Stranger Things Season 3 burst forth with the energy of a firecracker unrolling one of the show’s most terrifying seasons. The storyline builds up to a dramatic ending, highlighting an important theme of this season—the power of memory. *Spoilers ahead*
On a hot summer’s day, Will is excited to be with his friends again, playing another intense game of Dungeons and Dragons. Though he tries hard to keep them engaged, Mike and Lucas are distracted by girl troubles while Dustin is missing altogether. When Will blows up in anger at their lackluster involvement, he storms off and goes to his childhood forest hut. He begins to reminisce while looking at photos from previous years which moves him to tears. Frustrated with losing his childhood, he destroys the hut.
Billy who is easily the most hated human character in season 2 ironically becomes its most sympathetic. He is possessed by the Mind Flayer and used to bring captives to the monster. Since he is a violent person in the previous season, it’s hard to tell whether or not he hates what he is doing. In one scene, the kids have him trapped in a sauna, and he appears to be genuinely weeping about his actions. Shortly after though, he breaks the glass in the door, ready to attack Max, his sister.
The most important scene comes near the end as he is holding El down ready to offer her to the enfleshed monster. Earlier in the show, El enters Billy’s mind in an attempt to locate the source of the monster. She is drawn into his memories–the first a memory of him and his mother when he was a child on the beach. He is surfing, and she is cheering him on, smiling and happy. Billy is also happy, basking in the warmth of her approval. As El walks towards what she believes to be the monster’s source, she walks through a hurricane-like storm of which this happy memory is on the periphery. As she walks in, she is accosted by memories of Billy’s abusive father who beats Billy’s mom and Billy himself. She sees Billy crying for his mother who has left them both and then acting out his anger on others. These flashbacks act as core memories for the Billy we have come to hate, but they also provide the clue to his final resistance.
When the Mind Flayer first takes hold of Billy, he goes to work the next day as a lifeguard. He had planned to meet Mike’s mom in a hotel room the night before. She finds him in a storage room to tell him why she didn’t show up. She explains that she can’t do anything to hurt her family. While she is talking, we see Billy turn around and smash her head into the shelving unit. However, the screen flashes, and we see he did not actually do it. Instead, he turns around and tells her to stay away from him. This time, and one other, are the only times we see Billy successfully resist the Mind Flayer. Perhaps it is what Mike’s mother represents to him that enables him to win at that moment. Mike’s mom (who looks a lot like his own mother) chooses to protect her family. His gruff command for her to stay away actually saves her life and the lives her family.
It is also El’s recounting of his happy memory with his mother on the beach that enables a breakthrough. While Billy is holding El so that the monster can get her, El begins speaking to Billy, reminding him of the details of this memory. He immediately responds with anguish that is clear in his eyes. Finally, she states, “She was pretty. She was really pretty. And you were happy!” El then touches Billy’s face which is no longer streaked with the black lines of the monster. He releases her and stands up before the monster, stopping it from reaching El and sacrificing himself to save her. The happy memory he has of his mother empowers him to be the hero, instead of the villain.
Stranger Things season 3 ends with one more nod to the power of memories. We hear the letter Hopper never shared with El. He speaks of the power of happy memories that had given him hope, but he also speaks of moving forward. He, like Will, wants to live in the past, but he says life is “moving, whether you like it or not, and yeah sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s sad, and sometimes it’s surprising, happy … When life hurts you, because it will, remember the hurt. Hurt is good because it means you are out there.” It’s not just the good memories that are meaningful–even the hard ones are a reminder to not give up.
What’s amazing about this whole message is that the Stranger Things franchise itself is a tribute to the power of memories. Setting their story in the ’80s of our childhood with references to the emergence of malls, the battle of New Coke, and the movies we loved like Back to the Future, sends us all back to a time where things seemed simpler. This was a time before excessive technology and when family units were mostly intact. A time when a bunch of 12 and 13-year-olds could actually wander around their town.
So, if you are like me, a Gen Xer who is in the throes of nostalgia (or any generation really), you might wonder what can we take away from this series. We learn that our memories, whether good or bad, can shape us in ways we don’t like–they can make us afraid or sad–but they don’t get to determine the whole story. We can pull the good out and build upon that. We can grieve what is lost but still look forward to the future with hope.