Scenes From a Mall
It’s the summer of 1985: the intersection of the Cold War and the Cola Wars. Just as the kids of Stranger Things are growing up—tearing down tree forts, getting jobs, and discovering the opposite sex—so, too, is the town of Hawkins, Indiana. Instead of a mysterious research laboratory in the woods, the newest local landmark is the Starcourt Mall, a shiny temple to Reagan-era consumerism.
The fact that the mall is essentially a front for an underground Russian military base makes it the perfect metaphor for the childhood ambitions and anxieties of Generation X: Fast Times at Ridgemont High meets Red Dawn. Telekinetic wunderkind Eleven may have closed the portal to the mystical Upside Down, but here it is all over again in man-made form, ready for business: good (or at least normal) on top, evil beneath. The slimy subterranean tunnels of season 2 have been replaced by miles of sterile corridors, both below the mall and behind its neon-lit shops, that are equally sinister and spooky in their own way.
Metaphorically, the Starcourt Mall has another dark underbelly: shuttered small businesses and corporate kickbacks to cigar-chomping local politicians. There’s another echo of the Upside Down in of Hawkins’ dead and decaying city center, where Joyce works in a general store so deserted that she has time to read electromagnetism textbooks behind the counter. The new Radio Shack has a prime position in the mall, but the one downtown is shuttered.
The Starcourt Mall is practically a character in the new season of Stranger Things, just as malls were in the childhood of many of the show’s fans. The town has upped its fashion game accordingly. Hawkins’ housewives wear chunky jewelry, heels, and full makeup to the municipal pool; Jim Hopper swaps his sheriff uniform for a pastel-hued Hawaiian shirt—a sly reference to the Magnum P.I.episode he watches in the premiere. Even El gets a mall-rat makeover in a shopping montage choreographed to “Material Girl.”
This season’s other big set piece—a kitschy Fourth of July carnival, the mayor’s craven stunt to burnish his image among locals displeased by the mall—is a red herring. The real action takes place at the mall, where Steve and Dustin continue their bromance with big assists from Robin (the kind of deadpan, somewhat prickly band nerd that Winona Ryder herself might played back in the day), Lucas’s sassy kid sister Erica, and a bunch of Dolph Lundgren lookalikes.
The appeal of Stranger Things has always owed as much to Spielbergian nostalgia as to its monsters—in this case, a convoluted invasion-of-the-body-snatchers mystery, somehow linked to the nefarious Russian plot. But the Duffer brothers have outdone themselves here, recreating the 80s mall experience with Merchant Ivory-level attention to period detail (They filmed in a partially abandoned mall in Georgia). There’s a JC Penney anchoring Waldenbooks, Sam Goody, The Gap, a Glamour Shots-style photo studio, a Victoria’s Secret clone, Jazzercise, a movie theater, and a vast food court where you can grab an Orange Julius or a Whopper. There’s no Sbarro, but Taco Bell is coming soon!
Today, the closed and decaying mall has become a metaphor for small-town America’s decline, and the decline of brick-and-mortar stores in general. For Hawkins residents, the Starcourt Mall is the future. But we, the viewers, know all along that it’s an illusion; we can’t see the boom without anticipating the bust. Stranger Things gives us both. Fittingly, by the end of the season, the Starcourt Mall is toast.
Ever since Mike offered El her first Eggo in Season 1, Stranger Things has navigated the fine line between historical realism and product placement. This time around, Netflix cannily partnered with Levi’s, H&M, Nike, and other brands to blur the lines between fashion and fiction. You can buy Eleven’s day-glo romper, Dustin’s Camp Know Where trucker hat, and Steve’s Scoops Ahoy uniform, an imaginary costume silly enough to compete with the real-life horrors of the neighboring Hot Dog On a Stick.
But it’s Hopper’s Hawaiian shirt and stonewashed MacGyver jeans that viewers will remember. Paired with a sports jacket for his non-date with Joyce or a gun and rolled-up sleeves to kick Russkie ass, they turn Sheriff Dad Bod into an instant normcore icon. After all, if there’s one thing we learned from the 80s, it’s that not all heroes wear capes.