By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – July 10, 2019)
CHAPTER 1: SUZIE, DO YOU COPY?
CHAPTER 2: THE MALL RATS
The timing of Stranger Things return to Netflix, quite frankly, couldn’t have been much better. July is an extremely thin month for new content on television, and although there are a few big screen blockbusters to dodge, the summertime binge has become almost as popular as the beach or amusement park vacation. Thus, placing the new season in the summer of 1985 makes it feel appropriate for what we see as we gaze out the windows, rather than forcing us to watch the fall or winter while existing in the sweltering humidity of July.
Two episodes into Season 3, I’m finding myself increasingly wondering what Stranger Things wants to be and what it wants its audience to take away from the newest crop of episodes. Perhaps the answer is merely, “something.” It has all the nostalgia that has made the series such a smash hit, but although there’s still plenty of sci-fi, it spends most of its first two hours creating a teenage rom-com coming-of-age style of story more akin to a John Hughes film or something Brat Pack members would have starred in very early in their careers.
While the first year had its pros and cons, it’s uniqueness came in how reverent it was to 1980s culture, but with storytelling concepts and a few visual tricks that only could have been pulled off in 2016. Season 1 ended with the cliffhanger reveal of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) surviving the Upside Down and being saved, courtesy of Eleven/Jane (Millie Bobby Brown), but coughing up some nastiness in his bathroom sink. He most certainly was NOT okay.
Season 2 closed with a school dance and a slow camera rotation to show Hawkins, Indiana was still in the grips of the Mind Flayer, a character ripped straight out of Dungeons & Dragons, that possessed and used Will to spy on everyone and everything around him. So, we already knew things weren’t going to be good for our young heroes and heroines as we stepped back into the world this year.
1985 was a year of pop culture explosion, including the release of Back to the Future, which we see in a poster frame at the Starcourt Mall movie theater as Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) sneaks Will, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Max (Sadie Sink), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) into George Romero’s Day of the Dead. More than anything, this sequence before they enter the theater helps us get our time right, because the season opens with a June 28, 1984 flashback to a Soviet military site where generals give scientists exactly one year to open a gateway to the Upside Down, presumably to destroy the United States or any other enemies.
The Cold War is in full effect in ’85 and Reagan and Gorbachev aren’t exactly friendly, so portraying the Russians as villains makes all the sense in the world, especially considering so many huge movies at that time were doing the exact same thing. It also allows for Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) to catch the transmission through his radio tower that leads to the secret decoder ring trio of Steve, Robin (Maya Hawke), and Dustin himself getting down to work.
Last season, Dustin went from fairly lovable with the greatest 1980s Hollywood kid look of all-time to kind of a jerk, and a naive one at that, not recognizing the obvious danger of his “pet” that would inevitably become a baby demogorgon and nearly kill everyone in the town. As he returns from Camp Know Where, he’s somehow even more obnoxious. Seriously, I want to like him, but all he does is whine about being left behind by his friends and lament everyone not caring enough about everything he’s doing. Also, we still have no idea if Suzie is real or not, but because Lucas asserts she might be made up based on the story of her being a Mormon and not responding to the radio signal, she MIGHT be real.
We’re also getting more political, which also is appropriate for the time. Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) are sleeping together… Joyce (Winona Ryder) seems cool with it, but she’s also still mourning the loss of “Bob Newby Superhero” (Sean Astin) from 1984. The two also work for the local newspaper, The Hawkins Post, and we see sexism on display immediately as Nancy brings sandwiches around and is basically a lunch monkey. When she poses an idea to the editorial team about Starcourt crushing local mom and pops and small businesses, Bruce Lowe (Jake Busey) basically mocks her for daring to speak about anything other than the missing mustard on his sandwich.
The small business angle takes us down the protest path as Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes) is to blame for a lot of lost jobs and hurt feelings. He doesn’t care. He’s the politician that likes money and stomps on the little guy. This story is as old as time. Does Stranger Things need it? Probably not, but it does give Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) a new level of depth to go along with his constant attempts to win Joyce’s affections. Note: Enzo’s… very sad moment there. Hopefully he enjoyed the “chee on tee” at least.
