Warning: spoilers ahead for season 3 of Stranger Things.
The third season of Stranger Things, like the first two seasons, revels in the fun, funny, nostalgic detritus of 1980s pop culture. Much of the series’s action is set in a mall, the center of teen life before the advent of iPhones and Amazon. In the shopping emporium, the kids buy colorful ‘80s clothes and watch movies like Back to the Future and George Romero’s Day of the Dead. Glimpses of classic Dungeons & Dragons manuals and period issues of Penthouse are scattered around the screen. Running jokes include references to ‘80s teen sex symbol Phoebe Cates and the bombastically maudlin theme song for The Neverending Story. Most horror stories surprise the audience with terrifying monsters that leap from the shadows. Stranger Things is more invested in surprising viewers with a wave of nostalgic touchstones.
Season 3 is different from its predecessors, though, in that its retro impulses extend not just to pop culture, but to geopolitics. The season’s plot is steeped in Cold War paranoia. The nostalgia for a threatened Russian invasion is as comforting and cutesy in its own way as references to New Coke or the X-Men. But it’s also an indication that the obsession with the past can indicate not just ongoing affection, but ongoing anxiety. Sometimes, art looks back to the ‘80s because people love the ‘80s. And sometimes it looks back there because the ‘80s, like Stranger Things’ Mind Flayer, has its tendrils in the brain of American culture and won’t let go.
The Cold War casts its chilly shadow over season 3 in a couple of ways. The most obvious is via the presence of the Russian army. The USSR wants to use the alternate dimension known as the Upside Down for its own nefarious Cold War purposes, and it has discovered (perhaps by watching previous episodes) that the space between worlds is weakest in Hawkins, Indiana. Soviet spies build a giant scientific facility beneath the Hawkins mall and are buying up land throughout the town with the semi-unwitting help of Hawkins’ corrupt mayor.
The second somewhat more subtle evocation of the Cold War is via horror tropes. The evil Mind Flayer from the Upside Down uses its powers to take over the wills and bodies of various people in Hawkins. It infects them like a virus and turns them into bloody gelatinous blob-things that form part of a single giant monster intelligence.
The plot references Invasion of the Body Snatchers and (more explicitly) John Carpenter’s The Thing, both of which were paranoid Cold War metaphors for communist infiltration and corruption. These were stories in which good Americans lost their individuality and freedom and became incorporated into an evangelical hive mind, reflecting anti-communist fears of Soviet imperialism and collectivism.
The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both had downbeat endings. At that time, it was at least imaginable that the Soviet Union might win, and America would be swallowed by “the ant heap of totalitarianism,” as President Ronald Reagan memorably put it.
From our own vantage in 2019, though, we know that the US won the Cold War. In that context, revisiting old fears is also a way to revisit old triumphs. In season 3, a Soviet scientist is seduced to the side of good, righteous Americanism by the quintessential capitalist display of a tacky Fourth of July carnival, complete with stuffed animal prizes. The Mind Flayer is defeated on the 4th in that monument to capitalism, the mall, by a bunch of kids shooting it with fireworks stored in a shopping basket. The US military (portrayed as the enemy in earlier seasons), rushes in as the cavalry to clean up at the end.
Stranger Things’ celebration of ‘80s pop culture is more than a goof. In season 3, it becomes an ideology. All of these capitalist touchstones are a reminder that the nation that is free to buy stuff defeated the creeping socialist horde. Under interrogation by the Russian military, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) repeats over and over that he works for the ice cream chain Scoops Ahoy. He’s telling the truth, and by doing so, he’s telling those looming officers that the real enemy of the USSR is the triumphant employees of capitalism — the kids in tacky sailor suits who will out-consume the dripping, toothy maw of the communist assimilator.
Stranger Things, then, is a patriotic victory lap, as you might expect of a series released on Independence Day. But when American pop culture is still taking that lap some 30 years later, it starts to raise some questions. Why do we need to reassert our Cold War triumph right now? And why, if we won, does that Mind Flayer keep coming back, season after season? Shouldn’t the dead stay dead at some point, rather than rising from their graves, begging to be killed again?
Victory in the Cold War was supposed to mean an end of history. The good guys kicked ass, and we were promised we’d get to ride off into the sunset. But instead, communist defeat turned out to mean stagnating wages at home and a ramping up of multiple wars abroad, not peace and prosperity. Our present is the Upside Down, a topsy-turvy world in which triumph is indistinguishable from defeat.
Stranger Things keeps going back to the ‘80s to escape an unpleasant present, but it also keeps going back to the ‘80s to try to somehow get to the better future we were promised. The series is caught in a kind of Groundhog Day time-loop. It defeats the monsters and creates a better future. Then it looks around, sees Donald Trump’s shadow, and has to wearily jump to the past to try to get back to a better future all over again.
That idyllic present is out of reach, in part, season 3 suggests, because the enemy in the ‘80s was never really the communists. The Russians in Hawkins are, after all, set up beneath the mall; they’ve become America. The Mind Flayer is built of good, normal, melted-down US citizens, including the sexist assholes who run the local newspaper. Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Romero zombie movies could be read as anxious warnings about the communist takeover, but they were also parables about American conformity: the dead groupthink of consumerism and Red Scare anti-communism. The fear that the Soviets will assimilate us is also a fear that our nightmare vision of Soviet deindividuation is, in fact, simply a reflection of our own culture. When we chase that Russian spy through the hall of mirrors with the intrepid Sheriff Hopper, we’re really shooting at ourselves. Who tortures dissenters now or launches wars or corrodes democracy? It’s not the USSR.
Stranger Things, season after season, returns to a fun 1980s small-town rural heartland that is filled with good, friendly pop culture references. And season after season, that sunny nostalgic vision of America’s greatness splits open, and something darker crawls out. Hawkins can’t defeat the monster once and for all because, here in the present, where Hawkins is filled with Trump voters, we know the monster wasn’t defeated. It just grew. America still eats its young, and repetitive reenactments of past victories aren’t going to change that. Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer love the ‘80s, but they also realize that something in that idyllic past went horribly wrong and needs to be fixed. Alas, time travel doesn’t exist. If you want to kill the Mind Flayer, you need to kill it now.