At first glance, it can be hard to see beyond the pastiche of masturbatory 80’s nostalgia and overwrought costuming of Stranger Things‘ third season premiere, “Chapter One: Suzie, Do You Copy?”. But under the surface of the show’s now-familiar blueprint for season premieres lies one of the show’s more thematically rich hours, exploring the duality of evolution through its main characters, and the very changing fabric of American suburbia itself. For better or worse, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” is still very much an episode of Stranger Things – but there’s an unexpected undercurrent of mature storytelling to every scene, a strong foundation for the show to build on, as it tries to recapture momentum following its 15-month hiatus.
Dustin’s makeshift device is an apt metaphor for the structure of Stranger Things 3‘s opening salvo: it is comfortably ramshackle, but surprisingly durable – and like the aforementioned radio, might just stumble across something powerful and special along the way.
There are two major new elements introduced in “Suzie, Do You Copy?,” both pertaining to the continued evolution of Hawkins, Indiana, and its young constituents. For the town, the introduction of a new shopping mall marks the end of capitalism’s golden age for small business; every business in town is closing, while the mall thrives both as a place of commerce, and the social center of every young teenager’s life. You can almost feel the rhythms of the town around the mall changing, as this monolithic, neon-adorned structure has quickly become the center of everyone’s life in town.
“Suzie, Do You Copy?” reflects that dichotomy in subtle, meaningful ways: but where “Suzie, Do You Copy?” really manages to capture this idea is in the evolving emotional tenor of our beloved Hawkins crew: as the town awkwardly fumbles its way to maturity, the same is happening to the team, whose relationships are growing more complicated as romantic relationships develop, marking the end of the group’s innocent early dynamic. The group’s gotten bigger, more diverse, and experienced an exponential increase in hormones: and this leads to any number of expected conflicts and compromises, none more entertaining than watching Jim Hopper try to figure out how to talk to his supernaturally-powered teenage daughter about her constant make-out sessions with Mike.
Though “Suzie, Do You Copy?” is ostensibly an hour of checking in and catching up (bookended by two ominous scenes, because – well, duh, it’s a Stranger Things premiere), there’s careful attention to the shifts forming in its characters and its town, and the two-sided coin each of them represent. And to its credit, Stranger Things is able to convey the wrinkles these complexities throw into the fabric of the town and its relationships: while the show’s 80’s references begin to feel pandering and self-serving by the time “Suzie, Do You Copy?” gets through the last of its 1,371 brand logos, where it keeps from feeling stale is in its smaller character moments, richly textured scenes pushing the crew forward to new and exciting places.
Smartly, the much-hyped premiere does slow down long enough to linger on a few meaningful moments – particularly with its older leads, from Steve’s disappointment in his new dead-end service career, to Joyce’s reluctance to engage with Jim romantically. The sadness in both scenes is palpable, giving the episode a much needed emotional undercurrent beyond “awww, look at the kids growing up in front of our eyes!” – and furthering the idea of evolution as a double-edged sword, in different and interesting ways.
There is still some classically heavy-handed material, though: Stranger Things doesn’t use such a careful touch with the trite material offered Nancy and her mother. While giving Nancy a job at the paper certainly makes an easier, more natural avenue to build out the underlying government conspiracies, putting both Wheeler women at the mercy of the men in their stories is a bit of a bummer, unnecessary moments that don’t really enhance the underlying drama the scenes naturally introduce. Nancy being stuck working under the most mensiest of White Men’s Clubs is one-note, if effective: Karen’s pursuit of Billy is just plain one-note, a rather unflattering portrayal of a woman unsatisfied with her husband (who, in his only appearance in the episode, is asleep on the couch with their daughter in his lap, as she gets ready to fuck the local lifeguard at the Motel 6).
With some time and care, these stories might have time to blossom: but between the Russians trying to get into the Upside Down and whatever the shadow monster is doing with all those rat guts (can we just admit the shadow monster is just another take on the Man in Black?), it appears Stranger Things has other, more dramatic ideas it wants to focus on – which Nancy looks to be a major factor in, at the very least. With only eight episodes to work with, there isn’t a whole lot of time for this season to wax nostalgic or waste time with dead-end subplots (like Barb’s parents, who felt shoehorned into the plot of season two at the most convenient of moments).
Taken as a whole, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” is a surprisingly strong opening for the show’s much-anticipated third season: though a larger story could drown out the show’s well-developed relationship dynamics, the whirlwind of changes brought to the town and its people offers an engaging foundation for the series to build on, something more than the nostalgia porn it constantly falls back on in its emptiest moments. Like the ham radio Dustin sets up to try and talk to his (maybe imaginary) girlfriend, the structure of Stranger Things 3‘s opening salvo is comfortably ramshackle, and surprisingly durable, constructed such that (again, like the long-range radio) it might just stumble across something powerful and special along the way.
- whoever does the wig work for Billy’s hair should win every fucking Emmy that’s available.
- Maya Hawke is introduced as Steve’s co-worker at the mall’s ice cream parlor, a bit of casting I’m particularly interested to see develop this season.
- Jim Hopper smoking while hugging a pillow and trying to figure out how to tell Mike and Eleven to stop making out all the time is everything.
- Does anyone give a shit about what the Russians are doing? I feel like Stranger Things only works on a small scale, and introducing these larger elements (like a second shadowy government) may be a bridge too far for this series.
- Welcome to Stranger Things 3 reviews! I’ll be covering each episode over the next few days here at TV Never Sleeps, so make sure to follow us for the latest updates.