Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Stranger Things 3”
Season 3 of “Stranger Things” is its most ambitious and fun season yet, even if it trips over its own feet in order to reach its devastating finale.
The Duffer Brothers’ much anticipated July 4 release has met and subverted expectations since it dropped on Netflix and brings weird and wacky fun to a series that has relied on grey tones and dark horror in previous seasons. In the first episode, we meet our favorite Hawkins residents in 1985, and the ‘80s has truly come to Hawkins. Scrunchies, New Coke and “Back to the Future” references pepper the series, as the addition of Starcourt Mall helps to spice up a show accused of replicating the successful formula of the first season for season two. The teenagers spend a lot of the first couple of episodes pretending they’re in a John Hughes movie, as each of them struggles with the change that comes with growing up. Will (Noach Schnapp) just wants to play Dungeons and Dragons, while Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) get distracted by their new relationships.
The first episode sets about splitting up the party so they can all get on with their individual sleuthing. El (Milly Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink) embark on a journey of self-empowerment as they ditch the boys but end up being involved in an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-type mystery. Max clearly enjoys playing the older sister to El, and their combination of shyness and mischief helps carry the first couple of episodes before it gets darker. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery) bring back the dynamic duo that stole the show in the previous season, but this time, with new additions.
Robin (Maya Hawke) and Erica (Priah Ferguson) help make up the Scoop Troop. This storyline is arguably the goofiest one of the series yet, with a secret underground Russian lab and vent crawling, all while Steve and Robin wear their Scoops Ahoy outfits. What keeps the storyline grounded however, is the chemistry between the four of them and the surprising emotional twists and turns Steve and Robin undergo, including the first openly LGBTQ+ character in the series. Keery once again steps up to the plate with an even bigger role this season, riffing off the group while also battling the loss of identity he feels since leaving school and moving on after Nancy (Natalia Dyer).
Meanwhile, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy have got their first jobs at the local newspaper. Jonathan finds his talent with photography put to good use but Nancy is undervalued and ridiculed by the writing team. This plotline cleverly evolves into Nancy questioning her ability and privilege compared to Jonathan before having a surprisingly heartfelt moment with her mother Karen (Cara Buono). Karen has a few moments early on where she threatens to become a more rounded character but the Billy-Karen and Nancy-Jonathan subplots are quickly submerged by Billy’s transformational role this season.
Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is at his best this season, conveying real intensity and terror in his role as the conduit of the Mind Flayer. He mixes cold, calculating evil with barely repressed confusion and terror at what he’s done, which comes together magnificently in the final episode. Nancy and Jonathan’s subplot also merges into the threat of the Mind Flayer after they follow up on some curious rat behavior and an odd old lady. This leads to a terrifying confrontation in the hospital with two of The Flayed, who also happen to be their coworkers. The Duffer Brothers went a bit HAM with all the strobe lighting, but the raw violence and lumbering threat of their assailants serve as an interesting contrast to the other servants of the Mind Flayers. It is cut up a little weirdly with the rest of the teens just upstairs reconciling their differences, and Jonathan should have some broken bones, but you forget about that when the Flayed rupture into goo and become a monster clearly inspired by (stolen from?) “The Thing.”
Arguably, the weakest link in the series is Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper’s (David Harbour) storyline. In previous seasons, Joyce’s emotional drive has been the safety of her children, and this has provided some inspired moments on the show. Her drive this season appears to be ‘magnets,’ to quote Charlie Kelly. Hopper is at his most deranged this season as his over protectiveness from season two evolves into destructive jealousy over both Eleven and Joyce. Harbour and Ryder both try their best to bring the ‘angry flirting’ energy but I found their chemistry didn’t quite click this season. They rope in Russian scientists Alexei (Alec Utgoff) and Murray (Brett Gelman) while drawing the attention of The Terminat- sorry, the Russian bad guy (Andrei Ivchenko). Alexei wins our hearts, but I found Murray used the same tricks from season two to less effect and hadn’t changed or developed at all. Cary Elwes plays the role of a corrupt mayor with tangible relish and he bounced off Harbour really well in their scenes together.
From here on things get a bit ropey as the characters are all drawn together and reunited at Starcourt Mall before going their separate ways again. Obviously, having that many characters sharing the same screen isn’t going to work for a whole episode, but you can practically hear the storylines creaking as the group splits, reunites and splits again. Schnapp is woefully underused after proving his acting chops in the previous seasons, even if he does get a great moment when he smashes up Castle Byers. The power curve of El’s powers is handled okay, but she ends up losing them with no explanation, while the Upside Down and the motives of the Mind Flayer and its origins are still a mystery to us.
Billy’s backstory does provide the necessary pull to our heartstrings, but I found his relationship with Max and their home life last season would have been a much more compelling and revealing route to travel down if they had wanted to provide more explanation to Billy’s past. The familial ties that provided the foundation for previous seasons are replaced this season, and I missed it. The dynamic between Jonathan and Will was one of the best bits of season one but we have yet to revisit it.
Hopper’s death was a surprise to me, but perhaps it should have been obvious as soon as Joyce agreed to go on a date with him, especially considering what happened to her last boyfriend. I say death because I do believe he’s dead. The ‘American’ line in the post credits sequence seems like a red herring to me. It’s possible he might have leapt into the gate before it healed and ended up in Russia somehow but deaths have to be final, otherwise they become less impactful.
Overall, the season is a success. The kids have changed and I like that the show has changed with them. The Duffer Brothers have been talking to the Russo brothers, and you can see the similarities with stunning visual effects mixed with strong ensemble dramedy. The attention to detail in “Stranger Things” often goes unnoticed, and I didn’t notice that Hopper gives the blue headband worn by his daughter Sarah in a flashback to El to wear in season two. In their final moment together, their hands are clasped, united by the blue headband.
The show also provided a hilarious moment of warmth, which may have felt cringe-worthy or stupid for others, but was heartfelt and true to the spirit of the series for me. Considering they were going to sing the Ent song from “Lord of the Rings,” I feel they made the right choice showing off Gaten Mazerazzo’s voice with a rendition of “The Neverending Story.” Maybe the product placement was a little on the nose this time, but it wasn’t “James Bond” level, and they incorporated it into the humor. Season four may end up being the last one, but the Duffer Brothers are right: Four feels too short and five feels too long.
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