“Strong threat, bloody violence, moderate sex, discriminatory language,” warns the Netflix text strip as – after what seems like the longest wait – the first episode of Stranger Things 3 finally arrives. Bloody violence? Moderate sex? Can we really be heading back to Hawkins, Indiana?!
But if there’s been one consistent thing that the cast have let slip in advance of this season, it’s that it’s “dark” – the darkest yet, they say.
Before all hell breaks loose, though, it’s time to settle back in. As with the opener for Stranger Things 2, the first episode (or Chapter, as they have it) is about reconnecting with the characters and setting the scene, which this time is the height of summer, July 1985, just before Independence Day.
While all seems normal (ish) in Hawkins, it quickly becomes apparent that something sinister is happening. Again.
The major developments
Eleven and Mike cannot stop snogging
The two young lovebirds, Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhart) have discovered the unfettered joy of endless, lip-chafing snogging, to the detriment of hanging out with their friends and to the barely-contained fury of Eleven’s in-loco-parentis Detective Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who is one step short of prising them apart with a crowbar.
There’s a divide opening up in the group between the couples and the singles
Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) have become the kind of happily bickering couple in which the power balance is fully established – and it’s entirely in Max’s favour.
Eleven and Mike, as above, are joined at the lips.
With Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) away at science camp for the whole of June, that’s left Will playing gooseberry. Will, you’ll remember, was the kid who spent most of Stranger Things 1 in the Upside Down, imbibed a smoke monster through the mouth in Stranger Things 2 and now has to look on at his rapidly growing up friends and wonder why no one wants to play Dungeons & Dragons with him any more.
Similarly, when Dustin returns from camp, he finds that he’s been edged out of the group a little – and that no one believes he acquired a long-distance Mormon girlfriend (“Suzie with a Z from Utah”) who can only be contacted via a ludicrous ham radio he’s built. Except when he tries to contact her, he instead hears a voice speaking Russian, because…
The Russians are coming!
The episode begins with people in hazmat suits and gas masks attempting to open up the dimensional portal to the Upside Down – and nearly managing it. But, it’s revealed, these are Russian scientists. Just to make sure you pick that up, they speak in Russian, Russian ceremonial music plays and we pan out to a soviet flag. Got it? They’re RUSSIAN, OK!?
Stranger Things is always on-point with its cultural references to movies and shows of the past, and here, they tap into an immutable truth of ‘80s American movies: the baddies were nearly always Russian.
…And so is the rampant march of consumerism!
Another bete noir in ’80s American movies was the creeping consumerism sweeping their society at the time, and here in Hawkins it’s hitting hard, thanks to the brand new, super-shiny Starcourt Mall. While all above ground is donut stands and Gap stores, there’s clearly a darkness beneath. Meanwhile, downtown Hawkins is becoming a ghost town, the businesses are suffering and the locals are revolting. Well, the ones who aren’t at the mall, that is.
Nancy is struggling with the patriarchy
The ’80s was a tough time to be taken seriously as a professional woman, as Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is discovering in her new job on the local paper, where she works alongside photographer boyfriend Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). “They like me as a coffee delivery machine. They don’t actually respect me as a living breathing human with a brain,” she tells him. And she’s bang on point.
The big questions about Stranger Things 3, Chapter 1
What’s going on with Will’s neck?
When there’s a power cut across the town (beginning at the Starcourt Mall), Will feels a familiar tingle in the back of his neck, and remembers that time he ate the giant monster thing from Stranger Things 2. Is the Upside Down still inside him? Will that kid ever get a break?
What’s going on with rats?
They say rats flee a sinking ship. They’re also fleeing Hawkins and – er – exploding into goo.
What does “The silver cat feeds when blue meets yellow in the west” mean?
It’s the message the Russians are sending, clearly in code. Or, perhaps, a nonsense poem.
What the hell happened to Billy?
Off to hook up with Mrs Wheeler, whom he’d been giving the major chirpse at the pool, Billy’s car flies out of control near the Steelworks. He’s attacked and dragged away.
Why does no one ever mention the events of Stranger Things 1 or 2?
I mean, you would. Wouldn’t you?!
The best stuff
Best new character: Robin (Maya Hawke)
Steve’s (Joe Keery’s) co-worker at the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop is the smart, sardonic and too-cool-for-school Robin, whose focus in life, mostly, is winding Steve up. Why’s she so awesome? Well, she uses a perfectly of-the-time set of insults (“dingus”, in particular), she mocks him for his bromance with Dustin and she keeps a tally of Steve’s efforts with women under the headers “Steve rules” and “Steve sucks” – and there’s nothing in the former.
Steve lost out to Jonathan in the battle for the affections of Nancy and, while we spent most of Stranger Things 1 convinced he was an utter douchebag, he was the undisputed hero of Stranger Things 2. His many fans, no doubt, will be shipping Steve and Robin immediately – there’s a fine line between love and hate.
Best returning character: Erica (Priah Ferguson)
Lucas’s badass little sister was the Stranger Things 2 character we wanted much more of. She’s the classic little sister – a total pain in Lucas’s arse, and bests her brother every time. Happily, she’s back in episode one, when Lucas catches her at the mall. Lucas: “Isn’t it past your bedtime?” Erica: “Isn’t it time you were dead?”
Best ‘80s reference – the Diet Coke ad tribute
Swaggering Billy has got a job at the outdoor pool, where the housewives of Hawkins line up to perve on him when his shift starts. It’s a nod to the classic Diet Coke ads, a reference made cleverer by the fact that the scene immediately cuts to a launderette, referencing the famous ‘80s Coke ad in which Nick Kamen strips off to his boxers in a laundromat.
Best movie homage – Hopper goes Uncle Buck
Hopper, it’s fair to say, isn’t the most natural dad. Thoroughly weirded out by her and Mike’s relationship, he wisely seeks parenting help from Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), then summarily ignores it all and goes full Uncle Buck-scares-the-boyfriend on poor Mike (minus the power drill).
Best cameo – Bob’s back (briefly)
Oh Bob (Sean Astin). Poor old, sweet old Bob, who popped his clogs trying to save the kids in Stranger Things 2. He appears in Joyce’s daydream, as she sits alone watching Cheers with a meal for one. Sob.
Best line: Lucas on Dustin’s girlfriend.
“She’s a genius and she’s hotter than Phoebe Cates? No girl is that perfect.”
Phoebe Cates, you’ll remember, is the girl from Gremlins and Fast Times At Ridgemont High – and was ‘80s girlfriend goals.
Best reference: Day Of The Dead
George Romero’s classic zombie movie, released in 1985, followed Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead. The kids sneak in to see it at the cinema in the mall, which is doubly naughty cos it was R rated.
The best songs on the soundtrack
‘Rock This Town’ by Stray Cats
The rockabilly revival band hit Number Nine in the UK charts in 1981 with this one.
‘Moving In Stereo’ by The Cars
Quintessential US new wave band released this track in 1978.
‘Workin’ For A Livin’’ by Huey Lewis & The News
Huey Lewis & The News were kings of the ‘80s soundtrack thanks to ‘The Power Of Love’ being used in Back To The Future. Here, their song about being a wage slave soundtracks Nancy’s frustration.
‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ by REO Speedwagon
The soft rock hit is perfect smooching music for Eleven and Mike.
‘I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight’ – Cutting Crew
An ‘80s slowie, and hopefully not a foreshadowing of a major character death.
Stay tuned for our recap of Stranger Things 3, Chapter 2