Seven episodes into Stranger Things 3, several characters go to a showing of Back to the Future, the summer blockbuster released during the 1985 Fourth of July weekend, which is precisely when the events of season three take place. Steve and Robin, still drugged up on whatever the Russians gave them, stumble into a mall cineplex midway through the Michael J. Fox classic and have a hard time processing what they’re seeing.
“I’m pretty sure that mom was trying to bang her son,” Robin says to Steve after they sneak out to take a trip to the lobby water fountain.
“Wait, wait,” Steve responds. “The hot chick was Alex P. Keaton’s mom?”
Their misunderstanding of the time-travel saga makes for a funny aside, and one steeped — like so much of Stranger Things — in familiarity with the pop culture of the 1980s. But it’s hardly the first, or the only, time that Back to the Future is acknowledged in Stranger Things 3. In fact, the entire third season riffs repeatedly on the greatest flux capacitor–related movie of all time, in its visual homages, plot echoes, and its themes. It ultimately concludes with an ending that comments on the conclusion of Back to the Future, and that may hint at a time travel–focused plot in Stranger Things’ future.
The nods to ’80s movies in Stranger Things are, as a general rule, not particularly subtle. For example, the swimming pool shout-out to Fast Times at Ridgemont High that puts Billy in a red swimsuit, being ogled Phoebe Cates–style to the sound of the Cars’ “Moving in Stereo,” could only be more obvious if flashing yellow text popped up onscreen: “Remember that scene in Fast Times? This is a tribute to it!” But, aside from the scene in which Steve, Robin, Erica, and Dustin slide into that Back to the Future screening, the allusions to the Robert Zemeckis film are much more sly.
They are also plentiful. The first blatant one comes a few minutes into the first episode, when Nancy and Jonathan wake up late for work. This is simultaneously a callback to how we first meet Marty McFly — he races out of Doc’s place, late for school — and to the opening-credits sequence in the movie, when we see all of the clocks in Doc Brown’s house. (Nancy makes a point of noting that the two alarm clocks they set have stopped because of the previous night’s power outage.) As they frantically dress to head to their “exciting” internships at the Hawkins Post, Jonathan, wearing just a pair of briefs, puts one foot into his pants and loses his balance, falling forward out of the frame.
That is an exact duplicate of what Michael J. Fox, as Marty, does when he tries to get his jeans back on after his first 1955 meeting with the teenage version of his mother, Lorraine. Just in case you didn’t catch these Back to the Future hat tips, the Duffer Brothers, who created the series and wrote and directed this episode, follow them up by blasting a Huey Lewis and the News song — “Workin’ for a Livin’,” not “The Power of Love” — as Nancy marches purposefully to the office.
The visual homages keep on coming throughout the duration of the season. There’s the black-cat clock hanging on Mrs. Driscoll’s wall that’s identical to Doc’s; the moment when Hopper wakes up after being knocked out to find Joyce taking care of him, which parallels Marty awakening to young Lorraine acting as his Florence Nightingale in 1955; Erica’s helmet/flashlight head gear, which feels like a low-key wink at Doc’s mind-reading helmet (hey, Doc, where Eleven goes with mind-reading, she doesn’t need helmets); the vials of green liquid that the Russians use for their machine, which resemble the vials of plutonium Doc pops into the DeLorean; the Hess farm mailbox that gets knocked over when Joyce, Hopper & Co. drive away from Grigori’s gunshots, an echo of the mailbox at Peabody’s farm that gets destroyed in Back to the Future when Otis Peabody fires shots at Marty’s speeding DeLorean; and even the clothes Steve wears in the finale when he vies for a job at the video store. As he explains that Back to the Future is one of his top three favorite movies of all time, he’s wearing a red and blue vest that looks a lot like the red puffer vest and denim ensemble that is Marty McFly’s signature outfit.
Rural Hawkins, Indiana, doesn’t bear much resemblance to Hill Valley, the more traditional suburb where the McFlys live circa ’85. But the newly constructed Starcourt Mall, a key location in Stranger Things 3, is definitely reminiscent of the Twin Pines Mall in Back to the Future. While we never see the interior of Twin Pines, which later becomes Lone Pine Mall after Marty knocks over one of Peabody’s crucial pine tree in 1955, its parking lot is the epicenter of Marty’s DeLorean departure from and back to 1985. It’s also the place where the Libyans shoot and (seemingly) kill Doc Brown after trying to retrieve the plutonium he stole from them in order to operate his time machine. The Libyans, one of the U.S.’ chief political enemies in Reagan-era America, are swapped out in Stranger Things and replaced with an even more classic Reagan-era villain: the Russians, who wove their way into Red Dawn, Rocky 4, and Sting songs during that decade and have made the ground beneath Starcourt their hub for devising a way to access the Upside Down.
When Marty goes back to 1955, we can see what downtown Hill Valley looked like then: clean, busy, wholesome. It was basically Pleasantville. Billboards on the outskirts of town announced a development, Lyon Estates, that would bring new housing and an idyllic place for families to settle nearby. But by 1985, we can see what’s happened to both Hill Valley and Lyon Estates: They’ve started to deteriorate and lose their luster. That’s exactly what the residents of Hawkins are worried about now that a fancy mall is in their midst. The shops downtown are all but abandoned and residents are protesting outside City Hall, asking the corrupt mayor to save downtown, a request that mirrors the campaign in Back to the Future to “save the clock tower.” In both the Netflix series and the Robert Zemeckis movie, there is an obvious desire to preserve things in the community or to return them to the way they used to be.
