Stranger Things, Season 3, was okay. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good. It made a familiar mistake: trying to do everything and doing nothing well. Growing up is hard. Changing and maturing is fraught and sad. These were the obvious themes the season set up, then ignored in favor of rabbit trails. It wanted to do Red Dawn, but also Upside-Down Horror, but also The Wonder Years, sorta? Somehow, this blunder is old hat to us now. It’s common in the Golden Age of Television, not even that interesting. Plenty of shows burn out, like us.
Really, the season needed to do the opposite of Raising the Stakes™ and Going Bigger™. It needed to dial back, focus on one thing—ch-ch-ch-changes—and the quiet dread and ultimate hope that accompany them. The Mall, Puberty, Moving, Normal is Boring, etc., they all fit nicely into that theme, but the Magical Russians building a magical underground facility under a random mall in Indiana oh so did not. It made it very hard to care, not just because it was impossible to get past those nagging logistical questions, like, uh, “how did these guys get here?” or “why is the Gang so hilariously unprepared for something they’ve been through twice now?”, spoiling much of the screen-time. These were such a blaring hook for Next Season that it robbed them of all gravity. The Magic Box wasn’t inviting, just obnoxious. (Did you get that, JJ?) The best part of Season 3 was those brief, resonating minutes after the climax and before the credits, which had nothing to do with either Slavic Mole People or Squishmeister 3.0.
Like, who cares about those. Those are concrete problems with concrete solutions. Throw a bomb at them, shoot them, punch them, whatever. What’s terrifying is the agony of watching things you care about collapse before your eyes, not at the hands of a Corporeal Evil eating them alive, but normal winds of change. Will’s heart being carved out, watching his tight-knit circle of friends dissolve, innocence lost, moments defaced and spat on, things that will never, ever return, that was awful. I understood. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. Isn’t that why we’re drinking from this stupid nostalgia well? Wasn’t that pain the whole point?
I was struck by how much I felt I was in the Upside Down this time round. The “happy” parts of the 80s were horrible, weird, and alien. It was all shit: the aesthetic, the mentality, the casual brutality of suburbia, none of it seemed appealing in the slightest. Sure, I’m a 90s kid, through and through, but, take note: the 90s were also terrible in most of the same ways. Their only redeeming value was that bygone optimism of our victory in the Cold War, cut down before its time thanks to 9/11. But seeing the 80s paraded in front of me this happy time,—all the seeds of the shitfruit we have to eat day after day in our present—arranged on a silver platter, as if we should miss this: that was a straight kick in the balls. For example, malls were the worst deal ever sold to America: hey, let’s straight-up murder vibrant, walkable city centers, nexuses of community and history that have been around since the dawn of our country. What do we get in return? Oh, lame, tacky shopping parlors that won’t last for even one generation. Wow, that was so worth it. Sign me up!
It made me glad to have not grown up in this time. It made me appreciate the lessons we’ve learned as a culture since then, how it’s become much more acceptable—casual, even—to talk about our feelings, to accept people with slight differences, etc. It made me despise what I was seeing. It was so clueless of its consequence and impact. More insulting was how almost self-aware the depiction seemed, teasing at deconstruction, but still fundamentally cool with the thrill and adventure of it. And that was the thing: there wasn’t any. Did I care what was happening to Billy and Whatsherface? No. I most definitely did not care what the Monster was up to. It’s gonna scream and munch on things, like the last two times. I didn’t care about what Boris and Pals are doing thanks to their obvious Russian Portal that’s gonna be explained in Season 4, maybe, if they bother. Whee. Exciting.
But I did care as the Gang gathered round and looked on that empty house, realizing how much time and effort they’d wasted on petty bullshit, pissing away something irreplaceable, a lost jewel they’ll long for until the end of their days. That tragedy of it, that it all fell apart just because things fall apart, that the factors that bring us together are precisely what cause us to part, that time and chance happens to us all. If there was going to be a Monster, it should’ve been a small, creeping thing, an standard but effective metaphor for this unstoppable tide of change and the dread of it, nibbling at their buried fears and anxieties, helping them fester, gnawing at this side of us that we try to shove behind a bolted door, turning the characters on each other. There should’ve been less physical separation, but vast emotional and psychological gulfs, the tweens, teens, and older adults approaching and dealing with this challenge in their own appropriate ways. “I don’t want to lose this. Please don’t take this away from me. I’ll do anything. Anything.”
This is simple thematics, stuff that garners a much bigger and more lasting payoff than yet another CGI jump-scare. Despite being a 90s kid, Season 1 drew me in through the courage of its convictions. It went all in on a very specific place-feeling, one it examined with skill and passion. It was compelling. Season 3 was not. It was a familiar, shabby ritual. A wasted opportunity. It was doing a Thing, but This Time Bigger and Betterer. It didn’t work.
Nostalgia has a lesson for us, but we refuse to learn it. Can we stop doing that, maybe?