Those pulsing synth sounds combined with that ’80s paperback font can only mean one thing: a new season of Stranger Things has arrived. And it’s about time, right? Season two (or Stranger Things 2) premiered in full at the end of October 2017, which means it’s been a year and a half since we caught up with the kids in Hawkins, Indiana, and their perpetually worried parents. Then again, maybe their parents don’t have to be as worried anymore. The second season ended with the defeat of the Mind Flayer, the closing of the portal to the Upside Down, and the shuttering of Hawkins Labs. Problem solved, right?
Okay, this may shock you, but no. Turns out the Upside Down and its attendant beasties remain a threat one year later in the summer of 1985. Will knew it even then, and the odd tingling sensations he keeps getting on the back of his neck in “Suzie, Do You Copy?,” the third season’s premiere, suggests he’s never really had a chance to relax in the ensuing year, even as others have settled into new routines.
But as the episode opens, all those new routines (and old, ominous feelings) are yet to come for the residents of Hawkins. We begin back in 1984 in what looks like it could be Hawkins Labs in the days before it unexpectedly shuttered. Techs in biohazard suits flip switches, warning lights flash, buzzers buzz, and lab-coat-clad scientists wear worried expressions as they prepare to switch on a machine of unfathomable power, one that looks like it was designed to open a gate to the Upside Down. And it does … briefly. But ultimately the experiment fails, and it’s at this point Stranger Things reveals we’re not in Hawkins at all but somewhere in the USSR watching the Soviet rivals of the Hawkins Labs team. And they’re under a lot of pressure to pierce the veil between dimensions thanks to an unforgiving general and a murderous Russian superman, possibly one taking part in the same “fitness regimen” practiced by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. (Then, in case we missed the hint, Russian choral music kicks in as the general and his henchmen depart beneath a Soviet flag.)
This isn’t an out-of-nowhere development. Last season, Paul Reiser’s Dr. Owens made a reference to being in a race with the Russians. But what seemed like an offhand remark at the time now looks like it will play a major role. What’s a series set in the ’80s without references to the Cold War? How deeply will this season deal with a supernatural arms race? Will this turn into The Americans but with Demogorgons? Developing.
Also developing as we return to Hawkins: the relationship between Mike and Eleven, which has advanced to the “we’re only kissing but we’re kissing all the time” stage of teenage courtship. It’s all quite sweet, and Mike’s still kid enough to break up the make-out sessions with silly faces and a well-timed Corey Hart impression. Not that this makes Sheriff Hopper any more comfortable. As much as he remains committed to his role as El’s adoptive dad, he’s not adjusting well to being the father of a teenager, especially one with the telekinetic powers to slam the door shut even after she’s agreed to a door-remains-open-three-inches-at-all-times policy.
Mike and Hopper had a tumultuous relationship leading into this season, one that included Mike exploding in rage at our favorite Tostitos–and–Magnum P.I.–loving police chief when Mike found out Hopper had hidden the fact that El survived. That doesn’t look likely to get less dramatic in 1985, a notion that’s reinforced by a later scene in which Hopper tells Mike his grandma has died just to get him out of the house and away from his daughter in the wake of the failed heart-to-heart talk suggested by Joyce. Sure, he could open lines of communication and establish clear boundaries and set up a system of mutual respect. Or he could bluster, threaten, and intimidate Mike away. Hopper’s choice isn’t all that surprising. It’s also likely to have unintended consequences down the road.
Then again, it’s not like anyone’s that comfortable with Mike and El. The others give Mike a hard time about spending time with El and not them, and they have a point. Mike and El break off from the group with lame excuses and their cuddliness makes everyone else question their relationship status. Max and Lucas don’t seem to have advanced much past the point where they hold hands and call each other boyfriend and girlfriend (and occasionally seem to forget they’re dating at all), while Dustin tells (dubious?) stories about a girlfriend he met at science camp, the brilliant (and more gorgeous than Phoebe Cates) Suzie, with whom he plans to chat using Cerebro, a super-advanced homemade HAM radio. As the episode ends, he’s started to pick up some Russian broadcasts, bringing the episode full circle ahead of its scary final scenes.
But a lot happens in between as we learn what everyone’s been up to, and where they seem to be heading. And much of the time, they’re headed to Starcourt Mall, a shopper’s paradise that seems to live up to the original dream of a mall as a new town square, a place to shop but also a place to gather and socialize. After tearing himself away from El (who’s still living as a kind of recluse), Mike joins Max, Will, and Lucas for a trip to the extremely crowded Starcourt to take in a preview screening of George Romero’s Day of the Dead.
They take a circuitous route to get there, making their way into the theater via a back hallway they access through Scoops Ahoy, the ice cream parlor that employs Steve Harrington. Not that he’s particularly thrilled about it. He engages in humbling attempts to pick up customers, attempts hampered, he believes, by the sailor’s cap that hides his best feature. It probably doesn’t help that his awkward come-ons include excuses as to why he’s working there instead of going to college, or that he’s under pressure from his co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke, a welcome new addition to the cast), who keeps a running tally of his failures.
