its first volume, Stranger Things Season 3 aims to be a similar proof of concept beyond its ensemble’s now-bygone childhoods. The question of how long, exactly, Stranger Things can last still lingers. But the question of what late-period Stranger Things looks like in practice is a more immediate concern. In Hawkins, Indiana, it’s the summer of 1985, and the gang now ranges from early adolescence to full-blown adulthood. In the real world, Stranger Things’ stars are now established enough to start branching out into their own projects. The cast has yet to produce the kind of child-stardom cautionary tale observers justifiably feared from their sudden-onset Netflix fame. It has, however, yielded headlines that threaten to disturb the series’ hermetically sealed escapism: Gaten Matarazzo will host a prank show that briefly became a social media punching bag; Millie Bobby Brown will play Sherlock Holmes’s kid sister Enola, alongside costar Henry Cavill.
The Duffers’ solution to this potential problem is weaving anxieties about maturity and shifting identity into the fabric of the show. In a pleasant surprise, Stranger Things Season 3 manages to walk the line between conscious growth and mood maintenance, demonstrating self-awareness without puncturing its painstakingly recreated ’80s bubble. As in life, leaving childish things behind is scary, but what comes next can be worth the growing pains.
After the last nine months in Hawkins—and 19 in real time—change is in the air. The brand-new Starcourt Mall is now the social and financial center of town—bad for the small businesses on Main Street like Joyce’s now-deserted apartment store, but good for an opportunity to illuminate another darkened corner of retro pop culture. Jazzercise! The Gap! Hot Dog on a Stick! The creeping budget that characterizes any blockbuster, even the ones disguised as TV shows, pays off in ever more elaborate CGI later on. In early episodes, though, the Duffers spend their blank check on a more enjoyable kind of world-building, populating the background with enough scrunchies, perms, and neon to outfit a small country. The time jump to the warmer months also unlocks a whole new arsenal of Reagan-era iconography, much of it centered around the Hawkins community pool: hot lifeguards, bored housewives who ogle them while wearing a full face of makeup with their one-pieces, showers of questionable sanitariness. You can practically smell the chlorine wafting off the screen.
Starcourt, the pool, and loads of unstructured free time serve as the backdrop to a series of petty dramas, much lower-stakes than the threat of the Upside Down but amplified by hormones to feel just as dire. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Brown), or Elle, are officially boyfriend-girlfriend and attached at the hip—at least until their 14-year-old communication skills turn a minor mishap into a full-blown crisis. Max (Sadie Sink) and Elle start to bond over their relationship troubles, puberty driving a gendered wedge into the clique’s dynamic. Dustin (Matarazzo) has spent most of the summer away at science camp, and worries the time away has put some distance between him and the rest of his tight-knit crew. But Dustin’s alienation pales in comparison to Will’s (Noah Schnapp). While his friends are consumed by crushes and the ensuing angst, Will just wants to play Dungeons & Dragons without distraction. His arc is the most finely observed and affecting out of all the younger characters’ transitions, particularly on a show so vested in the power of friendship. Not only are kids fated to grow up, they’re also prone to do so at different speeds, with late bloomers at risk of getting left behind.
Stranger Things’ older generation has their own trials to face. His redemption arc complete, reformed douchebag Steve (Joe Keery) is now spending his days at nautical-themed ice cream shop Scoops Ahoy, ejected from the warm cocoon of high school popularity into the real world of humiliating work uniforms and serving former classmates. Just as Will feels abandoned by his friends, so Steve feels deserted by his peers, much to the amusement of his sardonic coworker Robin (Maya Hawke). Meanwhile, young lovers Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are interns at the Hawkins Post, a thankless job that exposes fissures in their relationship along the fault lines of gender and class. Jonathan doesn’t fully understand how infuriated Nancy is by the male bosses who refuse to take her seriously; Nancy doesn’t grasp why Jonathan is so willing to put up with an unfulfilling gig. Compared to the star-crossed vibe of earlier seasons, the pair are finally experiencing issues that can’t be overcome with adrenaline alone—and that won’t disappear when the evil monster retreats to its lair.
Notably absent from all this setup is any mention of the supposed central conflict of the season: the seemingly never-ending war between a ragtag group of kids, now no longer kids, and an existential threat their elders can’t or won’t recognize. In part, this is due to a lengthy and highly specific list of so-called spoilers Netflix has forbidden critics from sharing in advance, lest we be banished to an alternate dimension ruled by a shadow spider. But beyond special effects, Stranger Things has never done a particularly good job of, or even demonstrated much interest in, building out its bad guy as a source of theme as well as plot. Even now, the monster dubbed the Mind Flayer doesn’t work to amplify Stranger Things’ emotional beats so much as resolve them with an imminent crisis to unite everyone against a common threat. The difference is that, this season, the quandaries set out in the first few episodes are weighty enough to last the viewer through their eventual resolution, even when they’re largely abandoned through an action-packed middle stretch.
Like so much proudly schmaltzy family content, Stranger Things Season 3 concludes with a tear-jerking monologue over a montage, this one from a parent addressing their child. The specifics are best experienced in the moment, but the sentiment makes (even more) explicit what the show has been grappling with all season, both for its characters and for itself. “I know you’re getting older, growing, changing. And I guess if I’m being really honest, that’s what scares me. I don’t want things to change,” the speech begins. “But I know that’s naive. That’s not how life works. It’s always moving, whether you like it or not.” Obviously, a parent doesn’t have any real say in how nature takes its course. Still, it’s best they’ve come to terms with reality, adjusting to the new status quo and resisting the urge to take refuge in denial.