The Mind Flayer is back, Hawkins has a shiny new mall, and the kids have to confront puberty: Stranger Things has never been scarier. Throughout the Fourth of July weekend, The Ringer will be covering all the happenings in Stranger Things’ third season with episodic breakdowns highlighting the biggest scenes, themes, and character moments. Below, we dive into the Season 3 premiere, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”
As a beacon of ’80s nostalgia, Stranger Things intimately understands the appeal of finding small comforts in the past. The Duffer brothers, now in their mid-30s, clearly hold this era and the movies that came from it—like E.T., The Goonies, and Stand by Me, just to name a few of the show’s many reference points—in high regard, the same way that ’90s kids like myself will always extoll the virtues of Rugrats, Space Jam, and The Sandlot.
But even though it often seems this way, Stranger Things isn’t just a binge-worthy vehicle for funneling nostalgia and dank synth tracks. The series is its own undeniable phenomenon, one of Netflix’s biggest breakthroughs in original programming. The nostalgia certainly played a part in its initial buzz, but there also things unique to the series that drew viewers in—namely, a charismatic and talented young cast, along with a slimy alternate dimension full of Lovecraftian monsters. When you think of Stranger Things, you also think of the show’s adorable kids playing Dungeons & Dragons in the Wheeler family basement, the creepy Demogorgon, and several other idiosyncrasies that make Hawkins, Indiana, feel like a real place. It’s comforting returning to the confines of Hawkins for a third season, even though supernatural threats are once again conspiring to wipe out the entire town.
But while the Mind Flayer is surely up to no good—and appears to have captured Billy and his magnificent mullet just as he was on his way to a potential motel rendezvous with an astonishingly thirsty Karen Wheeler—the show’s characters have to contend with another frightening concept this season: the inevitable truth that nothing stays the same forever.
In the Season 3 premiere, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” it’s evident a lot has changed in Hawkins. Let’s begin with the kids: Uh, they’re not exactly little anymore. That’s an obvious byproduct of the young cast growing up in front of our eyes—but with two years of prime adolescence separating the second and third seasons, that contrast is even more stark. Mike and Eleven are in full Young Love mode and making out incessantly—much to the chagrin of Chief Jim Hopper, who just wants to down beers, eat chips and salsa, and watch Magnum P.I. in peace. (Can someone say LIFE GOALS?) Lucas and Max are also still dating, though they’re mercifully less attached at the hip. Dustin returns to Hawkins from science camp with his own girlfriend who lives in Utah—though the other kids are skeptical that Suzie’s even real; a savage burn—and a giant ham radio for the sole purpose of talking to her. Will Byers, meanwhile, is in the unenviable position of being the [counts] seventh wheel. He wants to hang out and relive the good old days, and displays obvious contempt when everyone else is off focusing on their romantic pursuits. “Why can’t we just play D&D?” he asks at one point. Nobody answers him.
Hawkins isn’t faring any better. The opening of Starcourt Mall has effectively drained the downtown area of its small businesses, seen in a brief view of the town’s desolate streets and foreclosure signs. The soul of Hawkins is giving way to a glitzy corporate monolith that caters to nearly every need—similar to how Walmarts across the country have ravaged small towns in America and their floundering mom-and-pop stores, the mall is a convenient, glamorous new alternative, so exciting that no one’s stopped to wonder what the real cost of its arrival is.
While the Season 3 premiere still revels in ’80s references—shout-out to the ill-fated New Coke and George Romero’s Day of the Dead—it also takes a moment to reflect on its own legacy and parse what’s so alluring about nostalgia in the first place. The third season could have easily begun with the kids still playing games in a basement as Hawkins continued to thrive as a cute little slice of small town life. But kids grow up, find new interests, and sometimes even drift apart. And towns—especially ones ravaged by gooey interdimensional monsters and secret government experiments—are never stuck in a time capsule, either. They are ever-evolving, as volatile as a bunch of kids just hitting puberty. Starcourt Mall might be the impetus for the change in Hawkins, but you get the impression it was eventually going to happen no matter what.
The loss of childhood innocence and the crumbling of a small sound dispiriting, but these are undeniable facts of life. And it’s a promising sign that the series understands that, in order to develop organically, it must grow along with its young cast (especially as the Duffer brothers expect to make at least one more season, possibly two). Unfortunately for Will, that means Dungeons & Dragons is now a relic of the past, replaced by girlfriends and trips to the mall. But therein lies the power of nostalgia—we could never be so devastatingly wistful over a Spielberg movie, or a Don Henley song, or the mere memory of what a street once looked like if life remained the same. We look back on the hallmarks of our pasts with fierce joy over the good memories they signify—but also with deep pain as we acknowledge that those moments are resolutely over.
The one constant, though, is that the Upside Down and its terrifying creatures keep finding their way to Hawkins. The Mind Flayer appears to have claimed one victim—and also a bunch of rats exploded, I hope you didn’t watch the premiere while eating—but more could be on the way. If Billy is under the Mind Flayer’s control, like Will was last season, he’s practically a hunky zombie. No wonder Starcourt Mall is screening Day of the Dead.