Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022
Maybe teen novels split them up at first, but you can't keep the gang apart for long when evil lurks around Hawkins.
enlarge Maybe teen romance can temporarily split them up, but you can’t keep the gang apart for long when evil lurks around Hawkins.

Netflix

Warning: This story contains some spoilers for episodes 1-4 of Stranger Thingsthird season. You can read our non-spoiler preview of the new season here, or catch up on what happened before with previous Ars stories in season one and season two.

Russians. It always had to be Russians.

Maybe it should be called Gorbachev’s Law, but if you set any kind of gang-the-gang action story in the 1980s, modern democracy’s favorite villain should rear its ugly head. And in strange things 3, the show is wasting no time — this relaunch may be centered in Hawkins again, but S3’s very first scene shows there’s no turning back after the events of the show’s first two seasons. The scope and magnitude of evil facing our favorite teenage heroes is growing along with them.

Of course, exactly how the greater number of bad guys – the Russians, the seedy Starcourt Mall employees, the supernatural Upside Down troops who seemingly watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers (version from 1956 of course, this is 1985) since last season – crossing, what they are working towards and why they choose to hunt the already sadly stricken town of Hawkins remains a mystery to Strange Things 3the second half. But if the first four episodes of Netflix’s current flagship show have shown us anything, it’s that the Duffer Bros. recognized that their show’s familiar, nostalgic formula needed to change. And luckily for those of us who watch in suspense, they seem to have a story in mind that can accommodate such an evolution.

Growing up is hard to do (the show makes it look easy)

The most notable from the first half of Stranger Things S3 is how mature the show has become. Yes, physically our childhood heroes have become teenage heroes. But instead of struggling with that (and, say, rushing to produce as much as possible before actors get older and look unbelievably high school), the story has grown in logical ways to accommodate how the living as an early teen is different from living as an almost teen – and it neatly connects this coming-of-age material with the series’ usual dark and creepy fun.

Initially, the thing that most preoccupies and complicates Mike, Eleven and the gang’s lives isn’t another demon prince, it’s the demands of puberty. The group is linked to some degree – Mike with Eleven, Lucas with Max, Will with dying dreams of another round of D&D – and struggles to define a new normal. Regardless of the larger group dynamics, what does healthy dating look like for never-before-kissed Mike Wheeler and never-out-of-the-lab Eleven? New (once again) dad Jim Hopper certainly doesn’t think he sees it, as Mike and El kiss all night in the household most nights, and the repercussions of this have ripple effects for the series early on. So far, the only time we see all the kids together is when they welcome Dustin home from his summer camp.

Fortunately, everyone has plenty to do while mating. The boys (Mike, Lucas, and Will) initially have the most deeply rooted task: they are heartbroken, don’t understand relationships, and just need to get past fleeting grief. However, doing so only creates a rift – in arguably his best performance yet, Noah Schnapp (Will) gets a standout streak in episode three, as he gives Mike a piece of his mind after the constant hyperfocus on the girls Will pushes to snap. Mike tries to defend himself thoughtlessly (“I’m not trying to be a jerk, but,” he begins. “We’re not kids anymore – guess what? We’d never have girlfriends? We’re going to sit in my basement and play games for the rest of our lives?”), causing Will to stumble away for a brief reflection… which ultimately proves crucial to the group’s ability to sense that something is going on in the city.

The girls, on the other hand, spring into action. Eleven has always had the ability to mentally teleport elsewhere when her senses are bereft, so she and Max spy on the boys before resorting to a telepathic twist on the bottle. It eventually winds up on Max’s older brother, Billy (basically last season’s monotonous jerk), revealing that the Upside Down may not be so neatly cut off from the real world. The two groups come to the same conclusion in dramatically different ways before reuniting to do something about it, taking part in a slick action sequence in which they have to lure a potentially demonic Billy into a public poolside sauna to burn some Mind Flayer out of him ( making good use of knowledge they discovered last season).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcnHOQ-cHa0

The latest trailer for Stranger Things S3.

A series like this may not have existed in previous seasons. There is a repeated sense of real danger – Billy nearly stabs his sister; El being choked by a human – that would have felt “too much” before. The show has always been TV-14 (the very first episode features a monster hunting a young child and lab workers being murdered by something supernatural), but the cast and content have now aged to that line. Barb (and Bob!) died for this.

Thankfully, things aren’t all dark CW drama centered around Hawkins. As fun as it is to watch our heroes unravel every mystery and tackle every danger that awaits them, the undeniable power of the show comes from the fact that audiences love these characters and want to see them be themselves. Looking back at the first half of S3, the most delightful moments probably come from Hopper still rough around the edges (fighting a hangover but merging clues to a bigger problem alongside the ever-capable Joyce Byers) or time spent at the mall with the Scoops Ahoy crew: Steve, new colleague Robin and regular customers Dustin and Erica.

These sequences work tremendously well, as not only do we get more of what we love from characters, but their continued ability runs counter to what you’d expect from all the comedic relief. Once again, Hawkins may need Elf to be at the center of any hope of fighting evil, but Hopper and Joyce or our international ice sleuths will inevitably play a part in connecting the larger puzzle.

Whether or not things turn out as neatly as they have in past seasons, the first half of Stranger Things S3 renews our faith in this world (and its potentially expanded universe) in the future. There are clearly more ideas to explore emerging from Hawkins: new life challenges, greater evil, greater impact on life elsewhere (not to mention potential Mormon camp friends sequestered in Utah). Just as inevitably as the early evils of the season will be linked, our heroes will also reconnect as a larger group and figure out how to fight back. And in the end, when the Russians play with Herculean powers again, humanity still doesn’t know how to master or master them, well, HBO reminded us how that ends in May.

By akfire1

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