When Stranger Things first turned our world upside-down in 2016, it warranted applause across the board. There had (and still has) never been another show like it. Content-wise, it tastes like The Goonies meets The X-Files, largely fixating on cornerstone 80’s nostalgia and the paranormal happenings. From a cast perspective, the show relies on an ensemble of kids—broadening the expected viewership demographic for a show in this genre. Whether you’re a modern teen, child of the 80’s, or adult, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and friends are for everyone.
Scary murders meet heartfelt interactions, long-awaited answers are met with more questions, Stranger Things is the equilibrium of sci-fi fun that keeps you satisfied while scratching your head. After a narratively busy Season 2, fans wondered if Season 3 could bring the the same tubular feeling of Stranger Thing’s original outing? And it didn’t. Hawkins’ cold laboratory and basement has been swapped out for the neon glow of the Starcourt Mall. The vibe is entirely new, but better than ever. With fully-realized settings, feelings, story arcs, and threats— I guess it’s possible to teach this old Demodog new tricks.
Small Campaigns, One Big Quest
A massive strength of Season 3 came from the structure of the divided group missions. Separating the characters into smaller fragments, making their goals inter-related, and pulling them together for an epic finale was so satisfying. Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper’s (David Harbour) hunt for the magnet-disrupting machine felt like a smaller-scale task, but it gave the pair a great opportunity to explore their bond. Breaking Mike and Eleven up so that she could experience life as a teen girl in the 80’s alongside Max (Sadie Sink) was a blast. It was great to see them forge such a strong bond, a stark difference from their initial interaction. Removing Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) up from his friends to have him mingle with the Scoops Ahoy crew has been controversial among fans, but the story became a lot more interesting because of it. While Dustin’s friends are wrapped up in their own issues, he shares his intel with Steve (Joe Keery) and by proxy Robin (Maya Hawke), igniting their subplot. Not only does this give fan-favorite Dustin more camera time, it allows Mike, Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLauglin), Eleven, and Max to feel the void of his absence.
The Fourth of July was a smart theme to set as the background of the season and added a plethora of rich visuals. The Fun Fair was a superb place for Hopper, Joyce, Murray, and Dr. Alexei to try to ward off Grigori. Such an upbeat, family-oriented setting felt surreal for such an intense chase sequence or harsh death scene, but that’s why they worked so well. It lulled in comparison to the mall, though. I cannot say enough positive things about the representation of Starcourt. The amount of detail that wen’t into creating an 80’s-accurate locale was uncanny, props to the set design team. Starcourt made for the most exhilarant season finale showdown against Mind Flayer. And it made me want an Orange Julius, very badly.
You Can’t Spell ‘America’ Without ‘Erica’
Last season it felt like (with the exception of Eleven and Steve), the characters were almost exclusively used on flesh out and chase after the world of The Upside Down. The audience didn’t really get the chance to learn all too much about the fabric of who these people are as individuals. Season 3 almost solely focused to expand this. Hopper has both feet in the waters of fatherhood, wanting to protect Eleven as she explores a relationship with Mike. Joyce is afraid to open up to love again after the loss of her ex. Will is no longer just a vehicle to be abducted by the Mind Flayer, he’s trying to hang onto childhood as his friends grow and change. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) wants to be respected at her job, seeking fulfillment aside from being romantically torn between two teenage boys. Thank you, writers. Getting to know these people aside from monsters, even intermittently, was so refreshing. Although their universe is full of fantastical crisis, which entertaining to watch, there is nothing more relatable than human conflict.
As far as new additions to the cast, there wasn’t a weak link. Every addition felt welcome, as if we needed these characters the whole time and never knew it. Robin was the perfect slick counterpart to Steve. Their camaraderie shined as perfect adventure buddies and unlikely friends. The pièce de résistance was Erica (Priah Ferguson), though. She’s not technically a “new character” this was her season. Erica’s lines were nothing short of iconic, and her feisty and quick demeanor really bring something new to the show that we haven’t seen before. From the minute we saw her trying to sample every ice cream from the Scoops Ahoy counter, I knew a star was born.
And we musn’t forget Dr. Alexei (Alec Utgoff), RIP. He was truly the Barb Holland (Shannon Purser) of this season and should be respected as such. Gone too soon, but forever in our minds associated with Slurpees.
Season 3 Successes
The best shows change, while still giving you everything you’re familiar with and love. There are less Demogorgons, but the Mind Flayer is Demogorgon-esque. Will isn’t directly afflicted by The Upside Down, but he’s connected enough to maintain a link. Season 3 feels like all the best pieces of Stranger Things, but the presentation is elevated. Chalk that up to good writing, good acting, and a lot of narrative forethought.
Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) arc was a standout. The bad boy from Season 2 becomes the latest vessel of the Mind Flayer, enacting its sinister deeds and working to build an army to destroy Eleven. Just as you’re about to assume Billy is mean to the bone, his memories reveal the hurt and trauma that have made him so hardened. It would have been really easy for the writers to keep around one of their popular characters but instead they favor authenticity, and give Billy a hero’s death. Letting a character run a full course without forcing any more story is proof that the team behind Stranger Things is not trying to milk the franchise or cash-in, they’re trying to create art.
Death in general is a topic that a lot of programs struggle with. Too many deaths, too few, too many fake-outs at the expensive of their audience’s concern. One of my favorite details of this show is that they mourn the deceased for a while. Barb’s passing was carried on into Season 2. Bob’s death was carried on into Season 3. Even if a character is minor, the fact that these people care and recognize the deceased matters. Now that we’ve had a big death like Billy’s (Hopper probably isn’t dead) it will surely be reflected in Season 4.
Russian Around Being Moderately Evil
Multiple forces of evil were a great idea. The hokey presentation of the Russians, could have been finessed. It’s not that they aren’t a good villain, and it’s not that they weren’t the right choice of villain—every conspiracy theory of the 80’s seemed to circle back to the Russians. Their depiction was almost lackadaisical. Four kids could sneak into their base without cameras seeing them? Without guards catching them right away? Pretty easy to maneuver around for such an insidious opponent.
At times, the positoning of comedy encroached on the drama of Season 3. Would Dustin really have taken the time to sing with Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo) in the midst of peril? Would Joyce and Hopper really be fighting as they navigated through the maze of a Russian lair? Both scenarios felt unlikely. There’s a time and place for these sequences, but after the severity of what they’ve all already been through, one would think their characters would be more serious? That is not the heart of the show, though. Dustin and Suzie’s musical moment will live-on as an hallmark memory of the season, and Joyce and Hopper’s ongoing tension helped to make his “demise” all the more painful to watch.
Moving Away and Forward
After the loss of Hopper, Joyce makes it official and decides to move away from Hawkins, a decision that saddens every character to the core. Also like, have fun with the two kids that are intrinsically tied to The Upside Down living under one roof? This choice feels like a gesture set in reality which will make seeing what happens next all the more interesting.
In the past, the show’s Creators, The Duffer Brothers have said that this is a “four season story”. Will the next installment of Stranger Things, be its last? Personally, in my fanboy perspective, it feels like a five season show. Until next season (probably almost two years from now) there is a lot of time to speculate. Who is the American in the cell (probably not Hopper, too on the nose for these writers, but definitely of importance)? Are the Russians weaponizing Demogorgans? Will Elle get her powers back? Will Erica get her own spin-off show? But seriously, will she? Throw in more free ice cream and perhaps, she’ll consider.
What was your favorite part of Stranger Things Season 3? Let us know in a comment below.
Season 3 of Stranger Things is streaming on Netflix