Back in 2014, the filmmaker Kirby Ferguson released a four-part web series titled “Everything Is a Remix,” in which he argued that all popular culture — or, indeed, all culture — emerges not through brilliant bouts of originality but, rather, through the creative remixing of what has come before. We know that “Star Wars,” for example, is a blend of early sci-fi serials, westerns and Japanese samurai movies. Even Shakespeare’s plays exhibit this same dynamic; “Much Ado about Nothing” throws a bit of Elizabethan blank verse at plot points ripped straight from “Orlando Furioso” and “The Faerie Queen.” Cast your gaze as far back as the Book of Genesis and some of its Babylonian predecessors, and you’ll find that remixing is a tale as old as time.
Perhaps no television series so consciously wears the remix label on its sleeve as “Stranger Things” on Netflix. In one of the first scenes of the series’ third season, our band of plucky kids sneak into a screening of “Day of the Dead,” setting the stage for a conjunction of military intrigue and raw horror, but other obvious touchpoints in coming episodes include “Dawn of the Dead,” “The Blob,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing.” The Duffer Brothers, the creative force behind the series, embrace their inspirations unashamedly, using the tropes of horror and teen adventure genres to provide a baseline of familiarity that eases the exploration of certain themes. If the first season interrogated the nature of friendship, and the second trauma, this third season centers upon love and heroism.
The newest installment opens not in Hawkins, Ind., but in Russia, where Soviet scientists are working to develop their own portal into the Upside Down, the shadow dimension whose intrusion into our world drove the first two seasons of the show. Back in Hawkins, our main characters seem to have emerged from the darkness of their earlier experiences into the light of a relatively normal life. Jim Hopper (David Harbour) has settled into his role as the overprotective father of the telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who, despite still getting used to life outside the laboratory, has a boyfriend in Mike (Finn Wolfhard). Lucas (Calel McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are still an item, while Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), recently returned from camp, insists he has a long-distance girlfriend back in Utah. This leaves Will (Noah Schnapp) alone in his desire to keep playing D&D like they used to. It seems the group, once so tightly knit, is falling apart.
And it is. Dustin, trying to contact his girlfriend on the radio, intercepts a Russian transmission broadcast locally, but with his friends nowhere to be found, he turns to the older Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and Steve’s coworker at the ice cream shop in the new mall, Robin (Maya Hawke). Meanwhile, strange power outages affect the town, Will starts to have premonitions of something bad coming back, and Max’s half-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) exhibits all the signs of being possessed, as do a growing number of the people in Hawkins. But what ties together these demonic forces with the apparent presence of Soviet assassins in small-town Indiana?
It’s one of the pitfalls of a suspense series — the tendency to keep raising the stakes. John McLane of the first “Die Hard” is a simple cop fighting armed thieves in a skyscraper, but by the fifth movie he’s become a death-dealing god killing Russian terrorists in Chernobyl. And at first glance, it seemed that “Stranger Things” was heading down the same path, replacing the first season’s claustrophobic setting and its solitary, predatory Demogorgon with international intrigue and a globular monster bent on world domination — or two, if you count the Soviet Union. But rather than expanding the ability of a singular hero, the Duffer Brothers expand the number of heroic characters, so that their ability to face the evils they encounter does not stretch the bounds of believability. In this, Robin and Lucas’s kid sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson), are delightful additions, full of wit and sass.
But the early episodes of season three also illustrate some of the pitfalls of remixing —that a series can become so popular it starts remixing itself. “Star Wars” fell prey to this with “The Force Awakens” being essentially a remake of “A New Hope.” In the early episodes of this third series of “Stranger Things,” almost every new scene is introduced with a different, on-the-nose hit song of the time period; Max and Eleven even go clothes shopping to the tune of Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Apparently, having been praised as a 1980s pastiche, “Stranger Things” must now drive that home (and demonstrate that its creators finally have funding enough to license every applicable song). Fortunately, this tendency lessens as the series progresses, until familiar synthesizer chords work their way into the foreground again, and the show stops trying to check all the boxes of 1985 pop culture, save for one unfortunate monologue about the delights of New Coke.
This third time around, “Stranger Things” proves less tightly plotted and more apt to indulge in Cold War tropes (somehow, our Russian agents are both menacing and bumbling), but that hardly matters. Halfway through, I simply had to keep watching, trapped by a combination of action, suspense and emotional depth. In one moment, Steve and Robin are on the run from Russian soldiers after being drugged, and shortly thereafter they are slouching together in a mall bathroom stall talking about high school disappointments, and both moments are gripping television. The Duffer Brothers haven’t simply remixed an assemblage of Stephen King stories and John Carpenter movies. They’ve added into the mix our own dreams and insecurities, our hopes and fears, and that fact makes “Stranger Things” more than the sum of its pop culture parts.