While some genuine spiritual elements aren’t completely missing here, the positives are nun-too-obvious.
Something wicked this way comes … to the small hamlet of Hawkins, Indiana.
Worse yet, it was invited.
It all began in 1983, when a mysterious agency pried open a doorway to another, darker realm. Those in the know called it the Upside Down, and some were lost to its inky void. Only a very few have found themselves in that world and made it back alive. Will Byers, then 12, was lost for days down there. And when he was finally rescued, he wasn’t quite the same.
You’d think that everyone would’ve learned their lesson and sealed the doorway to the Upside Down forever.
Yeah, not so much.
Blame the Russians. That’s what pretty much every red-blooded American did back in 1985, when Stranger Things 3 opens. Even though the paranormally-gifted Eleven—excuse me, El—seemed to shut the door on the Upside Down for good a year before (in Season 2), our comrades back in the U.S.S.R. are trying to open another such portal. And somehow, even though the old Soviet Union is a good half-world away, Hawkins is still very much a piece of this Upside Down cake.
But El’s father, Sheriff Jim Hopper, thinks another evil’s afoot—one in the guise of El’s bowl-coiffed boyfriend, Mike. Sure, they’ve all been through some tough times together. They’re three of the very few people who’ve seen what lurks in the Upside Down and lived to tell about it. But hey, that doesn’t give Mike license to moosh lips with his adopted teenage daughter. Why, if the Demogorgon does show its creepy face again, Jim just might give the critter directions to Mike’s house.
But romance is thick in Hawkins’ air this season—as thick as rat innards, really.
Jim has his eyes on Will’s mom, Joyce, even though Joyce still holds a torch for her former (and now dead) beau, Bob Newby. Mike’s sister, Nancy, is sleeping with Will’s brother, Jonathan—and she carpools with him to the local newspaper where they both work. Max and Lucas, friends of Will and Mike, are holding hands at the local mall. Dustin has a girlfriend, too—albeit a long-distance one he met at science camp.
Even Will has a stubbornly persistent suitor … the Upside Down’s darkest denizen: the Mind Flayer. He feels it moving closer to him. To them all. The darkness can’t quit Will, apparently, and it won’t stop until it claims him—and everyone else.
Netflix’s Stranger Things is a nostalgic sci-fi romp—a fond-but-freaky look at the 1980s that may, in some ways, outdo the decade that spawned it. The soundtrack is pure cheesy synthesizer. Hair is gloriously feathered. Walkie-talkies are the size of cinder blocks. So maybe it’s fitting that the show owes a great deal to the two Steves that dominated pop culture during the decade: Stephen King and Steven Spielberg.
If you look at their respective bodies of work from the 1980s—King’s IT and The Body (the short story upon which the movie Stand by Me was based) and Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies and others—there’s often a sense that there’s something special about early adolescence, teetering as we do on the edge separating childhood from adulthood. It’s at that strange, magical age when the world seems most pregnant with possibilities … even if the fetus inside may have fangs and tentacles and could devour us all.
Fittingly, Stranger Things is an equally mixed bag.
The series does give us a set of heroic tweens and teens, along with a bevy of caring (if somewhat distracted) adults who’d like to do the same. As such, it’s a story of empowerment, one that scratches the itch of many a geeky 12-year-old who doesn’t feel very powerful at all. (And given the fact that I was also a geeky 12-year-old in the 1980s, this show holds a particular, rather peculiar charm for me.)
But when you take inspiration from King and Spielberg circa the 1980s, you’re gonna run headlong into problems, too. Sure, their stories purportedly whisk us back to more innocent days. But when you meet their characters, they’re often anything but.
The kids here, like their Steve-ish literary and cinematic forebears, can swear like testosterone-deficient sailors and can disrespect the adults in their lives something awful. They play Dungeons & Dragons, which might set off alarms for parents concerned with its darker spiritual elements. And while these children seem to eschew alcohol and tobacco for the more esoteric pleasures of Tolkien, the adults they’re around drink and smoke with abandon. When the scene shifts to the high-school set, sex (or the heady, fearful promise of it) never seems far away. And in Season 3, one of the characters comes out of the closet—something quite common today, but almost unheard of in the 1980s.
And let’s not forget that despite its pint-size protagonists and nostalgia-laden atmosphere, Stranger Things is as much a horror story as it is science fiction. There may indeed be aliens here, but if so they’re certainly not bonding with little boys or phoning home. The show has gotten gorier as it has gone on, and death is rarely far away. The monsters, and many of the men, are out for blood. And they’re not above spattering a bit of it across the screen.
