“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” Richard Dreyfuss says as the grown-up Gordie LaChance, the protagonist of the beloved 1986 coming-of-age film Stand By Me. “Jesus,” he adds, “does anybody?” The film lets the question hang in the air because we already know the answer: We grow up and it becomes tougher to find the deep, uncomplicated bonds of childhood. But Stand By Me also has the benefit of not having to provide an answer. Its story is over; what happens next can be summed up in a few lines of voiceover without depicting the long, slow process of its characters moving on and drifting apart.
The story of four boys facing unexpected dangers as they set off in search of a dead body, Rob Reiner‘s Stephen King adaptation is part of the stew of inspirations for Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers-created series set in a 1980s Indiana town with a pesky supernatural seepage problem. But simply by becoming the sort of hit that returns for multiple seasons, Stranger Things doesn’t have the same luxury as many of its influences. Its cast of kids is growing up and it has to answer what happens next. It’s a challenge, but one that might also be what allows Stranger Things to become more than just an entertaining homage to what’s come before.
Many of Stranger Things‘ reference points walk their characters up to the end of childhood then leave them there. Stand By Me, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, The Goonies, Firestarter, and other ’80s influences all find young characters reaching a turning point then bidding them farewell. Even It, the Stephen King novel that looms heavily over the series, leaves a gap between its protagonists’ childhoods and adulthoods. Stranger Things, however, is starting to have to figure out how to depict what happens in those messy in-between-years, the years when its characters have to figure out what kind of life they want once basement Dungeons & Dragons sessions just aren’t enough anymore.
The issue led to some of Stranger Things 3’s weakest moments — but also some of its best. In the third episode, “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard,” a dejected Will (Noah Schnapp) sets off to sulk in Castle Byers after he can’t steer his friends away from girl talk and toward playing the D&D scenario he’s created. Left alone, he broods and remembers happier times when they were content just to hang out and be kids, and while the flashbacks serve up a reminder of how much the Stranger Things kids have grown up since the show’s 2016 premiere, the scene gives the season one of its most heavy-handed moments. It’s one thing to acknowledge the elephant in the room, another to poke the elephant and parade it around in case anyone might have missed it.
But it addresses those changes more gracefully elsewhere, and the same episode also suggests there’s more beneath the surface of Will’s sadness than the scene itself suggests. “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls,” Mike (Finn Wolfhard) tells his friend, and there are a couple of different ways to read the line. Is Mike noting his friend’s indifference to the romantic pursuits that have come to occupy his thoughts, and those of Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin)? Or is Will gay and Mike knows this about him? The moment has left viewers speculating and, talking to The Wrap, Schnapp has said it should be left “up to interpretation.”
Whether future seasons will address the question remains to be seen, but season three suggests Stranger Things won’t dodge it forever since it makes change, growing up, and discovering your identity central to other characters’ stories. For Mike and Lucas (and, to a lesser extent, Dustin) that means trying to crack the enigma of the opposite sex. Yet for as much time as Mike spends trying to figure out why El is mad at him and how he can change that, El (Millie Bobby Brown) has the more intriguing story this season. Where her on-again-off-again boyfriend has to figure out how not to be a selfish jerk, El has to discover what it means to be a regular person living in the real world.
Her journey, in typical Stranger Things fashion, follows a path well-traveled by ’80s films. Dragged along by Max (Sadie Sink), El heads to the mall where she falls into an inevitable shopping montage (set, of course, to Madonna’s “Material Girl”). The two giggle, prank the mean girls, pose for a novelty photo, and try on a parade of extremely 1985 outfits. As with all things Stranger Things, the moment owes a lot to its ’80s inspirations. But, like the series’ best moments, it makes inventive use of those inspirations, using the references as a kind of shorthand for those who know them. Of course goofing off at the mall is part of El’s growth as a character. What better way to depict someone raised in a lab with minimal human contact and still shaky social skills becoming a real ’80s girl?
The mall also serves as a place of growth for Steve (Joe Keery), who’s taken a job at an ice cream shop while his classmates have moved on to college. It’s a mighty step down for “King Steve,” but it leads to some soulful reflection on who he used to be via his friendship with Robin (Maya Hawke), a drama club outcast who’s now his co-worker at Scoops Ahoy. Captured by Russians, they bond, even though Robin reminds him of his former arrogance. Chastened and attracted to her, he later confesses he’s developed feelings for his co-worker, only for Robin to reveal that she’s a lesbian.
Having set Steve and Robin up as a will-they-or-won’t-they couple, the revelation comes as a surprise. That Steve takes it in stride, and ends the season seemingly deep in a meaningful just-pals relationship with Robin, reveals another way he’s matured over the course of three seasons. It also suggests ways Stranger Things might grow up in Season 4 and beyond. Its ’80s inspirations never had a character like Robin. (Or, if the hints are true, Will.) LBGTQ characters of the ’80s horror, sci-fi, and coming-of-age stories that inspired the show were either deeply coded or cartoonish stereotypes. More often, they were conspicuous by their absence, an absence largely sustained in Stranger Things’ first two seasons that ends with this one.
Stranger Things became a hit by evoking old traditions, but finding ways to break with those traditions might add depth to the series’ subsequent seasons. Stranger Things 3 ends with a slew of unanswered questions that makes it hard to wait for Stranger Things 4: Is Hopper dead? Will the Byers stay away from Hawkins? Will Dustin get another chance to show off those golden singing pipes?
But it’s another unanswered question that makes the prospect of a fourth season even more intriguing: Will it continue to be not just a coming-of-age story about a key moment at childhood’s end — a search for pirate treasure or a visit from a friendly alien — but a story about the long, difficult process of growing up? If patterns persist, next season will be set in 1986. Maybe, assuming some movie theater has replaced the Starcourt multiplex, the Hawkins kids will check out Stand By Me. And maybe they’ll see themselves reflected on the screen and give some thought about what it means to be friends at 12 and how friendship changes as the years pile up.
Stranger Things is now on Netflix.