And then there’s Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery), now a super popular lifeguard… at least for the women of Hawkins, including the married women, most notably Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono). Her husband, Ted (Joe Chrest), has no idea how close he was to his wife sleeping with that jackwagon. Maybe we should thank the Mind Flayer or whatever new entity we’re encountering for dragging Billy into that steel mill basement and stopping the affair before it could happen at the Motel 6. Montgomery plays the jerk well, just as he did last year, and as he became the bully, Steve Harrington could become…
…wait, Steve Harrington could become a dork?
Yes, that’s what we see. Steve can’t talk to women, doesn’t even realize Robin is right in front of his face (yet), and is making 3.50 an hour at Scoops Ahoy selling ice cream. That’ll teach him to screw up in school, fail to get into any college of any type, and anger his father. Last year was redemption time for Steve, and this year it might be redemption of CONFIDENCE time for him, as he’s full-on nerd with Dustin and seems only to connect to the kids, rather than people his own age.
Nancy and Jonathan run into a diseased rat after Doris Driscoll’s tip and a trip to her kind of normal, kind of not normal home. Once it explodes into the goo, all the rats that swarmed the steel mill and began blowing up from the inside out made far more sense. The goo turns into a form and tears off, and eventually all that form can also become the large entity Billy carries Heather Holloway (Francesca Reale) to in order for the monster to possess her. Billy dealing with nightmares and painful sunlight and visual strobe and slice effects as he tries to walk seems like it would be unfortunate, but it’s interesting that THIS is the guy picked for the role. He’s already a jackwagon, so now we’ll make it easier to hate him?
Or are we making it easier to sympathize with him because he didn’t ask for what he got. Or is he reaping what he sowed? It all depends on interpretation.
Mike and Eleven making out to 80s tunes and Hopper threatening him, the dual mall trips that El and Max take simultaneously to the guys, both as a result of the “nana lie” are fun diversions, but I’m wondering how much of a diversion this entire season has been. The kids usually are the ones at the forefront of what’s happening, but so far, it’s Billy, Nancy, Jonathan, and to some extent Joyce focused on the big stuff while the adolescents are engaged in a bad episode of Saved by the Bell.
Correction: The adolescents are engaged in a bad episode of Good Morning Miss Bliss. (Except for Will, because he’s weird and cares about D&D and that’s kind of it, other than when he’s in danger of being possessed and sensing issues at the back of his neck).
Hey, at least they explained away Mike shopping by him NOT having the money to buy anything. You know, because he’s a kid? Still curious as to how El paid for her new look, not to mention the Glamour Shots ripoff she and Max rolled to afterwards. Remember when DJ got caught up in that sweater stealing incident on Full House?
Episode Two finishes up with Steve recognizing the song from the recording as coming from the coin operated horse in the mall, meaning the message likely originated in Hawkins, rather than Moscow. Billy is now under the control of the entity, also through his doppelganger, which is only going to result in a plethora of nefarious stuff until he’s either killed or saved, more likely the latter with this series, which usually goes with the positive message, which I continue to appreciate.
All that said, these two episodes were easy to watch, but didn’t pack the punch of the series’ best highlights. 25 percent into the season, we’ve wasted more time than necessary and have made Dustin more unlikable than ever. Still, the Russian angle is intriguing and we know who the problem is. It’s Billy. We already knew it going in, but now he’s also possessed by monsters, so that makes it even clearer than before. Montgomery is good as the slimy Billy and effective as the tortured one. Some of the acting in these eps was a little painful with stilted dialogue, but for the most part, it was up to par.
Cary Elwes back-and-forth with David Harbour was exceptional stuff and let us know where everyone stands and what the backing story in the community is behind the main Stranger Things plotline. These were pretty good, but by no means great episodes. I like the 80s John Hughes or Richard Donner homages, but want to get more to the brass tacks of what’s happening with the Upside Down. We’ve spent enough time reacquainting ourselves with who these people are in 1985, so now let’s get down to business.
But we’ve got six more… plenty of time to ramp it up further. Be on the lookout for my Episode 3-4 review piece very soon!
I’m @JMartZone. They should have gone to Back to the Future. Maybe it wasn’t out. That’s the only excuse.