(Warning: SPOILERS ahead for “Stranger Things 3″)
“Stranger Things” most obvious core appeal has always been its campy 80’s throwback.
From the bright neon clothes, its brilliant synthesizer-based soundtrack, use of catchy 80s tunes and references to classic 80s horror and sci-fi, “Stranger Things” undoubtedly harnesses the power of its time period to hook viewers into its show. It’s a show that is rooted firmly in nostalgia and wields it prominently to attract viewers from Gen Xers who grew up in this time period to curious Millennials like myself who watched plenty of the referenced movies.
(How do I both love and hate this at the same time??)
But “Stranger Things” aesthetic callback is more than just a style; it’s a narrative choice that plays directly into the themes of the story. By playing on viewers’ sense of nostalgia the show is forcing us to see how these characters react to growing up, by literally looking back on a period we cannot go back to, and all the complex emotions that come with these feelings.
To understand this further, we need to look back on etymology of the word nostalgia. In ancient Greece the word has a far more complex meaning that simply reminiscing on the past. It’s root definition actually has more to do with feeling pain than happiness about the past.
You see, nostalgia back then use to describe a condition of deep homesickness or longing for a period we can never return to and the melancholy that comes with it. “Stranger Things” is deeply rooted in this condition and expressed at times quite explicitly by all its characters.
From the very beginning “Stranger Things” nostalgic feel is about how these characters grow up and often times grow up too quickly. From Will being ripped away from his D&D pre-teen friends in season one and his mind infected by the creatures of the Upside Down, to Elle being experimented on before she can even have a childhood, the show takes us on a journey through the emotions of this pain of leaving the past behind and how innocence can be snatched away all too often by meddling adults and/or monsters in this case.
(Some VERY big monsters in many cases.)
This theme is by far its most present in “Stranger Things 3” as our band of nerds are now all teenagers trying to navigate hormones, young love and looking back on a childhood they can never have back and all the real horrors in between. It’s not just the youngest characters who deal with the pain of nostalgia, however; our adult heroes and heroines also inevitably deal with the pain of reminiscing on the past on lives that are permanently changed.
But the ultimate theme here isn’t just about the pain we associate with the past but that despite many things inevitably changing in your life, if you hold on to those closest to you in this journey that won’t change at least and the pain you feel is only a reminder that what you felt was real.
“Stranger Things 3” does a great job of immediately telling the viewer how different things are this season compared to the previous two. Elle and Mike can’t stop making out, as does Lucas and Max, and Nancy and Jonathan are trying to navigate the complex and often humiliating adult workplace. There’s even a new monument to capitalism in Hawkin’s new Star Court Mall. But many of the other characters aren’t handling change all that well. Still new dad Hopper is having a hard time processing that Elle likes boys now, Dustin has spent most of the summer away from his best friends who seem disinterested in his new projects (and suspected made-up girlfriend), all while Will struggles mightily to keep the gang’s old D&D interests alive while his friends suck face.
There’s a tremendous sadness here reflected with these characters that viewers who watched these kids in the previous two seasons will immediately feel. They aren’t quite the same kids they used to be and they’ve grown a bit a part as they’ve grown up literally. We feel Dustin’s and Will’s pain (especially the latter given what he went through) that things are different and will never be quite the same between these friends. It’s a pain that many of us have definitely experienced growing up as we age out of hobbies, places and in some cases our friends.
Another character that has to deal pretty personally with nostalgic pain in this season is quite clearly everyone’s favorite dad Steve Harrington. The once king of Hawkins High has now been reduced to scooping ice cream at the mall to eke out a living. It’s a humiliating fall from grace for a young man who was once the most popular person in town. He’s spends much of this season trying to desperately to hold on to appearances, whether it’s only being interested in women who can up his status or pretending he doesn’t understand nerdy platitudes.
(Seriously, who hasn’t felt inadequate as fuck working a shitty customer service job before?)
Meanwhile Hopper, who probably struggles with change the most this season, gets quite aggressive with Mike and his advances on his adoptive daughter Elle. This isn’t helped by the fact that he still struggles with feelings he still has for Joyce and he often has self-destructive ways of dealing with these emotions. Though his actions border on problematic during the season Hopper’s transformation and acceptance is perhaps the most touching of the series as he lets Elle spread her wings and accepts change in the season’s finale in a bittersweet sendoff.
It’s season’s 3’s “villain” Billy though that we get the saddest feelings we associate with nostalgia. We learn that Billy’s attitude and views on others are more tied to his past than anyone else as we see a much sweeter more innocent kid who just loved his mom when he was a child who has changed so much. As with the series overarching messages its again tied to how easily innocence can be ripped away by bad adults whether its story’s primary villain of secret government agencies running lab tests on children and Interdimensions or in Billy’s case simply a drunk, evil belligerent father. This season finally explains where Billy’s bad attitude comes from and how much he’s changed for the worst because of the way his upbringing has treated him.
This season really shows how when we’re all at our lowest we all wish we could just go back to the way things were and journey back to a simpler time. It’s why nostalgia, no matter how happy the memory is, has a sadness to it; because we know we can never go back.
(I mean yeah, but it doesn’t get this dark.)
It’s through the events of season 3’s story though that we see how nostalgia isn’t all about pain and that there are still constants from our past that we can rely on in the present; namely those we love. The season begins by splintering the huge cast of characters by pitting their emotions against one another, but they each pick up a single piece of the larger puzzle of the plot that ultimately leads them back to one another and because of their past ties they are able to quickly move on from their pain and work together once again as a team. In this way nostalgia reminds us that it’s not all about pain but about love and more importantly and how they make our lives worth living. Though hormonally these kids have changed and their interests are more related to puberty now than Dungeons and Dragons they still care about one another and will do anything to keep each other safe (not to mention save the world). The adults in this story function the same way, quickly setting aside any past bitterness for the greater good.
Love is the ultimate uniter here that brings past to present and its why this fellowship of characters are able to win in the end.
Growing up is an often painful process and that occurs no matter what stage of life you’re in. Whether it’s like our pre-teen gang of nerds going through puberty, working our first humiliating job like Nancy or Steve as young adults or reminiscing on past what-might’ve-beens or child-rearing issues like Hopper its difficult when we all hit our next inevitable change in our life. We don’t want things to change because we often are happy with whatever stage we were once in. Sometimes we fight it, alienate others in the process and cause even more heartache for ourselves than we ever should.
But what “Stranger Things” reminds us is that despite all this, if we keep those we love and care about closest to us these changes won’t be so painful and drastic. We’ll at least get to go through all of it together.
So yes, nostalgia can be quite painful at times. There’s always going to be melancholy and some level of sadness we associate with the past and though we may fight it there are still friends, family and loved ones who will remain constants through it all in our lives.
All we can do is hold on to them for as long as we can and through those we love maybe we can keep a bit of that past alive forever.
sniffs I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING!