The third season of Stranger Things is here and, if you’re like us, you spent most of July 4th weekend glued to your TV, desperate to know what’s next for Eleven and the crew from Hawkins, Indiana, circa 1985.
Overall, there was a lot to like in the Duffer Brothers’ third foray into this series and, below, we’ll discuss all of it in spoiler-filled detail, as well as a few things we didn’t love about this season.
What an ending. The Byers are moving? Eleven is going with them? She’s lost her powers? Hopper is alive and in a Russian prison? The freaking Demogorgon is back? The final few minutes of Stranger Things 3 packed enough surprises in for a whole other season. And, well, they’re gonna have one to try and explain how that all plays out. But after an already satisfying ending with the crew saving the world once again, it was awesome to see how the consequences of this season may loom larger moving ahead. We haven’t seen the last of the Upside Down. Plus, the promise of action outside of Hawkins may bring Stranger Things to a whole other level of epic. We can’t wait to see how it plays out.
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The growing up
When you make a show starring young kids, obviously, they are going to grow up as the show goes along. In the case of Stranger Things 3, this was handled beautifully, giving us stories that felt perfectly age-appropriate for the characters and also completely different from everything we’ve seen in the past. They’re all, in some way, impacted by young love. The show dove deeper into the romances of Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and El (Millie Bobby Brown), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink), and Dustin and Suzie (kind of), and provided new perspectives on the subject from other characters. Steve (Joe Keery) finds out the girl he is attracted to is gay. Will (Noah Schnapp) realizes he hasn’t matured as quickly as his friends and he himself might be gay (more on that in a bit). All the other relationships have plenty of ups and downs too, whether it was Mike and El sneaking behind Hopper’s back, Max and El pushing the boys aside, the girl talk, the boy talk, spying, all of the romance added another layer of strong relatability to the characters.
Billy Hargrove didn’t have the best debut in season two—mainly because he wasn’t given anything to do, other than bully his younger sister and eventually get chewed out for it. It was clear that actor Dacre Montgomery was capable of so much more though and we got it with Billy’s turn in season three. Early on, Billy was possessed by the Mind Flayer and became its main host, sent to recruit more victims to fulfill its dark purpose. Montgomery nailed Evil Billy’s raw sinisterness, but also managed to give the character vulnerability, depth, and beauty underneath the tragedy. It was one of the rare times a villain’s noble sacrifice felt like it was actually warranted because Montgomery gave us a reason to see who Billy was under all the layers of trauma and possession. It’s a shame he had to lose his life in the end but ultimately, the sacrifice was the perfect ending to an excellent arc.
The scope of it all
Each season of Stranger Things has gotten bigger and season three takes things to a whole new level. Not just the massive Battle of Starcourt Mall, but the battle at the sauna, the fights with Hopper (David Harbour) and the Russian Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko), the fact there’s a freaking Russian base that’s accessible only by a potentially deadly elevator ride into the center of the Earth. Oh, and that skyscraper-sized bad guy too. Everything about Stranger Thing 3 felt like it had finally gotten the budget and scope the Duffer Brothers had so desperately wanted to emulate since season one, and the change was not wasted.
Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has always been probably the most interesting member of the group, what with his hilarious demeanor and crazy confidence. But season three took that to a whole new level. He came back from camp a changed man. He had a girlfriend. He seemed wiser than his buddy Steve and he felt like a true leader in a dire situation where he was fighting his very own version of the Cold War, at the height of the real one.
The construction of the plot
El and Max are looking for the missing lifeguard. Steve, Dustin, and Robin are figuring out the Russian code. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are looking into pest problems. Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder) are curious about magnets. Everyone this season is solving their own mystery and, in each case, the characters think their journey is the most important thing happening. However, the viewers know not only is that not the case, but that all these storylines are connected.
That simple structural choice works wonders for the show. Giving the characters clear, distinct goals makes every story feel different. That, in turn, brings the show to life and helps the actors dive deeper into their characters. Plus, it allows the show to tell a more complex, richer, more epic story resulting in some huge moments later on. And most of those moments come when the characters finally meet up and figure out what’s going on.
