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‘Stranger’ Stream, Episode 3: What Do the Russians Want?

As it turns out, the center of the Cold War is located in Hawkins, Indiana

Netflix/Ringer illustration

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 Season 3’s third episode, “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard”:

Here’s a fun (?) little peek behind the TV recapping curtain: When Netflix emailed about the release of the screeners for the third season of Stranger Things, the message detailed things like coverage embargos and piracy warnings. This sort of thing is standard. But in a unique move—and this is definitely because Stranger Things is absurdly popular—the email also included a comprehensive breakdown of important details from the new season that shouldn’t be spoiled. This list in turn effectively spoiled the entire season for anyone who unsuspectingly scrolled down. Thankfully, my eyes quickly averted from most of the big reveals, but I couldn’t avoid the first bullet point, which simply said “anything about the Russians.”

Excuse me, the Russians?!

As revealed by the first scene of the new season, yes, Russians have joined the fray—and they’re just as interested in the Upside Down as the U.S. government is. In the opening sequence, the Russians’ attempt to open an interdimensional gate between our world and the Upside Down doesn’t go as planned. The head scientist guy is choked to death by Russian Terminator (we don’t get his actual name, so giving him this handy nickname) and Russian Taron Egerton (again, handy nickname) is informed he has one year to get the interdimensional device working again.

Now, in “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard,” we have some idea of what the Russians have done: They’ve infiltrated Hawkins. While the notion of Russians invading America is certainly, uh, prescient in our current political climate, it’s worth stressing that Stranger Things isn’t trying to join the #Resistance. Rather, the Duffer brothers are gleefully riffing off Red Dawn, an American classic where the Red Army invades a small town in Colorado, leaving the town’s high schoolers to fight them off (naturally). You may have heard about a 2012 Red Dawn remake featuring North Korean adversaries and starring Chris Hemsworth and Josh Peck, but I assure you that doesn’t actually exist.

It’s Dustin who initially intercepts some Russian communique while trying to radio his maybe-nonexistent girlfriend, and with Steve and Robin’s help, he begins decoding the message and discovering the signal likely originated within Hawkins’s new Starcourt Mall. While the plan to find “evil Russians” ends with Steve and Dustin inadvertently stalking a Jazzercise instructor (so ’80s!), Robin puts together enough clues in the episode to find out where their HQ might be located: A holding dock at Starcourt is protected by several armed guards who speak Russian. That’s more than a tiny bit suspicious!

It’s safe to presume the reason the Russians are continuing their Upside Down experiments in Hawkins is because of the town’s tragic hotbed of interdimensional activity. Eleven might have sealed the gateway between the two worlds last season, but it’s ostensibly easier to access closer to the source. (And also the Duffer brothers definitely just figured that adding evil Russians would be really fun and quite ’80s, and you can’t blame them.)

So while Dustin, Steve, and Robin have discovered the mysterious holding dock entrance, Stranger Things’ third season wouldn’t be particularly cinematic if the Russian presence was merely a giant red herring. Which invites the question: What do the Russians want with the Upside Down, anyway?

If the goal was to unleash supernatural chaos onto the United States, then the Russians probably wouldn’t have tried to open the portal back home. And it’s unclear how much they even know about what lurks in there—or how much they know in comparison with the employees of Hawkins Lab from the first two seasons. But since the series is taking place at the height of Cold War tensions, perhaps the goal is actually quite simple and totally devoid of supernatural pretensions: surveillance.

Eleven has telekinetic powers that can crush Coke cans—and human brains, if she’s so inclined—but in the wrong hands, she’s basically a weapon. Give her some blindfolds and a tissue for that impending nosebleed and she can spy on anybody she wants. (It’s how she and Max discover Billy’s acting stranger than usual.) Dr. Brenner and his team had Eleven gain intel on Russians when she first gained her powers; it was how they unwittingly caught the Demogorgon’s attention in the first place. Granted, Eleven has since used this psychic spycraft for innocent means—like catching Lucas and Mike chatting about girls, burping, and ripping dank farts—but imagine a foreign enemy harnessing her power. What if the Russians could intercept everything that’s uttered inside the Oval Office, or within American submarines? Were the Russians aware of Eleven’s spying? Are they experimenting on their own missing children back home?

Surely, some Russian characters—maybe Russian Taron Egerton if he’s around?—will disclose their motivations later in the season. Doubtless they have no idea the Mind Flayer is also lurking about. It’s also possible that the Russians are responsible for building Starcourt Mall, which would be a great front for loud scientific experiments. But while the Russians hope to harness the Upside Down’s powers for their own geopolitical might, they might wanna ask the folks at Hawkins Lab how well that went for them—assuming any of them are even still alive.

When Stranger Things’ second season did a stand-alone episode in Chicago with Eleven’s “sibling” Kali, it widened the scope of the series beyond the small-town concerns of Hawkins and its characters. Now, with the quintessential nemesis of the 1980s experimenting inside the town, Stranger Things has fully embraced the bigger picture. It’s time to send in the Wolverines.