A casual fan’s guide to jumping right into ‘Stranger Things’ season 3
Although Stranger Things is set squarely in the mid-’80s, the show has been such a monster hit that it’s easy to imagine Netflix trying to keep its young cast fighting cruciferous hobgoblins well into the 2000s.
The series, whose third season drops on July 4, has had the kind of disruptive cultural impact any network would kill for and any brand manager would sell his or her soul to place their product in. Stranger Things flew in under the radar in the summer of 2016 as a spooky Winona Ryder vehicle and quickly became the (purported) most-watched streaming show of all time, vaulting several cast members to instant fame, and in Millie Bobby Brown’s case, an Emmy nomination. And now that the world has had two years to digest the second season, expectations are sky-high for the show’s return.
Well, except perhaps among those who haven’t seen it yet.
Since the baseline of quality for the average series is now maybe a 6.5, and there are more shows than any one person could ever get through in two lifetimes, sometimes even the most popular shows can fall through the cracks. Anyone who hasn’t seen Stranger Things yet must be at least a little curious about how it stacks up against the hype. Just what about this show makes Twitter timelines light up with memes and screams?
Well, it’s a few things. Awash in winking period references—from Evil Dead posters to the John Carpenter–style score and even guest actors like Matthew Modine, Paul Reiser, and season 3 addition Cary Elwes—the show seems to scratch the Amblin-era itch for kids on bikes solving supernatural mysteries with life-or-death stakes. It’s got multigenerational appeal, it moves at a fast clip, and its much-discussed nostalgia never overshadows the sharp storytelling. In other words, perfect viewing for a holiday weekend.
If you don’t have time to mainline the first two seasons before somebody suggests taking a break from the pool to dive into season 3, all you have to do to catch up is keep reading.
What the hell is the Upside-Down?
Stranger Things’ most significant contribution to pop culture nomenclature, the Upside-Down is essentially a photo-negative version of our reality from another dimension. It’s filled with plant-monsters and smoke-tentacles, and you would absolutely hate it there. The discovery of the Upside-Down is the inciting incident for the whole series. To back up a bit, Stranger Things is set in Hawkins, Indiana, where, in the winter of 1983, scientists at the Hawkins National Laboratory attempted to open a portal to another dimension. Although that sounds like a great plan with zero downside, these scientists’ experiments accidentally led to the opening of the Gate that allows elements of the Upside-Down to seep into our world. Notable side effects from this seepage include the Demogorgon, season 1’s cabbage-headed monster-villain, whose name comes from our lead characters’ love of Dungeons and Dragons ephemera, and the Mind Flayer, the aforementioned smoke-tentacle being that links together various beasties and killer vines in the Upside-Down and functions as a hive mind. (Got all that?)
The Gate to the Upside-Down would never have been opened, however, without the most important character of the show.
Who the hell is Eleven?
It turns out that the scientists at the Hawkins lab were up to nefarious deeds even beyond the whole interdimensional portal-meddling thing. In season 2, it’s revealed that the Hawkins lab is a former site of the (factual) MK Ultra mind control experiments. Since dousing participants’ brains with LSD isn’t evil enough, the scientists also sometimes stole babies from pregnant subjects under the lie that they’d miscarried. These babies turned out to be either blessed or cursed, depending on your view, with telekinetic and telepathic mind powers. (Probably cursed, since having such powers means being the subject of lab experimentation throughout childhood.) One of these stolen babies, presumably the eleventh one, makes contact with a Demogorgon just as the scientists are knocking on the Upside-Down’s door, and she unintentionally opens the Gate. Thankfully, once Eleven escapes from the lab, she starts to figure out how to control her mind powers.
What’s everybody else’s deal on this show?
Which side characters might pop up?
Who is in a relationship with whom, and who is not?
Where did we last leave everything?