The rise of Erica and Max
Stranger Things started off as a show about four boys, plus El. Ahead of season two, we were excited to hear that another girl—Max, the tomboy skateboarder—would be joining the crew, only to be left wondering what the point was when the show didn’t give her enough to do. Season three finally did right by Max; she’s still very much a supporting character, but beyond being “Billy’s sister” or “Caleb’s girlfriend,” she formed a close friendship with El, giving her relationship advice and introducing her to the wonders of carefree stuff like shopping and Ralph Macchio. As for Erica (Priah Ferguson), Caleb’s sassy little sister was a breakout character in season two, so her increased presence this time around felt natural. You just knew, when she kept turning up at Scoops Ahoy, that she’d be drawn into the bigger story, and sending her through the air ducts, John McClane-style, was perfect—as was her slow realization that nerd culture, which definitely includes My Little Pony, is actually way cooler than she ever realized.
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Erica realizing her truth
Yup, we offering up a double scoop of Erica. Going into the third season, one of the biggest questions concerning Erica focused on how the series would handle her, especially given Stranger Things’ so-so history of introducing other female characters like Max. Though the show could have easily relied on the already established formula of letting Erica drag the older kids with wisdom beyond her years, it went further by giving her a small character arc of her own that has a significance that’s larger than Stranger Things.
As Erica becomes increasingly involved in the gang’s investigation of the latest round of paranormal happenings in Hawkins, she repeatedly butts heads with Dustin, who she accurately identifies as the most prototypically nerdy member of the group. Erica, who is objectively cool as hell, sees herself as being fundamentally different than Dustin, her brother Lucas, or their friends because she’s never really been one to get wrapped up in fantasy roleplaying or Ghostbusters.
But what Erica gradually realizes, in part because of her interactions with Dustin, is that she really, really isn’t all that different than them when you really think about it. Dustin points out that not only is Erica particularly good at math and very down to go on dangerous adventures, she’s also an avid My Little Pony stan who knows the franchise’s fantastical lore in and out. Much as Erica may loathe to admit it, she’s a nerd of the highest order who fits right into Stranger Things’ larger cadre of Soviet-fighting children. But the great thing about Erica’s arc and her realization is that it explicitly recognizes the role she plays within Stranger Things’ narrative, a space that little black girls like Erica have been largely missing from in genre pop culture for far too long.
This season of Stranger Things dialed the cheesy ‘80s fashion up to 11, and we were here for it. The scrunchies, the short-shorts, the fanny packs, the neon makeup that magically stayed on Mike’s mom’s (Cara Buono) face after she went for a swim. The series was visually trying to show us that times were a-changing in Hawkins, that the small town of previous years was making way for something bigger and flashier. But it wasn’t just about the symbolism, it was also about celebrating some truly glorious style. El wasn’t the only one who was having a ball with the hip, happening threads. “Put on your jelly bracelets and your cool graffiti coat. Let’s go to the mall today.”
This might seem like an odd one, given that El actually loses her superpowers at the end of season three, but prior to that, she discovers an inner strength that she’d previously been lacking. Season two saw her assert her independence and do some soul-searching, but as season three starts off, she’s putting all her energy into her relationship with Mike. After she dumps him, she’s able to explore her own personality (and personal style!) for the first time. She’s no longer afraid of her powers; her powers are what make her unique and she uses them all the time. And while El will presumably get her powers back next season, she’s still got some catching up to do when it comes to being a regular old human being…with fewer nosebleeds, too.
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Things Got a Little Queer
Like in so many of the classic films this season of Stranger Things pays homage to, love works its way into a number of the characters’ arcs, and after spending seven episodes endangering his life alongside newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke), Steve clumsily professes his romantic feelings for his new friend, which she quickly rebuffs. As much as Robin enjoys spending time with Steve, she immediately reiterates an anecdote from high school she previously told him, only more specifically this time, revealing she’s a lesbian and not romantically interested in him. Rather than getting bent out of shape about it, Steve rolls with it.
Robin’s purpose in Stranger Things isn’t really to exist as the object of Steve’s desire. To be clear, that is technically what she ends up being for most of the season even though she turns him down, and this is an instance where a queer character’s identity could have been fleshed out a little bit more outside of the context of her not being interested in some guy. But to be fair, this is a kind of coming out experience that a lot of people on both sides of the equation can relate to, and the way it plays out in Stranger Things is infinitely more progressive than how an ‘80s genre classic likely would have handled it.
