Needle-drops have always been part of the fun of Netflix’s Stranger Things, a sci-fi series that doubles as a comprehensive tour through 1980s popular culture. And the second season ended with a doozy: the Police’s Every Breath You Take, a middle-school slow-dance favourite that sounds romantic but is much creepier under the surface. (“Every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”)
What better way to describe a series that’s steeped in nostalgia for the Spielbergian comforts of a suburban past but is really about the perpetual trauma of characters who cannot escape the creatures that haunt them? With Season 3 of Stranger Things arriving Thursday, here’s a reminder of where the series left off, inspired by a few of the familiar cuts on its soundtrack:
The way we were
The first season ended with poor Will (Noah Schnapp) finally home after a harrowing ordeal in the Upside Down, the dark parallel dimension that lurks beneath the town of Hawkins, Indiana. His mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), could relax after a sleepless stretch of panic and grief, and his sensitive older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), could resume creeping around like a weirdo.
But it turned out that Will had left the Upside Down, but the Upside Down hadn’t left him: Will hacked up a larval creature into the bathroom sink, and it slithered into the promise of more trouble to come.
The most important question heading into Season 2 was what happened to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the psychokinetic young lab subject who had sacrificed herself in the finale, ending the threat posed by the Upside Down monster but disappearing into the unknown. The Hawkins police chief, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), had been leaving a stash of her beloved Eggo waffles in the woods, suggesting that she hadn’t gone the way of the almost-certainly dead Barb (Shannon Purser) or the absent Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), the scientist who had acted as her malevolent father figure in the lab.
Rock you like a hurricane
From the start, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has been more than just a go-to reference point for Stranger Things; it’s a guiding force in the storytelling. The second season took one of the most touching aspects of E.T., the symbiotic relationship between Elliott and his stranded alien friend, and turned it on its head. Instead of boy and creature feeling frightened and vulnerable together, the boy here became an unwitting spy in a plot for global domination from below.
In a sense, Will’s rescue from the Upside Down in Season 1 was really the start of another phase of attack, with the boy engaged like a human periscope. The second season did Will the small mercy of keeping him close to his mother, but his conscience was up for grabs. And as the season unfolded, Will’s mind was drawn further adrift, first in hallucinatory premonitions about a multitentacled creature looming over Hawkins and later as a fully possessed vessel for the Mind Flayer (aka the Shadow Monster), the hive mind that was orchestrating this alien takeover.
The takeover had adorable beginnings. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), the nerdiest of Will’s nerd clique, discovered a new friend in Dart, a tadpole-like creature that shared his affinity for 3 Musketeers bars. After several molting sessions, Dustin’s new pet transformed itself into a mini version of the predatory Demogorgons, which act as the Mind Flayer’s oily henchmen. (Dustin calls these smaller beasts “demodogs.”)
As Dart and the demodogs developed, the Upside Down expanded a tunnel system under Hawkins, emanating from the government lab where scientists were working to contain the threat. With trouble brewing, Will, Dustin, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) gave their Stand By Me foursome more of an "It" dynamic by adding a redheaded tomboy, Max (Sadie Sink), to the mix. And Max's stepbrother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), is the new town bad boy, replacing Steve (Joe Keery) and his four puffs of Farrah Fawcett hair spray.
You don’t mess around with Jim
Jim Hopper became the glue that held the entire broken town of Hawkins together. As Mike and the gang searched frantically for Eleven, Jim kept her tucked away in a remote cabin in the woods, protecting her from harm and protecting the world from being harmed by her.
He also kept tabs on the laboratory and its leader, Dr Owens (Paul Reiser). Taking over for the malevolent Brenner, Owens was there to monitor Will’s well-being and keep the Upside Down under wraps, but he seemed to have ulterior motives. (That he didn’t was a clever twist on expectations, given Reiser’s casting as a villainous corporate stooge in Aliens.) Jim’s developing feelings for Joyce were shelved for much of the season because containing various catastrophes is a full-time job.
Love Is a Battlefield
One of the most striking aspects of Season 2 was the uptick in emotion, partly because the characters spent so much time in the trenches together and partly because the younger set grew up and got more interested in the opposite sex.
Two love triangles started sorting themselves out. In one, Joyce found a stabilizing presence in Bob (Sean Astin), a RadioShack nerd who was grateful to find romance with his high-school crush. But a Demogorgon cut their relationship short in the penultimate episode, leaving Jim to pick up the pieces.
In another, Steve continued to shed his cool-guy aloofness by teaming with Dustin and the gang to fight the aliens. But his redemption tour wasn’t enough to keep Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan from consummating their relationship on the road.
At the same time, the intensity of Mike’s feelings for Eleven – and vice versa – grew in absentia, driven by his conviction that she was alive somewhere and her determination to step back out into the world, despite Hopper’s insistence that she never leave the cabin. Lucas paired off with Max, who forgave his awkwardness. Dustin tried to get in on the action, too, but all he managed was a pity dance from Nancy at the winter formal.
Every breath you take
Season 2 ended with the tentacled menace bottled up for the time being. The gang figured out that the Mind Flayer had activated Will as a spy, so they sedated Will, moved him to a secret location and tried to extract information from him without alerting the monster. (The half-conscious Will eventually taps out “CLOSE GATE” in Morse code.) Some of them responded to a deadly melee at the lab, where they theorized that stopping the Mind Flayer would wipe out its supernatural minions and release its hold over Will. That task was ultimately left to Eleven, who used every ounce of her powers to seal the portal to the Upside Down.
The final shot is a reminder that the Upside Down retains its parasitic hold on Hawkins. (“Oh can’t you see/ You belong to me.”) The show hits the reset button on a threat that will return in a different form in Season 3, but there are other elements that can’t be reset. Bob is dead. Will is traumatized. And surely puberty will exact its own price.
In Season 3, our young heroes will be a year older and spending more time at the mall, Fast Times at Ridgemont High-style, and they’re heading into the summer of 1985, when The Goonies and Back to the Future premiered. It would be a shame if anything kept them from going to the movies. – New York Times