Even more of a drag: Steve’s too busy scooping out cones to join the others for Day of the Dead. For a while there, however, it looks like nobody will get to see Day of the Dead. What seems to be an unusually large power surge sparks a blackout and pauses the screening while plunging the rest of Hawkins into darkness. But that sort of thing is perfectly normal, right?
Maybe elsewhere. But in Hawkins, a blackout is never just a blackout, especially one that hits just before the scary part in the opening of a classic zombie film. It’s the sort of thing an aspiring young reporter for The Hawkins Post might look into, if she had a chance. But currently Nancy is an intern mostly tasked with working as a “coffee-delivery machine” for the (surprisingly robust for such a small town) Post newsroom. It’s not exactly a progressive work environment. When she’s not being dismissed by the obnoxious Bruce (Jake Busey, another welcome addition), she has to listen to his sexist “story ideas.” Still, with Jonathan working in the photo department, she’s well positioned to pick up any weird, late-breaking stories, like, say, diseased rats (even if she also has to clean out the trash while answering the phone).
At least she’s keeping busy. Joyce doesn’t have many customers in Hawkins’s now-deserted downtown, which the episode shoots like the abandoned Florida town seen in the opening moments of Day of the Dead. The mall has dragged everyone away from what used to be a bustling town center. Nancy has noticed and tried to turn it into a news story, but no one around her seems to think it’s that big a deal — at least those who don’t make their living downtown. The down time gives Joyce a lot of time to contemplate what she’s lost, both at work and after hours. Asked out by Hopper, she tells him she has plans, then goes home alone for a TV dinner, a glass of wine, and an episode of Cheers that reminds her of happier times. She’s not ready to move on. And a foreboding shot of last season’s “Bob Newby, Superhero” drawing shortly before it crashes to the ground suggests Hawkins isn’t ready for her to forget her past, either.
Elsewhere, Billy’s staying busy too, working as a lifeguard, serving as eye candy for the local moms, and taking least season’s flirtation with Karen, Nancy and Mike’s mother, to the next level through a series of not-quite-double entendres about swimming lessons that leads them to arrange an after-hours liaison at a local motel. But Billy doesn’t make it. After wrecking his car, then discovering it’s covered in goo, he finds himself dragged by an unseen force into the basement of an old abandoned warehouse (another victim of Hawkins’s changing economy?). And, with a cut to black, another season of Stranger Things has kicked into gear.
With a show as popular, and occasionally divisive, as Stranger Things, it’s impossible not to look for cracks, indications that a once-powerful series has lost its touch — particularly in a season premiere following a long break. They’re tough to find in “Suzie, Do You Copy?,” a compelling setup that fills viewers in on what the characters have been doing in the months between episodes, provides a bunch of hints as to where the story will take them next, and lays out some previously unseen themes.
Most prominently, these kids are getting older. The cast has visibly aged between seasons, and the series has made their growing up central to the new season, or at least this opening episode. Dustin gets concerned when it seems like his friends have forgotten him after they’re MIA from their walkie-talkies. When they do get together, the introduction of romance complicates their friend group. The episode also brings the Cold War to Hawkins and seems intent on using the rise of the mall as more than just ’80s window dressing. Malls had a profound effect on small-town America, and Stranger Things doesn’t leave that unaddressed. Will that — taking cues from another Romero zombie movie — end up being the controlling metaphor for season three? Tough to say. But, boy, do the Duffer brothers know how to make TV for the streaming era. How do you not press on immediately to find out what happened to poor, hot (if kind of a-holish) Billy? RIP? TBD.
• I was not expecting Sean Astin to make a return appearance as Bob, however briefly, in that sweet flashback. Will he return again? And what should we make of the way he spotlights Sam and Diane’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship on Cheers? It has an obvious analogue in Hopper and Joyce’s relationship, but having Bob point this out complicates matters.
• Also making an unexpected return: Farrah Fawcett–brand hairspray, which Dustin wields as a weapon against the friends pranking him when he returns. That’s a season two introduction, but I’m going to be keeping track of new cultural references in a separate piece. It’s a chronological list arranged by episode, so feel free to take a look without fear of getting spoiled, especially if you want to learn more about Day of the Dead and this episode’s anachronistic music cue.
• Robin, Steve’s tormenter at Scoops Ahoy, is played by Maya Hawke, previously seen as the star of BBC’s Little Women adaptation. She’s fun here. She’s also the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, and once you know that, you can’t unsee the family resemblance.
• Does Suzie exist? As unlikely as she sounds, this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Dustin would lie about. He’s a strange, sensitive boy who doesn’t like it when his friends forget to use their walkie-talkies, but that seems beyond him.