Back to the Future is, for most of its run time, also a story about trying to preserve the status quo. All Marty wants to do once he’s back in 1955 is make sure his parents fall in love and kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance because, apparently, that’s the only path that will lead to them eventually marrying and having a family, ensuring that Marty will continue existing. In several of its storylines, Stranger Things 3 highlights a desire to keep things exactly as they are, too. That’s what Will wants — an endless summer of playing D&D in his basement with his best friends. It’s what Hopper wants; he even says so outright in the letter he writes to Eleven. “I don’t want things to change,” he tells her.
But both Back to the Future and Stranger Things 3 ultimately concede that change is inevitable, albeit in very different ways. While Marty does everything he can to undo any future-altering changes he caused back in 1955, when he returns to 1985, it quickly becomes clear that things have changed anyway, only for the better. His father is a confident, successful author. His mother is happy and fit. Their marriage is great, and so are their kids and their house. It’s the ultimate American ’80s movie realization of a happy ending: They’ve got money and a nice home in the suburbs. Actually, you can make a strong argument that Back to the Future is the ultimate baby-boomer fantasy: It imagines a world in which the promises made to the kids of the 1950s, about a bright future complete with lovely places to live in Lyon Estates, actually comes true.
In Stranger Things 3, even though the Mind Flayer is (seemingly) destroyed and the gate to the Upside Down is, once again, successfully shut, there is no real way to undo the damage that’s been done. Lives have already been lost. These kids, who have already dealt with a hell of a lot of trauma for their age, are still growing up and, in the case of Will, Eleven, and Jonathan, moving away from Hawkins. Hopper, if you don’t believe he’s the American referred to in the post-credits scene, is dead, as are Billy and a lot of other people. It’s a much more melancholy conclusion than the one Back to the Future offers. The 1985 film leaves us with the image of the DeLorean zooming off into the future and all the possibilities offered by a wide-open sky. The 2019 TV show ends by closing a door.
That letter from Hopper to Eleven is an inversion of the letter Marty writes to Doc in Back to the Future, and one also informed by a more realistic point of view. In the movie, Marty writes a note warning Doc to take precautions so he won’t be shot by the Libyans in 1985. Marty is a kid telling a dead man how to stay alive.
Hopper, whose voice we hear reading his own words as El reads his letter, is a dead man telling a kid how to live. What he shares with her is, in a sense, a rebuke of everything that happens in Back to the Future. He says that deep down, what he really wants for his growing teenage daughter is “to maybe stop that change. To turn back the clock. To make things go back to how they were. But I know that’s naïve. That’s just not how life works.”
What he’s saying, in other words, is that it’s not possible to go back in time, which is the opposite of what Back to the Future tells us. (It’s also a fantastic message to convey on a show that is, itself, a portal back to the 1980s.) But Hopper also writes: “Keep growing up, kid. Don’t let me stop you.” Which implies that El is in control of her future and can steer it in new directions, the same lesson that Marty ultimately learns. It’s also the lesson most commonly taught in any coming-of-age story. And both Stranger Things 3 and Back to the Future are effectively coming-of-age stories. They just happen to be dressed up in layers of sci-fi, horror, and flux capacitor–Mind Flayer mumbo jumbo.
Since Stranger Things 3 dropped on Netflix, there has been some discussion online about whether a fourth season — which technically has not been confirmed yet by Netflix — might involve time travel. At first, I dismissed the idea as a bit of a stretch. But as I was revisiting season three, I noticed a small detail that may be meaningful (maybe). When Steve and Robin start watching Back to the Future at the Starcourt theater, the movie has just reached the scene when Marty first encounters the DeLorean in the Twin Pines parking lot. When the Stranger Things 3 scene cuts away, the last thing we hear is Michael J. Fox saying, “You built a time machine —”
What we don’t hear is the rest of his line: “— out of a DeLorean?” Instead, we go right to the car where Joyce, Hopper, Alexei, and Murray are discussing how to turn off the machine that the Russians have activated in the bowels of Starcourt Mall. This could just be a funny bridge from one scene to the next. Or it could be an invitation to the audience to connect some dots between the Back to the Future time machine and the capabilities of the Russians’ machine.
Think about it: What if the next season of Stranger Things actually could undo the damage that the Upside Down and the Mind Flayer have done? What if Hopper himself, due to whatever radiation and whatnot he absorbed in his attempt to close the gate, could become a human flux capacitor of sorts, with the capacity to do exactly what he said was impossible in that letter: go back in time? Or what if El, who already can move through space, has inherited the ability to move through time via her physical interaction with the Mind Flayer. You guys: What if they could bring back Barb?
I have no idea if any of this dovetails with whatever the Duffers have in mind for a potential fourth season. But if they intend a fourth season to be the last, as has been speculated, it would make a lot of sense for a show that has enabled its audience to travel back to the ’80s to engage in its own McFly-style trip back in time. Perhaps Stranger Things 3 is trying to tell us that. Even if it’s not, its fixation on Back to the Future provides for some clever Easter eggs and the opportunity to consider the season’s ending from the perspective Stranger Things loves best: through the lens of pop culture past.