Three reasons the show is struggling to grow darker and more mature where other YA series have thrived.
Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 30 through July 6 is “The Battle of Starcourt,” the season three finale of Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Stranger Things is arguably the most successful young adult series of the last half-decade. Like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games before it, the TV show is charting the maturation of a bunch of kids who start out knowing very little about the world and grow into adulthood as uneasily as the rest of us.
Especially in the show’s darker, gorier third season, this is true. But the show also feels more repetitive than ever. There’s no real reason behind the Russians deciding they need to open a gate to the Upside Down — it’s just that the show must always find some new link to the Upside Down to generate monsters and conflict. Similarly, there’s no real reason all of the characters split up into individual adventuring parties, beyond the fact that this is how Stranger Things is always structured.
What sets season three apart from the previous two is also what set the later Harry Potter books apart from the earlier ones: As the kids at the center of the story (and the audience watching them) get older, the thematic content grows a little more mature.
There’s actual gore this season, and there are also the deaths of two relatively major characters who have been around for more than a season, at least one of which seems likely to stick. (Typically, Stranger Things bumps off characters who’ve only been around a little while, treating them like cannon fodder.) Oh, and there’s a half-assed commentary on 1980s capitalist conformity in there, too.
So why does Stranger Things’ move toward this heavier approach feel so empty, when Harry Potter’s slowly building darkness became more engrossing with every book? I took a closer look at season three’s eighth and final episode, and I’ve got three possible answers.
1) Stranger Things lacks a unifying structure as strong as, say, a new school year
One of the reasons the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books became such cultural phenomena, in part, lies in the way they used formula against their readers. You knew that every new Harry Potter tome would contain a new school year at Hogwarts, a new chance to win the Quidditch cup, a new competition for points among the houses, and so on. Similarly, each Hunger Games book featured a new iteration of the Hunger Games themselves (though this grew incredibly abstract in the third and final volume).
This underlying structure rooted the more otherworldly adventures in something concrete. Harry Potter and his pals were battling evil wizards, sure, but they also started to have crushes right around when you’d expect them to, and darker topics like death started to creep in around the edges of the story as if right on schedule. J.K. Rowling’s genius was in realizing just how much of any given book could be a gloss on ideas developed in her very first book, simply because the school year itself is incredibly repetitive.
Stranger Things lacks this obvious central narrative device — at least right now. The first two seasons featured scenes set in school, but the show’s action is so compressed (as in each season largely takes place over a matter of weeks, if not days) that school-day tropes don’t play into the series as much as they otherwise could.
The second and third seasons are each united around a season of the year — fall for season two and summer for season three — and both make stabs at incorporating major holidays into their storytelling in some way (Halloween and the American Independence Day, respectively). But these elements remain more like decorations than actual storytelling devices.
Season three is slightly better in this regard than season two, since so much of the action requires the kids spending time at the mall or the pool, and those things are easier to do when school isn’t in session. And it’s heavily implied that the Battle of Starcourt is easier to hide because the explosive fireworks of any given Fourth of July celebration mask the sounds of gunfire and monster battling that occur at the mall.
But the formulaic nature of Stranger Things’ seasonal beats — somebody tries to open a door to the Upside Down, something bad gets through, the cast splits into smaller groups, Eleven has to do something incredible, and everybody comes back together at the end — has no real structural underpinning in the story. Plus, the Upside Down doesn’t really function as a metaphor for puberty in the way magic does in Harry Potter or the monsters from the Hellmouth did in another teen staple, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s just there, generating creatures.
So the storytelling in Stranger Things feels totally fine in the moment, but a little unmoored from everything else if you think about it for a second. And that’s because it is.
2) The series is interested in examining its darkening subject matter only insofar as the ’80s entertainment it riffs on will let it
Early on in “The Battle of Starcourt,” Eleven straight-up kills two men by hurling a car at them. Now, to be fair, they’re Russian operatives who are out to kill her and her friends, and they have guns very much at the ready. Eleven killing these guys is more than justified, by both storytelling and legal precedent.
But she’s still 14 years old, and Stranger Things doesn’t seem at all interested in the idea that doing something like this would weigh on her. Like … I hope it would? She seems like a basically good kid, and a basically good kid would probably have at least a moment when she would reflect on the idea that she just killed two guys, no matter how justified she was in doing so.
So it has always been with Stranger Things, a series that never met an ’80s movie plot point it couldn’t lift wholesale, then refuse to examine in any way beyond the most obvious. The Big Bad in season three is a giant goop monster (and, honestly, I love the goop monster and want to see more of it). But the secondary bad guys are a bunch of evil commies, and the show has about as much interest in building them out as it did the faceless monsters of the first two seasons.
Why are the Soviets trying to open a gate to the Upside Down? They just are. How do they feel about any of this? Shut up, they’re evil. Are they really all evil? Okay, here’s one guy who will feel kind of bad about what he’s doing, but then he’ll be lured by capitalism and ultimately killed by an Arnold Schwarzenegger stand-in.