It’s never addressed in the season again, but there’s also a brief moment when Will and Mike have a confrontation about the growing fractures in their friendship and Mike suggests that Will doesn’t understand why everyone wants to hang out with their girlfriends because Will doesn’t like girls. In the original pitch for Stranger Things, Will was initially described as identifying as gay which might mean that the significance of that exchange could be explored in future seasons.
Malls are so totally 1980s, so setting Stranger Things’ latest nostalgic adventure in a great big shiny shopping center—complete with the expected exact recreations of staple businesses like the Gap, Zales, Orange Julius, and Hot Dog on a Stick—was a clever move, as was working in other media (like the iconic Back to the Future scene set in a mall parking lot) that fit the theme. But the show didn’t just use Starcourt Mall as set dressing, it was part of season three’s massive conspiracy, distracting Hawkins with the joys of consumerism while hiding that secret Russian lab many, many stories underground. And the mall’s impact is shown to be even greater than the more obviously terrifying monsters running around, with empty storefronts filling downtown and protestors begging the city government to support small businesses over giant chains. The Mind Flayer might not be real, but anyone who’s lived in a small town that’s been completely reshaped by a mall or a Wal-Mart can certainly relate to that particular horror.
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Pop culture done right
As Stranger Things’ larger story has grown more intricate and complex over the course of its three seasons, the series’ initial conceit of paying tribute to classic genre films has gradually shifted in an interesting way. This season features a number of nods to films like The Shining, The Terminator, Alien, and George Romero’s zombie films, but they’re all incorporated into the fabric of Stranger Things’ world in much more subtle ways because the show’s gotten to a point not where its mythos can really stand on its own two legs. The nods to the classics don’t exactly jump out at you when they pop up this season because they aren’t meant to be the point of the show. Rather, they’re reminders that the Duffer Brothers are well aware of what came before them, and they’re comfortable making a go of putting Stranger Things into the larger pop cultural canon.
The gore and creature design
When Stranger Things 2 ended with that shadowy, spidery figure looming over Hawkins, it was a lot to live up to. Stranger Things 3 delivered on that and then some, revealing the Mind Flayer in many, many forms, each of them terrifying and gross. It started small, absorbing exploded, gooey rats, and then graduated to devouring its many, many, mind-controlled humans. Along the way, it T-1000’d itself through grates like the Blob, all of which lead to the big reveal of the Flayer at its full size, trampling through the Starcourt Mall. Complete with tentacles, fangs, slime, you name it, the creature was like everything we know from ‘80s horror movies, and the first two Stranger Things seasons, all rolled into one.
The Byers’ exit
The season ended with Joyce Byers moving her family, which now includes El, out of Hawkins. Seemingly for good. The final scene of them packing up and driving out was heartbreaking, with the four boys and their circle of friends being forced to part ways…some of them for the first time in their lives. As someone who moved a lot when they were younger, this really resonated with me. I was always the one leaving town, not the one staying behind, but seeing this made me realize how tragic that experience is for people on all sides.
Plus, we got that one redeeming moment from Hopper (more on him in a bit), when El got a chance to read the speech he never ended up giving her and Mike. It was an appropriately poignant message on the nature of growth and change, which is really what the season was all about. I’m sure something will happen to bring these characters back together in season four, but until then we’re left on division and uncertainty. It’s going to be a rough road for all of them, and for us too.
“The NeverEnding Story”
Events were building to an intense climax in the final episode of Stranger Things 3. The kids square off with the Mind Flayer in the mall while Joyce, Hopper, and Bauman (Brett Gelman) infiltrate the Russians’ underground lab to desperately try and close the doorway to the Upside Down. To do that, they must crack a safe that will only open using a specific math equation…but in these pre-Google times, nobody can remember the correct sequence of numbers. The world’s only hope is Dustin’s ham radio set-up and his long-distance girlfriend from science camp, Suzie—and even though everyone had pretty much decided Suzie was made up at that point in the story, the mystery girl steps up all the way from Salt Lake City with the info they need.
