Last season on Stranger Things 2: The kids of Hawkins Middle School celebrated Halloween 1984 by dressing like the Ghostbusters — and then a bunch of bad stuff happened, including that the shadow monster (rechristened the Mind Flayer late in the season) possessed Will Byers (Noah Schapp) and tried to escape the Upside Down once and for all. Fortunately, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) stopped the monster by closing the gate under Hawkins' local secret government lab. Amid the science-fiction, relationships happened too: Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven finally got together, as did Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and the new girl, Max (Sadie Sink). Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), meanwhile, lost her boyfriend, Bob (Sean Astin), in a fight with the demo-dogs, creatures from the Upside Down. Oh, and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) was given the full Andy Dwyer treatment, shifting from a contemptible bully in Season 1 to underdog hero in Season 2 — thanks, in part, to his awesome partnership with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). And that's what you missed on Glee!
Cold open: We start in the past, June 28, 1984, four months before the events of Stranger Things 2 -- and in Russia. Whether Netflix gave the Duffer brothers a budgetary upgrade between seasons is officially unclear, but let's just say this sequence looks like a deleted scene from Captain America: The First Avenger. Russian scientists and military personnel watch a giant laser blast into what we know as the Upside Down — they want seemingly want to buy a gate. Unfortunately for them, the experiment doesn't just fail, it blows back on the room, turning the poor lab workers into piles of smoldering human goo. The general in charge of the facility seems unfazed by the people slop, but he's righteously angry at the project's latest failure. As punishment, the lead scientist is choked to death by a supersoldier who comes across as part Ivan Drago, part Darth Vader (for purposes of these recaps, we'll call him Darth Drago). A new scientist is put in charge. He has just one year to set things right. Cue the credits!
Mike and Eleven and Lucas and Max and Will: One year later and Stranger Things 3 starts as most blockbuster entertainment events in 2019 begin, with Corey Hart's "Never Surrender" blasting on the soundtrack and Mike and Eleven making out. A fun thing about Stranger Things that this scene immediately makes clear: The teens on the show are literal teens (Wolfhard is 16, Brown is 15), so it lends all their awkward romantic interactions a more authentic amount of awkwardness. (Riverdale could never.) Anyway, you might be surprised to know that Hopper (David Harbour) doesn't love Mike and Eleven's physical relationship and wants to keep them apart.
With kissing and Mike's Corey Hart karaoke done, Mike leaves the House of Hopper to head to Starcourt Mall, a new consumer paradise in Hawkins that's succeeded in nuking the city's downtown businesses. No matter, though, since the mall is awesome! Capitalism, something-something. It's got a Gap, and a Burger King, and a bunch of other throwback storefronts that double as modern-day product placement. Mike meets with Lucas and Max (still together <3) and Will, and the foursome heads to the movies to watch an advance preview of Day of the Dead. (George A. Romero's third film in the Night of the Living Dead franchise focuses on a handful of military and science personnel who remain alive in the wake of a zombie apocalypse and work in underground facilities. Hmm.)
The movie starts and ... poof! The power goes out throughout the entire town and Will feels something familiar on the back of his neck. The Mind Flayer is maybe not as far away as everyone had hoped.
More good news: In the wake of the blackout, the rats come out. Literally hundreds, maybe thousands of rats all run toward an abandoned steel mill in town. (Russians and the death of the middle class within the first 10 minutes: Is Stranger Things 3 political now? Discuss.) But before the owners can call the department of health, we watch those disgusting critters explode into even more disgusting piles of rat goo, similar to the piles of Russian human goo from the opening. This stuff might be connected!
Dustin: Back from a month at science camp, Dustin returns to a Hawkins friend group that seems to have left him behind. He can't get in touch with his pals and sulks at home as his toys — including an R2-D2 and Optimus Prime because pop culture! — come alive. As Dustin follows the animated objects into the living room, it seems obvious Eleven is behind the movement. But not to Dustin. As his friends shout surprise, Dustin blasts Lucas with a can of hairspray. At least it's not mace?
Anyway, Dustin's time at science camp was spent seemingly preparing for the apocalypse. He built a few useful items (including a motorized hammer, sure) and one Plot Device: Cerebro, "an unassembled, one-of-a-kind, battery powered radio tower." It's "the Cadillac of ham radio," Dustin says, adding that it will allow him to talk to his girlfriend. Record scratch: GIRLFRIEND? Her name is "Suzie with a Z," Dustin says. "She's from Utah. She's a genius, think Phoebe Cates, only hotter."
