Stranger Things is only headed into Season 3, but the Netflix show has already taught us so much: about Dungeons & Dragons sessions, about the holding power of Farrah Fawcett hairspray, and about the dangerously addictive qualities of Eggo waffles, just to name a few. But the best education you can get from Stranger Things is all about matters of the heart... and hormones.
Oh yeah, despite its sci-fi and fantasy trappings, this '80s-set series is a total stealth blueprint for successfully navigating your way through puberty — and beyond! — modeling healthy relationships for every life stage. So pop a straw in that Hi-C Ecto Cooler and settle in, because we've rounded up a few of the show's most instructive moments that may just help you through some of your own relationship woes, no matter your age.
Although the tween heroes of Stranger Things are mostly preoccupied with retrieving their friends from the Upside Down, battling the demogorgon, and avoiding capture by nefarious scientists, they're also right on the brink of puberty and everything that comes with it — including those junior high romances that consist largely of awkward prolonged eye contact, antagonistic teasing that may or may not have flirty overtones, and nervous sweating. Dear lord, so much sweating.
The Season 2 relationship between Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is a perfect portrait of how, when you're a confused 13-year-old, the concepts of loathing and liking can be so closely intertwined that they're practically indistinguishable from each other (and also, why that can be kind of fun!). And while Mike's (Finn Wolfhard) relationship with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is less conventional, it reaches the most adorable, cringe-worthy, and altogether relatable peak in the Season 1 moment when he tries to explain the concept of a "girlfriend" to the girl born in a lab, fails, and finally makes his point with the patented inexperienced kisser's move known as "the lunge-and-peck."
True to so many real-life first kiss incidents, it's over in a flash and it's hard to say in the aftermath who's more surprised. But both parties are relieved and glad to have gotten it over with.
For all its callbacks to the best of 1980s cinema, Stranger Things also subverts one of the period's biggest tropes in favor of something smarter, sweeter, and much more real. Instead of making Steve (Joe Keery) into the quintessential douchebag boyfriend, power mullet and all, he and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are a totally authentic (and healthy!) high school couple. Aspiring relationshippers, take note: when Steve creeps into Nancy's bedroom to "help her study" (wink, wink), he still respects her boundaries — and her chemistry GPA — enough to put the makeout session on hold. And when they do finally sleep together, it's a mutually desired way of cementing their commitment; Steve even adorably teases Nancy about how hard she's trying to pretend like it was no big deal.
While they have their ups, downs, and rough patches before ultimately calling it quits — in an obvious machination by the show's writers, who clearly prefer Nancy with Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) — even their breakup has instructive value. The two of them aren't about to let lingering relationship drama get in the way of what's important (saving the world from the forces of evil, basketball practice, etc.). And in the end, when Steve drops off Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) at the Snowball — passing the torch of high school studliness to his young protégé — the bittersweet moment where he gazes at Nancy says it all: what they had was real, but like so many first loves, it wasn't meant to last.
The Surprise Hookup
Speaking of Nancy and Jonathan, sometimes it takes a push from a pal (or a drunken conspiracy theorist with no verbal filter) to make you realize that you're majorly, totally, absolutely crazy in love with that guy you're always hanging out with. From the "oh, we're just friends" denials to chickening out before they finally do hook up, these two are here to show us all how to turn some simmering chemistry into an explosive connection.
All Grown Up
Finally, it's a testament to the genius of Stranger Things that there's love on the show for everyone: kid, adolescent, and adult alike. And for the more mature among us, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Bob Newby (Sean Astin) and their heady mix of passion and companionship are total relationship goals... or at least they were (cue sobbing). From canoodling in a stockroom at work to enjoying a cheesy Halloween at home, Joyce and Bob know they're lucky to have found each other and are determined to make the most of their time together — and at their age, they also know better than to get bogged down in petty conflict or insecurity. While it lasted (brb, sobbing some more), this later-in-life romance was the kind to which we can all aspire.
This week, TV Guide is exploring television's relationship with sex, puberty, and everything in between. As part of Sex Ed Week, we're examining what Starz's new series gets right about millennial sexuality, how TV continues to fail viewers when it comes to adult virginity, how black '90s sitcom taught one viewer everything she needed to know about sex and love, and more. You can check out all our Sex Ed Week content here.