"Cary Elwes is the only person who understands America" is a note I took while watching Stranger Things 3, and I meant it. The English actor — who has lived in the States for decades — can stake his '80s cred on being very English in The Princess Bride, but in Stranger Things' version of the 1980s, Cary Elwes is America, melted down and molded into a little flag pin. He's a potent cocktail of cigar smoke and condescension. He walks like he hired a high school band to follow him wherever he goes. He dresses like if he time-traveled to the future he would use what he learned to found Vineyard Vines a decade early. He has a car phone.
As Larry Kline, the glib, peacocking mayor of Hawkins, Indiana, Elwes is having more fun than just about anyone else in an already very fun season. I'd call him a scene stealer, but every scene he's in is already his. He knows this. Cary Elwes came to Stranger Things ready to play the game. In a season that dials everything about the era — consumerism, Cold War espionage, hair — up to 11, he dials it up to 1776. At the end of his first scene, he bites down on a cigar and smiles, just for a second, while "America the Beautiful" soars in the background, and it is fantastic. He is doing so much all the time.
Elwes, who has said he was a huge fan of Stranger Things before joining the series, understands exactly where his ludicrous character fits in the landscape of the show: The whole point of Kline is how shallow he is. In broad strokes, the central conflict of Stranger Things is between people who take other people's feelings seriously and people who don't. Kline really doesn't. He's too airheaded to pose a threat on his own, but he is the perfect empty vessel for someone else's evil agenda. As Billy is to the Mind Flayer, Kline is to the Russians — and the real horror is that, unlike the Flayed, Kline chooses to be used as a puppet.
Kline's willingness to use the town for his own gain also makes him the perfect foil to Hopper (David Harbour), who's only comfortable as a martyr. Their scenes together have all the bluster of an elaborate game of chicken: Kline is lying, and Hopper knows that Kline is lying, and Kline knows that Hopper knows that Kline is lying, and they just keep rushing at each other to see who flinches first. They're a perfect storm of men who have ideas about the right way to be men: Hopper's brand of destructive machismo is self-aware and self-loathing; Kline's is oblivious and self-serving. Stranger Things 3: Maybe the real Shadow Monster is toxic masculinity, am I right?
It's fitting for a season set around the Fourth of July that Kline is such a distinctly American creation. He's a Large Adult Frat Boy. He's one of those guys who peaked in college and who chose to work in government because it's the closest an adult man can come to a fraternity's ritualistic power structure. (It's a character type Elwes also nailed on The X-Files, the first show to convince me that Cary Elwes is the only person who understands America.) Kline never grew up; he never had to. He knows, in the cynical depths of the Reagan era, that American politics is just show business. "I'm gonna throw this town the biggest bash it's ever seen," Kline raves. "Because at the end of the day, that's all the voters will remember."
And oh, let's talk about Elwes' delivery. Elwes sells the mayor's ego through the way he speaks. Kline talks to other people like he's convinced nobody else in the room speaks English. He gestures with his hands; he bites down too hard on at least one word in every sentence. The smugness drips from every line. His attitude is so all consuming that even when Elwes' accent is probably slipping, I'm pretty sure it's not slipping. It's just Cary Elwes making a choice. Everything he says has an auctioneer's rhythm: "They all LOVE the mall!" When Hopper beats him up, Kline practically sings: "You're making a BIG mistake." He's just so puffed up on "good old-fashioned American capitalism," don't you know!
More than earlier seasons, Stranger Things 3 is consciously nostalgic: For the first time, it feels less like a lost relic from the '80s and more like a show made in the present reflecting on the past. Elwes, who plays Kline as an amalgamation of 30-plus years of actual American political figures, is part of why that shift works. The show feels like it's made in the modern day because it's got more to say about how the corruption of the past bleeds into the present. The actor told The Ringer that Kline is based on a number of real-life politicians, saying, "I won't name names. It's not necessary." It is not. But I wouldn't be doing my job as the self-appointed hype person for this performance if I didn't make particular note of how effortlessly Elwes goes full George W. Bush when he's in front of a crowd: winking and folksy and, underneath it all, just a Large Adult Frat Boy.
The sweet, sweet confection that is Mayor Kline is a perfect tribute to the hollowness of the more-is-more decade; what you see is pretty much what you get. But never let anyone say he doesn't have layers. When the season's Terminator-like Russian bad guy chokes the mayor on a fair ride for daring to suggest that he should bring some backup, Kline croaks out his best line of the season: "Please, I'm sorry. I have a bad temper. I'm going to therapy." Maybe he means it. Maybe he's just saying whatever it takes to get the vote.
Stranger Things 3 is now streaming on Netflix.