Every main character is beginning to suspect that the evil they thought had been banished from Hawkins in Season 2 is back. Dustin, Steve Harrington and (Steve’s coworker) Robin decode a message that suggests Russians are behind it all. Nancy and Jonathan make an alarming discovery. And El has a frightening vision of a lifeguard being consumed by the darkness.
Will, frustrated that all of his old Dungeons & Dragons pals seem obsessed with girls, desperately tries to interest Mike and Lucas in a game, to no avail. “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls,” Mike says. (We should note that, to this point, Will’s not exhibiting a fondness for boys outside of friendship, either.) El and Max sneak into Max’s brother’s room to find evidence of what might be wrong with him. When El tells Max that she heard a girl screaming, Max tells her that girls often scream happily when they’re with Billy. (When El wonders how that’s possible, Max says she’ll loan El a copy of Cosmo.) Max and El also uncover Billy’s stash of Penthouses festooned with erotic (but not fully nude) cover models. Jazzercise participants wear outfits that showcase their spandex-clad backsides.
El and Max also find a bloody whistle in Billy’s bathroom. Someone faints. Another person is whacked in the head with a wine bottle. A person pours a substance on a handkerchief and covers his nose and mouth with it, telling him it “will all be over soon.” A man is brutally beaten. Guards carry guns. We see flashbacks to some of Season 2’s bloodiest, freakiest moments.
El psychically teleports herself to see what Mike and Lucas are up to—which amounts to burping, passing gas and pondering the inexplicable mysteries of the opposite sex. Hopper gets very drunk after a broken date with Joyce, and he drives home intoxicated. (Never mind that he’s Hawkins’ chief of police.) The next morning, he combats a hangover (while wandering about just wrapped in a towel). He and others smoke. Someone appears to struggle with inebriation, and her husband remarks she’s probably had too much to drink.
The s-word is used at least six times. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—,” “a–hole,” “d–k” and misuses of both God’s and Jesus’ name.
Mike—scared of Hopper’s disapproval of his romantic relationship with El—lies to her about the health of his grandmother (an excuse to stay away for the day). She senses the fib, and Max (who knows a thing or two about stupid boyfriends) encourages her to go to the mall with her. Meanwhile, Nancy and her beau, Jonathan, investigate reports of rats eating fertilizer, while Max’s brother, Billy, suffers from a severe infection of the Upside Down.
Billy attacks a coworker and drags her to, apparently, be attacked infected by an entity from the Upside Down. Mike struggles with his own physical ills, including a strange wound on his elbow and a blackening of the veins in his arm. A rat contorts in pain and implodes into a mass of sentient goo, which then oozes out of a cage. Someone imagines smashing a woman’s head against a shelf.
Couples kiss. Mike, Lucas and Will discover a lingerie store (and quickly skedaddle). Nancy lies to her bosses about having “girl problems” to pursue a potential story. Dustin, who’s missing his front teeth (and waiting for a replacement set of false ones to come in), says that his girlfriend thinks kissing is better without them. We see people, both men and women, in swimming suits. Joyce (Will and Jonathan’s mother) stands Hopper up on what Hopper imagined would be a romantic dinner. He gets seriously drunk there and staggers out, breaking things along the way. He and others smoke. The s-word is said about 10 times. We also hear “a–,” “b–tard” and “h—,” along with the f-word stand-in “freaking” and a couple of misuses of God’s name.
Dustin returns from science camp with, it would seem, a new girlfriend. But it’s a long-distance relationships; and because she’s from a strict Mormon family (and he’s not Mormon), they have to communicate via short-wave radio. “It’s all a bit Shakespearian,” he tells his friends. When he tries to give her a radio jingle, though, the only thing he hears is a mysterious communique in Russian—from a lab desperately trying to pry open a portal to the Upside Down.
Dustin and his friends are all now in their early teens, and his pals Mike and El are going out—and smooching every chance they get. We see them kiss, as does El’s pop, Hopper. He doesn’t like their relationship one little bit, and he believes that Mike’s “corrupting” his little girl. (They don’t seem to do more than kiss, but they do mock Hopper, both behind his back and to his face.)
Two college-age youth—Mike’s sister, Nancy, and a guy named Jonathan—are sleeping together. We see them both jump out of his bed after they oversleep, she in a top and panties, he in his underwear. (Nancy flees out his window, obviously not wanting anyone to know the status of their sleeping situation.) Nancy and Mike’s mother, meanwhile, considers having an affair with a much younger lifeguard, Billy. We see both at the local swimming pool wearing bathing suits, and he drops several lewd allusions when he invites her to a nearby Motel 6 for (ahem) private swimming lessons. (The meeting doesn’t take place, though.)