But there’s a catch! Before she’ll spill the digits, she makes “Dusty-bun” duet with her on English pop star Limahl’s gloriously corny theme to 1984 fantasy epic The NeverEnding Story, which also happens to be about a kid saving the world. In the context of the story, it initially feels like a NeverEnding musical moment, as all the other characters (and the audience) can’t quite believe what they’re witnessing. But despite the delay in the action, the musical sequence is so adorable—and the young actors so surprisingly good at singing (Gaten Matarazzo and Gabriella Pizzolo were both on Broadway); same goes for later in the episode, when Max and Lucas offer a mocking reprise of the song—that it ends up adding a jolt of fun into the moment, not to mention fitting perfectly into Stranger Things’ nerds-win message.
We didn’t love…
We love Dad Bod Sheriff as much as the next person, but he was insufferable this season. Jim Hopper spent most of his time acting violent, ill-tempered, drunk, and emotionally and verbally abusive. His treatment of El and Joyce was toxic and did not get the dressing down needed by either person. In fact, the opposite happened. Joyce ended up stuck with the emotional labor of placating this unstable person, rewarding him with a date when he did not deserve one. It’s clear they were going overboard with the overprotective father trope—especially in how he treated Mike, which was seriously fucked up—but if you fail to properly unpack or break down the stereotype, it instead just becomes who he is.
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Like season two, Stranger Things 3 takes a while to get going. Basically, the first three episodes felt like meticulous table setters. It’s not until episode four, “The Sauna Test,” when things actually kick into gear. Then, even after things ramp up a bit, almost every single major reveal comes in the final episode. Some of the characters don’t even see each other until then. And while that separation helps the show in some aspects, it also holds it back in others, like narrative balance. Plus, even in the superior later episodes, stuff like Hopper and Joyce trying to translate what Alexei (Alec Utgoff) is saying feels so long and drawn out. The good parts greatly outweigh the bad but we just wish the Duffers could figure out how to pace this stuff more evenly.
Cary Elwes, star of The Princess Bride, played Hawkins’ deeply sleazy mayor, a neat bit of casting that unfortunately didn’t really offer much payoff. Elwes was fine, but the role felt more like a glorified cameo than anything. Last season’s Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser’s character) was similarly light on screen time, but he was so important to the plot it made a lot more impact. We wouldn’t expect to see Elwes’ Mayor Klein unexpectedly pop up next season either, like Reiser’s Dr. Owens did. Why would he?
Every season of television needs a villain in one form or another, and while the returned Mind Flayer would have been perfectly terrifying on its own, Stranger Things spread out its story by tying its presence to a secret Soviet testing facility hidden beneath the mall. The problem with Stranger Things’ Russian threat this season is that we’re never really told what it is that they’re trying to do, which is a problem that you can perhaps attribute to the fact that the show is aping stereotypical depictions of villainous Soviets who have to be stopped by American action heroes. While that kind of bad guy archetype might work for a cinematic story that only runs for two hours, Stranger Things’ episodes clock in at a whopping eight, which is to say that the series had more than enough time to give its shadowy Soviets a bit more substance. Yes, they’ll be back, but it all felt a little disconnected this time around.
Mrs. Wheeler and Billy
While her poolside fashion sense cannot be denied, the whole “Mrs. Wheeler has a crush on Billy” subplot, which was teased last season, was slathered on so thick it quickly became uncomfortable. Of course Mike and Nancy’s mom isn’t going to sneak out to a Motel 6 to cheat on her husband with Billy the lifeguard, but Stranger Things sure dangles that possibility before us. Their would-be tryst does give Billy a reason to be speeding around late at night when he first encounters the Mind Flayer, but did Hawkins’ resident bad boy really need a reason for that in the first place? The whole thing just felt out of place and didn’t really add much to either character.
The newspaper subplot
Nancy spends most of Stranger Things 3 getting spit on by sexist pigs. Hooray for the golden age of television! We can understand the series wanting to dive into sexist politics in the workplace, much in the vein of something like Working Girl, but boy, oh boy this subplot went downhill—then nowhere. It boiled down to “Nancy Drew” trying to pitch a story, getting laughed at by some gross jerks, then heading out to work on it anyway with the help of Jonathan. Then, the publisher and his star reporter get killed. Sure, it’s by Jonathan and Nancy, but when they’re gone they’re gone. The show made it clear that Nancy was smart and had a lot to offer the paper, so it was forced to turn the publisher and his cronies into complete asshats to justify the obstacles. We never even got to see if she sold her story anywhere else. There are much better and more realistic ways to show sexism in the workplace—maybe the Duffers should’ve hired more women writers, who could’ve helped explain it.
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