In a 1986 New York Times article, author and shopping mall expert William Severini Kowinski said, “The mall is Main Street in a space ship.” It was thirty years after the advent of the first indoor, enclosed collection of shops and restaurants, and the mall was more of a fixture of American life than ever before. In films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Weird Science, Clueless, and Mallrats, the mall became the quintessential setting for teen independence. In Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Comet, it became a metaphor for mindless consumerism and dark forces preying on impressionable minds.
Stranger Things 3, which continues the profoundly entertaining 80’s-olotry of the first two seasons, harkens back to the days when popping in and out of Sam Goody, the Gap, and Orange Julius was the way to spend an American weekend. The real main street in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana is in decline – a decline that even a fancy new indoor mall will not be able to stop a couple of decades later. The malls will all be gone one day too and middle America will be struggling to define its future. But in the summer of 1985, the kids who have already fought off two apocalypses aren’t worried about that. No one was then.
Stranger Things 3 runs with the torch of kids’ adventure that we rarely see either in fiction or in the culture these days. There are no latch key kids today in suburbia. No one rides off on their bikes from sunrise to sunset anymore. Our children are coddled. By contrast, the Stranger Things gang steps up and saves the world when all the adults in their lives are mostly absent or incompetent.
This season’s welcome cinematic homages include The Terminator, The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and perhaps most significantly Red Dawn, the Cold War classic about a bunch of kids who fend off the long-feared Soviet invasion of the United States. In the Indiana of Stranger Things 3, the power of darkness isn’t paired with our own nefarious government’s plans (as in season 1) or an evil corporation (season 2), but the “evil empire” itself. The young people of Gen X rise up as both spiritual warriors and unwitting Reagan Revolutionaries. “Main Street in a space ship” is their battleground. It’s a blast to watch them fight and win.
Stranger Things 3 explores budding romantic relationships and changes in the dynamics of the old gang of friends. Mike and Eleven are on again, off again. Dustin is back from an academic summer camp boasting of a classic apocryphal girlfriend more beautiful than Phoebe Cates. Will wants his pals to forget their crushes and get back to board games in the basement. Last year’s newcomers from California, Billy and Max, grow into larger (and scarier) roles. Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, is the precocious code-cracker, Robin, who provides one of the few “woke” moments in what is otherwise an escape from the twenty-first century. What was good in seasons 1 and 2 just gets better. What is new adds great value.
But what of God? There is no talk of church or religion. Whatever the brave youth of Hawkins, Indiana may have been exposed to by way of Christianity seems likely to translate into an offspring of “nones.” As I enjoyed every episode, I couldn’t help but imagine James K.A. Smith’s brilliant metaphor of the liturgy of the shopping mall from Desiring the Kingdom in the background. Even as the show’s demonic realm of the Upside Down continues to seep into a world we mostly recognize as our own past, those who fight to keep evil at bay are ignorant of the source of goodness. They’re kids, after all. Fourteen-year-olds are not fully conscious of what is shaping them.
Unfortunately, however, the grown-ups are the truly clueless ones: Sheriff Hopper is a rage-aholic, Will’s mom is barely hanging on financially, Mike and Nancy’s mom is contemplating adultery and their dad is asleep in his easy chair. It’s no surprise the gods of commerce fill the void. Nonetheless, Christians may admire the spiritually rudderless teens for acting bravely on an innate impulse to do what is right. In our world, there may be rich soil for evangelism among the now grown-up versions of this generation of young adventurers. They know they don’t want to be like their parents anyway.
In Stranger Things 3, the retro nods possibly go a bit too far for some viewers. The final episode’s group rendition of the Neverending Story theme song was almost too much even for me. But why do we have to take everything – least of all evil – quite as seriously as we do? Stranger Things continues to be a purely delightful one-of-a-kind alternative to today’s us vs. them rancor. “Main Street on a spaceship” can still have a unifying, not just stultifying, power. Let your inner 80’s kid out and enjoy the ride.
Andrew Petiprin is Assistant Director in the Office of Faith Formation at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville. He is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself.