Stranger Things 3 deals with the pleasure and pain of adolescence

Mike, Eleven, and the gang are all older, and this series is sensitive to the difficult period of adjustment that comes as romance enters their world for the first time.

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Stranger Things should have ended after one season. The show began as a novel and mysterious tribute to early Eighties sci-fi: the child actors had earnest naivety; the monster was a terrifying surprise; the theme music was sharp and sinister. It had a distinctive star in Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, with her shaved head, bloody nose and endearing obsession with Eggos. (A goodie with a haunting edge, she made an excellent Halloween costume.) It had all the makings of a cult classic.

Now in its third season, Stranger Things 3 can hardly be considered “cult” – it’s a fully mainstream, big-budget Netflix binge-watch that has inspired countless brand collaborations (from Burger King’s “Upside-Down Whopper” to a fashion line with Nike). But after a confused and rambling season two, the third season of Stranger Things is a return to strength – where season two had something of an identity crisis, season three has largely brought back what made the show unique in the first place.

Though the first season was grounded in its liberal use of external references (Alien, Close Encounters, E.T.the list goes on), now Stranger Things becomes self-referential. Hawkins – its Indiana small-town setting – holds a strong sense of place, with dusty grey roads and almost copper-tinted mossy grass. It has a new brightly-lit mall, which feels both thrillingly new and pleasingly retro. Hanging over season three is a heavy mist of nostalgia, not only for the era it references – but for itself, and the times gone by within the world of our characters.

Of course, the younger cast have aged out of their childhood roles; this season grapples with the pleasure and pain of early adolescence. Rather than icy ripples through the grass or something slimy in the shadows, one of the first scenes in the new season shows Eleven and Mike – who kissed in last season’s finale – making out cross-legged on Eleven’s bed, Mike pausing to sing along dorkily to a blaring cassette (“Never Surrender” by Corey Hart). Her guardian, Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), sneaks a peek into her room and catches them at it. We’d be in the world of a John Hughes movie, if Eleven didn’t slam the door shut with the power of her mind.

Far from the wide-eyed, stubble-headed, creepy figure of season one, Eleven has grown out her hair and is thriving. She and Mike are in the throes of youthful infatuation – spending two years fighting monsters from the deep together apparently has surprisingly romantic consequences. And there’s another couple in the friendship group: Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink). As new relationships develop between the younger characters, the pastel purity of teenage romance is set against a backdrop of world-weary adults and older, less volatile teenagers. Their long afternoons in the outstretched summer seem all the more enticing, their tiffs all the more heart-wrenching. In comparison, we see Hopper’s resigned adjustment to solitude (he drinks straight from the cereal bowl or milk carton) and the lack of privacy in his small home. Fraught moments between 18-year-old Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) feel mundane and familiar.

While the infatuation of youth might seem blissfully straightforward to adult audiences, the show is sensitive to the difficult period of adjustment that comes as romance enters your world for the first time, and the younger group’s couplings have knock-on effects for their friendships. Stranger Things owes a lot to the classic Seventies role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. As the boys play the game in Mike’s basement, it provides a kind of frame narrative for the first two seasons. The action of the game often mirrors the action of the show, with the basement becoming a key location for major plot developments. It feels even more poignant, then, when Mike and Lucas begin to lose interest in Dungeons and Dragons. Dustin, too, has met a girl at summer camp – but she “lives in Utah”, so he spends his time with older teenager Steve (who’s got a new job – and outfit – working at the mall’s ice cream parlour).

Despite these cracks within the group, the boys’ relationships are given more space than in previous seasons, where their interactions were more frequently driven by plot. Always more of a loner, Will (Noah Schnapp) is left flying the flag for the pastimes that used to bring them together. He stoically dons his Will the Wise wizard costume and instigates a game, but Mike and Lucas are vaguely embarrassed by it. It’s a brutal reminder of the self-awareness imbued in us in adolescence that comes to shape our relationships. Will knows all too well that his friends have grown out of their game, but can’t bring himself to let go of it himself – leading to an outburst that is a moving and astutely acted portrait of the pain of being left behind.

The boys’ bonds are not totally fractured. They soon come together – you guessed it – to fight evil. And we also witness a friendship blossom between Eleven and Max, the first meaningful female relationship since Nancy and Barb in season one (RIP). Max is now a relationship aficionado after her few months with Lucas, and helps Eleven navigate the surprises and challenges of her first romantic relationship. Touting a refrain from early Stranger Things, Eleven tells Max, “Friends don’t lie”. Max sagely replies, “Yeah, well, boyfriends lie. All the time.”

As well as a spirit of sisterhood (the two exchange outraged looks when Eleven telepathically listens to Mike telling his friends that “women act on emotions, not logic”), Max helps Eleven cultivate a sense of personal identity – the ultimate adolescent preoccupation. Eleven has been through a series of makeover sequences – dressed up as everything from a girly-girl in a blonde wig to a heavily made-up punk – but in Hawkins’ new mall, she picks out clothes she actually likes for the first time. In another (slightly trite) glow-up sequence, she picks out a wardrobe of full-blown Eighties nostalgia: bright patterns on black, voluminous silhouettes, suspenders and scrunchies. It’s a more hopeful perspective on coming-of-age: like the boys, Eleven is leaving something of her past behind, but we relish watching her become herself.

The show’s Eighties aesthetic is undoubtedly what is so viscerally appealing about the show to many people, and it’s also what provides the undercurrent of nostalgia that props up the teen narratives. Sometimes it’s not that convincing that we’re in the past: Stranger Things is too high-spec and glossy and to have the fuzzy charm of an actual Eighties movie. Perhaps it could have retained more of that allure had it stuck to one self-contained season: a mysterious, eccentric story of one imagined town’s history.

Instead, it’s morphed into a growing franchise, making Hawkins a problem zone of infinite supernatural crises. Necessarily, season three has plenty of action – fighting baddies, shining torches around corners, running through the woods. But its renewed sparkle comes not from bigger and better monsters, but from its nuanced, heartfelt examination of adolescence. Season three of Stranger Things has stayed true to its sci-fi origins in the best way that it could – banking on its viewers’ empathy with experiences of young love, friendship, and loss.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.