Season three’s villains are paper thin, as is often the case with Stranger Things’ villains. But at least the government scientists who drove much of the plot in the show’s first two seasons were allowed to have one dimension. The Soviet villains have negative dimension. They’re vacuums where characters could be, the better to have lots of them die at the hands of Eleven and Chief Hopper (who guns down a bunch of them).
The series is boxed in by its influences here. As its characters grow up, it wants them to have more thematically appropriate ’80s adventures, but its frame of reference is still high-concept, genre-heavy ’80s films — in this case, the “teens vs. Soviets” 1984 film Red Dawn. It was one thing for the kids to have adventures heavily inspired by E.T. and The Goonies in Stranger Things’ first couple of seasons, because the villains of those movies were designed to be larger than life. But a film like Red Dawn struggles to make the transition from big to small screen.
I suspect this has something to do with the amount of storytelling space TV offers. In a two-hour movie, you don’t really need to know anything more about the Soviets invading an American small town beyond “they’re the bad guys.” But on TV, the sheer familiarity we develop with a series’ characters will deepen them — or cause us to grow ever more frustrated when they don’t contain anything other than what’s on the surface. (That Arnie wannabe is by far the worst thing about season three, because he effectively has nowhere to go from his one-joke conception.)
But the larger point about what has always bedeviled Stranger Things stands: It wants to tell resonant coming-of-age stories in a fantastical context, but it is forever held back by the stories that inspired it, which were relatively uncritical of ’80s suburbia. As such, Stranger Things is relatively uncritical of ’80s suburbia, too, even if there are aspects that might be worth criticizing (like, say, reflexive dehumanization of communists).
And the show’s unwillingness to notice that seemingly simplistic childhood narratives have more nuance to them than initially believed is why it can never quite push past its current self to become a more complicated, mature story of how the world works.
3) Stranger Things isn’t really a YA series. It’s a Gen X Forrest Gump.
Remember Forrest Gump? The 1994 movie, which turned 25 on July 6, 2019, was a massive box office hit and won the Oscar for Best Picture. And if you watch it 25 years after its release, it’s really weird. Tom Hanks plays a man dealing with a learning disability in the most broadly comedic fashion possible. Somehow, Forrest intersects with every major historical event of his lifetime, and it’s all scored with a wallpapering of rock ‘n’ roll from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
Forrest Gump is actually a movie I kind of like, because it hides a savage satire of baby boomer complacency beneath a story that’s supposedly about how much boomers been through over the course of their lives. (I don’t think it’s an accident that the movie’s generational standard-bearer has a below-average IQ.) It works simultaneously to build up the boomers and tear them down, and even if it’s not wholly successful, I admire the attempt.
This isn’t quite what Stranger Things is up to. Season two (set in the fall of 1984) didn’t feature the characters arguing endlessly about Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale (though they did a little bit), and season three doesn’t see the kids arguing about the Troubles in Ireland or making oblique references to the about-to-be-revealed Iran-Contra affair, both of which were big headlines in 1985.
But that’s because Gen Xers (which all of the kid characters on Stranger Things would be) had a much more tenuous relationship to world events than the boomers. Beyond the endless angst prompted by the existence of the Soviet Union and its thousands of nukes, the ’80s were a pretty blissful time to grow up compared to the unrest that roiled the ’60s, which were filled with assassinations and war.
I’m younger than the Stranger Things characters would be now, but I was around in the ’80s! I remember how rarely a major news event penetrated my consciousness compared to, say, my mother’s, a woman who grew up in the ’60s and remembers just about everything from that era, even beyond the big moments like JFK’s assassination.
The systems that underpinned society itself seemed to be radically changing for the better and the worse in the ’60s. In the ’80s, the social order was firmly established, and it was old and straight and male and white. It was a different time to exist. So when I compare Stranger Things to Forrest Gump, I mean that both works capture how it felt to live through the time period — but instead of retelling a long series of news events, Stranger Things builds on how it felt to be around the first time you saw Back to the Future in theaters (as the characters do in season three’s penultimate episode). The show’s relationship to the movies of the ’80s is basically the same as Forrest Gump’s relationship to major world events (and rock music).
The irony here is that the Duffer brothers, the duo behind Stranger Things, are both around my age and thus older millennials, who grew up in Gen X’s shadow, forever enthralled by its movies and TV shows. If there’s one thing the series captures perfectly, it’s the way that reality in the ‘80s felt filtered, more than ever, through the prisms of movies and TV shows.
Stranger Things is only accidentally a YA series, all told. Yes, today’s kids and teens can enjoy its stories of kids battling monsters from another dimension, but the show’s mega-popularity is thanks to their parents, who get to remember a time when everything seemed stable and American hegemony wasn’t worth questioning, at least if you were a kid.
Like Forrest Gump himself, the Stranger Things kids are innocents wandering into a big, bad world. Unlike Forrest, they live in a movie-like reality, one where nothing can ultimately hurt them; where if your father seems to be dead, he’s probably just in Siberia; where everything is just a little bigger and more fantastical, because that’s how we’d prefer to remember it, not how it actually was.
Stranger Things is streaming on Netflix.