It’s good to be back in Hawkins.

A year on from the events of Stranger Things 2, Hawkins appears to be on the rise. With the development of a brand new town mall, The Starcourt, proving affluent and popular for the locals but inevitably bad for small businesses in the area, the town’s inhabitants are thriving. After a brief prologue which I’ll get to later, we’re dropped back into the world of our stellar band of misfits who lead the show in Mike, Will, Lucas, Max, and Eleven, who is now a bonafide normal teenager and thriving under her bonafide normal teenage moniker, Elle.

As great as Stranger Things is, it isn’t impervious to the pitfalls of being a television show, and though this is a pretty wonderful season opener, it’s a relatively by the numbers episode that comes with the territory of being the first in a season. We’re sent zipping across Hawkins to catch up with our heroes, updating us on what they’ve been up to since we last saw them.

Mike and Elle are a certified thing now; their will-they-won’t-they dynamic of a year ago affirmatively taking the will-they route as they enjoy a summer of love, much to the frustration of their friends. Mercifully, this relationship does include an important development to the show – Elle is no longer a personality vacuum! Elle has been one of the weakest elements of the show, in my opinion, up to now. With her Chosen One status as the only character with superpowers, she has always seemed like more of a plot device than an actual character. Giving her a relationship to develop is something for the excellent Millie Bobby Brown to sink her teeth into.

 

 

Elsewhere, Dustin has been off at Camp Know Where, a science camp which has sweet merch, and has returned with a Mormon girlfriend, the Suzie mentioned in the title! The gang don’t believe him and Dustin spends the episode trying to convince them she exists with his homemade radio tower that will no doubt come into play later. I found it interesting that the show separated Dustin from the others in the first episode, an evident link to their in-show separation for the rest of summer up to now, but I hope they’re properly reunited eventually. The dynamic of the Core Four – Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will – is the bedrock of the show from Season 1, and it’d be a shame to lose that.

The show has seemed intent on pairing up Winona Ryder’s Joyce and David Harbour’s Hopper since the early days of the show, and Stranger Things 3 appears to be no different. Honestly, why would they change it when the two work so well together? Though Joyce is struggling with The Starcourt almost shutting down her business and the tragic death of her boyfriend Bob at the end of Stranger Things 2, Hopper is intent on getting her out of her funk and continues his attempts at wooing her. I have to admire the man’s confidence and his never-say-die attitude on this front, but in his defence, it’s extremely hard to resist Hopper, the hulking chief-of-police with a drinking problem who really, really pulls off a moustache.

We have one final stop on our whistle-stop tour of Hawkins, and that’s to Billy “Cougar Hunter” Hargrove. Max’s big brother works as a lifeguard at the town pool and is the source of lust for apparently 80% of the women in Hawkins, including Nancy and Mike’s mum, Karen. Billy made moves on Karen last year, but the feeling is certainly mutual here as his slow-motion sexy walk to his lifeguard tower is gloriously objectified. It sadly won’t all be sexy fun and sexy games for The Cougar Hunter this year, as en route to meeting with Karen, he is dragged into a steel mill by an unknown entity, reconfirming what we already knew; all is not well in Hawkins.

 

 

The prologue I mentioned earlier remains a bit of an outlier for a mostly great first episode. We’re dropped into a visually stellar opening scene in a Russian science lab where an experiment is being conducted. That experiment is an attempt to open a portal to the Upside Down, though as expected, it all goes awry in spectacular fashion as half of the inhabitants of the lab are vaporised in stunning slow-mo. While I enjoy the expansion of the world – the idea that the Upside Down is finally a worldwide issue rather than solely centred on Hawkins is exciting – the fact it’s Russia doesn’t quite sit with me yet. It’s a little too on the nose to have a secret Russian organisation meddling in an American situation. I hope it doesn’t go too hard on the political commentary this year; I just want to enjoy some sweet, Hawkins Upside Down action that the show does best.

In all, this was a great return to Stranger Things as it showed us all our favourite characters and let us know exactly what their respective situations are. It alludes to the central mystery of the show with the Russians and the Steel Mill but keeping it firmly in the background as the characters are what this show has always done best.

As a general rule of filmmaking, every piece of pop culture mentioned is mentioned for a reason. I wonder if Mike and co. sneaking into the premiere of George A. Romero’s zombie classic Day of the Dead will be important…come back tomorrow to find out!