For a show with such an extensive ensemble cast as Stranger Things, time itself functions as a character in its own right. The 80s aesthetics play a crucial role in the narrative, with the series serving as a love letter to the decade, as does the youth of the core performers. A few years have passed since the series debuted in 2016. Most of the cast look older, presenting a challenge for a show that uses childhood nostalgia as its bread and butter.
Season three neither ignores the fact that its characters aren’t the same adorable bunch who saved the world riding around on their bikes, nor tries too hard to force aging into its narrative. The kids are older, yes, but the summer setting allows the series to skirt by without injecting too much reality into a story that already requires a fair amount of disbelief. Stranger Things recognizes that nostalgia allows one to put aside the present, quickly acknowledging its aging characters before doing its best to pretend nothing’s changed.
As with the previous two seasons, the character dynamic is a bit different this time around. While last season kept Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) away from the boys for the bulk of its run, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) finds himself apart from the core group this year. The show uses Dustin’s natural chemistry with pretty boy Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) to its advantage, pairing them with newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke), Steve’s coworker at a mall ice cream shop, and Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson), in an elevated role. Erica is easily this season’s breakout character, providing a lot of much needed comedic relief.
Season three features the return of the Mind Flayer, wreaking havoc on Hawkins with its invasive body-snatching. The introduction of a Russian military base gives the season a bit of a Red Dawn feel, along with homages to The Terminator, The Thing, and Die Hard, among others. The nostalgia doesn’t weigh super heavily on the narrative, allowing those who don’t really understand the references to enjoy without missing much. Eggo waffles play a diminished role this year, but a couple of iconic 80s products get a bit of time in the spotlight.
There is a bit of disconnect between the various groups of characters this year, exacerbated by the series’ growing cast. The adults, particularly Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) feel a bit less essential, though they have plenty of memorable moments alongside Murray (Brett Gelman) and newcomer Alexei (Alec Utgoff), a Russian doctor with a love of Slurpee’s. The plot feels like it could have been streamlined with a smaller cast, but the characters have so much chemistry that it’s hard to complain.
Season three lives in the moment, a fun-filled summer adventure that does its best to ignore the passing of time. With season four expected to be the last, the characters won’t really have to worry about growing up too much longer, relieving any need for the show to be some treatise on aging. Stranger Things packs a lot of heart, a perfect getaway for this time of year.