Unfortunately for Dustin, she's also MIA. (First episode guess made right now: This plot will definitely resolve itself in the final episode, with Dustin and Suzie reconnecting much to the surprise of everyone. But for now, she's about as real as the high school outcast's girlfriend from Niagara Falls who most definitely exists and wasn't made up over the summer!) As Dustin tries to make contact, Mike leaves to kiss Eleven again and the rest of the group all give up the ghost. Dustin is left alone with his giant radio and an empty line... until he picks up a mysterious Russian communication.
Hopper and Joyce: Stranger Things' version of Jim and Pam open this season as pals, with Hopper asking Joyce for help as he attempts to talk to Eleven and Mike about their k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Joyce comes up with a bunch of really smart things for Hopper to say ... and Hopper immediately forgets about them later in the evening when Mike acts like a big dick and laughs in his face. Ouch. Improvising, Hopper tells Mike the boy's grandmother is ill and proceeds to threaten him to stay away from Eleven.
Nancy and Jonathan: Hey, these two! Coupled last season, they work together in different roles at the town's newspaper, The Hawkins Post. Not much else happening in this part of the plot in Episode 1, but things to note:
-All the men at the Hawkins Post are proto-MAGA trolls, especially Jake Busey's grinning piece of trash, Bruce, who mocks Nancy (Natalia Dyer) with sexist digs about as original as "jokes" your friend's uncle posts on Facebook.
-While cleaning up at the office, Nancy receives a phone call from a woman named Mrs. Driscoll, who has encountered what she's calling "diseased rats." That's one way to put it!
Steve and Robin: At Starcourt Mall's ice cream shop, Scoops Ahoy, Steve Harrington is working with new character Robin (played by Maya Hawke, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke's daughter), who antagonizes Steve over his lack of game with the Starcourt ladies. Steve's working at Scoops Ahoy because his dad made him. Bad news for Steve, good news for us, because it allows for this line reading: "Ahoy ladies, I didn't see you there. Would you like to set sail on this ocean of flavor with me? I'll be your captain. I'm Steve Harrington."
Billy: Remember Billy (Dacre Montgomery), Max's abusive brother? He works at the Hawkins pool and finds himself as an object of affection for all the town moms, including Mrs. Wheeler (Cara Buono). (Best music cue of the episode? The Cars' "Moving in Stereo" as Billy struts shirtless to his lifeguard post.) As it turns out, Billy is into Mrs. Wheeler too. They're a mutual admiration society of morally dubious sexual thoughts. When they finally chat in the episode, the horny explodes off the screen. It's like that scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin when Steve Carell asks Elizabeth Banks if she likes to do it herself. "I could teach you stuff," Billy says about swimming *winky face* but actually sex. "The breaststroke," for instance.
Mrs. Wheeler takes Billy up on his offer. They're going to meet at a secluded hotel on the edge of town for some private sessions. But as she gets ready to commit adultery with the local teen bad boy in a plot ripped out of The O.C., she sees her husband asleep on the couch with their youngest daughter. Second thoughts!
Billy, unaware he's about to be stood up, drives to the hotel, thrilled at the evening's possibilities. And then his car hits ... something. Injured, he gets out to investigate. We know he's near that abandoned steel mill with the rats and stuff. Not great, Bob! The editing in this sequence is pure '80s horror movie and it ends with Billy getting attacked and dragged, screaming, into the factory's basement. Smash cut to credits.
Burning Questions: Is Billy dead? Why rats? What did the kids think of Day of the Dead?
Movie of the episode: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (streaming on numerous digital platforms, including Vudu). From the Phoebe Cates references both overt (Dustin actually calls out her iconic character from the high school film) and subtle (Billy at the pool is a gender-flipped Phoebe Cates, down to the Cars' needle drop) to the mall itself, think of this episode as Fast Times at Hawkins.
Quote of the episode: Lucas' sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson), a scene-stealer from Stranger Things 2, returns to have this exchange with her brother:
Lucas: "Isn't it past your bedtime?"
Erica: "Isn't it time you die?"
TV Guide Episode Rating: 4.5/5
Stranger Things 3 is now on Netflix.
Up next: Episode 2, The Mall Rats