We see lots of other people in swimsuits, too, and several women leer at the lifeguard (who obviously courts and enjoys their lustful attention). Another post-high school youth, Steve, works at an ice cream parlor, and he peppers passes at customers while newcomer Robin mocks his failed efforts. Nancy works at a local newspaper, and she steps into a men-only newsroom meeting where sexist, ribald comments are dropped.
Men in Russia are kind of electrified by something from the Upside Down and turned into lumps of gory goo. Hundreds of rats, drawn to a deserted steel mill, meet the same fate. Someone is choked to death. Mike, Will and the rest of the gang sneak into the R-rated zombie movie Day of the Dead. Hopper jokes that he might have to kill Mike. “I’m the chief of police,” he says. “I could cover it up.” A car smashes into an unseen something and its driver is dragged away, screaming.
Several characters smoke cigarettes. Hopper drinks beer while watching television, and someone else pours a glass of wine to drink with dinner. A character removes her wedding ring in preparation for an affair (that’s not consummated).
Characters say the s-word at least 20 times. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and five misuses of God’s name, one of those with the word “d–n.” We also hear less profane insults: “butthead,” “fartface” and the like.
A new girl, Max, lands in Hawkins’ middle school, who the day before apparently swept all of Dustin’s high scores out of the local arcade. Meanwhile, over at the high school, girls bat their eyelashes at Max’s older brother. But even though it seems as though things have returned to normal, they haven’t: The pumpkins at a local pumpkin patch all suddenly die and decay. Scientists continue to poke at an otherworldly gate. And Will continues to “see” the Upside Down—a world that seems to want to devour his own.
Will’s visions of the Upside Down are quite creepy, what with their dark, decomposing vibe and red lightning bolts and hints of monstrous tentacles. The otherworldly things pressing through the door are also disturbing: One tentacled beastie is apparently killed with a flame-throwing-like apparatus, but another, much larger one seems to invade our world at episode’s end. In an opening scene, several young thieves make their getaway, only to be chased by police through the streets of Pittsburgh. One of them—apparently a refugee from the same laboratory that opened the door to the Upside Down—causes a police officer to hallucinate. He sees a tunnel cave in, causing a massive and destructive pileup of police cars.
Teens Nancy and Steve kiss and grab each other, sometimes tenderly, sometimes playfully. Will’s mom, Joyce, has a boyfriend, too, and they kiss passionately in the back room where Joyce works. The guy, Bob, claims he feels like a teenager again. When Mike and his friends ask for information from an employee at the local video game arcade, the employee says he’ll tell what he knows—if Mike can get sister Nancy to go out on a date with him. “I’m not prostituting my sister!” he says.
But Mike will steal money from her (promising to pay her back), and his parents mention that he’s cursed out his teachers and scrawled graffiti on a bathroom, too. Sheriff Hopper drinks beer and smokes cigarettes. A Halloween invitation includes the line, “Come and get sheet faced.” Characters say the s-word nearly 15 times, and someone makes an obscene gesture. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” and five misuses of God’s name.
On his way home from a friend’s house, young Will Byers encounters a strange entity … and disappears. Meanwhile, a mysterious girl with a shaved head and ravenous appetite shows up at a local diner. The owner gives her some food and calls social services. But when the apparent counselor shows up, she shoots the owner as gun-toting men in suits barge in, looking for the girl. The girl runs away—but only after using her telekinesis to kill two of her assailants.
The deaths are bloodless: We don’t see the man get shot, and while the two agents are definitely dead, their wounds look almost antiseptic. Likewise, when a scientist from a nearby mysterious lab is attacked by an unseen creature, he’s simply pulled from view—his demise presumed, but not seen.
We do, however, see high schooler Nancy Wheeler and her boyfriend, Steve, frantically mosh lips several times. Steve sneaks into Nancy’s room and suggests that to liven up their studying session, they remove an article of clothing depending on who gets an answer right or wrong. The two kiss on the bed, and Steve unbuttons Nancy’s blouse part way. Nancy rejects his advances and they spend the rest of their time actually studying.
Will’s mother, Joyce, is angry that her ex-husband’s phone is being answered by a “teenager” (insinuating that the ex-husband is dating someone much younger). Police Chief Hopper is shown without a shirt and with his pants unbuttoned, revealing his underwear. He drinks a lot (it’s suggested he’s passed out on the couch), smokes and pops pills. He also refers to an intimate relationship he had in high school. Children are bullied and hit each other. Characters—mostly children—swear quite a lot, using the s-word twice, as well as “h—,” “d–n,” “b–ch,” “p—y,” “f-g,” “douche bag” and “a–hole.” Jesus’ name is misused at least twice.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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