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Stranger Things season 3 is here, and the Fourth of July was the perfect choice

Mid-80s Americana done right, with just a dash of horror

The cast of Stranger Things, prior to the start of season 3. Netflix
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Stranger Things season 3 is out today on Netflix, by which I mean the whole eight episode arc. Episode one is the perfect program for a long, sunny, Fourth of July weekend. I might actually watch it a second time before moving on to the rest of the season. If you’re a subscriber, then you should absolutely make time for it in your holiday.

As for myself, I waited out the noontime heat lakeside, seeking refuge indoors from the blistering sun of a cloudless midwestern sky here in southwestern Michigan. Indulging in the first episode, while the grill warmed up and the brats defrosted, made an already excellent day even better. Stranger Things positively nails the mid-1980s vibe and, with just the right amount of horror thrown in, it was a marvelous distraction.

The series’ attention to production design has been kicked into overdrive, but it doesn’t feel forced. The place feels more real than ever. From its sleepy main street to its garish, bustling mall, even the appliances and the brands on store shelves are spot on. There are moms with blown-out hairdos, lounging poolside and sipping “new” Coke. Huey Lewis’ latest is blasting from the radio, and people are still taking pictures with analog film. Even the single rolls of 24-exposure Kodak film hanging on the store shelves have the correct packaging.

This first episode feels genuine and authentic, just like the performance of its cast.

Will Byers and the gang are back, and in episode one their young lives are only slightly more complicated than they were last season. The first episode spends a lot of time on Mike Wheeler and Eleven’s budding relationship. Max Mayfield and Lucas Sinclair’s own pairing provides excellent comic relief, as does Lucas’ sister, Erica.

But there’s a longing in this episode as well. Hiding just below the surface of every scene is a sense of loss. Winona Ryder’s performance, in particular, helps ground the first episode and gives it enough connective tissue to carry its storyline forward. But, of course, there is something sinister lurking in the background, something pressing against the veil of Americana, trying desperately to get out.

But that can wait for tomorrow.

Today, I’m just enjoying the wholesomeness of it all. Over the next week I’ll take the time to see how the rest of this season plays out. Now, while the family heads back down to the water’s edge, and while we prepare for the late night of fireworks with the kids, I’m going to linger here in Hawkins, Indiana for just a moment longer.