Stranger Things may be a huge retro-tastic global phenomenon, but not everybody has drunk the Kool-Aid (or eaten the Eggos, as it were) as some of us have. According to these naysayers, the Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi horror show is nothing but a collection of ideas we’ve seen before, draped in heavy helpings of 1980’s nostalgia. Remove those rose-tinted baubles, they argue, and you would be left with nothing new.
To be fair, they are right. The difference though is that you don’t have to be new to be good. And Stranger Things is VERY good. Even more so in its third season than ever before, as the Duffer Brothers have ironed out the haphazard pacing and narrative issues we encountered in the show’s sophomore run. There are no punk rock backstory digressions or unnecessary splitting of the cast here to steal away momentum and dynamism, as the show barrels along from one gripping moment to the next. By the time we hit the end of the season three’s bumper-packed eighth and final episode, so much has happened that you will have some serious EMOTIONS (capitalized for effect) about those events and what is to come.
Things start off a lot more relaxed though. To paraphrase a certain popular musical, when we check back in with the gang from Hawkins, it’s all summer loving and having a blast. These geeky kids we once fell in love with are now hormonal adolescents who are falling in love themselves. The most notable being Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) burgeoning romance that is all frantic face sucking, much to the dismay of Eleven’s adoptive father, Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who is clumsily trying to light his own romantic fires with Joyce (Winona Ryder). That’s when they’re not too busy trying to solve the mystery of weird power outages in Hawkins that has resulted in Joyce’s magnets falling off her fridge. Trust me, it’s more important than it sounds and involves a Russian Terminator.
As Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) have their own on-again/off-again relationship, Will (Noah Schnapp) is the odd single man out as even Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has returned from Summer Camp with claims of a girlfriend named Suzie. It must have been the hair spray tips he got from Steve (Joe Keery) last season. Said erstwhile self-appointed babysitter of the group has unfortunately been spending his time with his magnificent head of lady-attracting hair scrunched up under a goofy Scoops Ahoy cap as he slings ice cream next to sassy newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) at the brand new Starcourt Mall.
He’s not the only one with a job now as Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and girlfriend Nancy (Natalia Dyer) find themselves as underappreciated and mistreated wage slaves at the local newspaper. When Nancy, who bears the brunt of the old newshounds’ misogynism, tries to prove herself by chasing up a story of weird rats at a local farm, it leads to something much bigger. And much more disgusting.
Much like how the cast has grown up since we’ve last seen them, so have the Duffers. Stranger Things has never been a kids show, but there’s always been a PG-13 Spielbergian slant to how it scared you. In season three though, the showrunners really lean hard into their body horror genre inspirations here. The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers will instantly spring to mind, as some really horrific things happen to people in this show, courtesy of the returned Mind Flayer. Yes, the monstrous beast is somehow back from the Upside Down despite Eleven sealing it the doorway between worlds, and it’s never been more dangerous.
Some of the show’s characters themselves go to some dark and bloody places – Hopper is most notable here, being all bristly and prickly (and even a bit dickish towards Joyce). Not even his Magnum PI ‘stache and shirt affectations can disguise the fact that everybody’s favourite small-town sheriff has issues to work through. Everybody does really, as the Duffers do fantastic character work here.
Several of the teens undergo massive arcs of self-discovery with Eleven clearly being the headline act in this regard. She’s gone from telekinetic ass-kicker to just barely learning how to be a daughter and a friend. And now she has to find out who she is as a person, clingy boyfriend be damned (well, he has some of his own growing to do). The rest of the gang also don’t miss a beat, but it’s newcomer Robin who quickly proves herself to be an immensely capable member of this team despite being thrown headfirst into the sci-fi horror landscape that has infected Hawkins. So too Dustin also finds his own foil in Erica (Priah Ferguson), Lucas’ annoying younger sister who finds her role hugely expanded as she gets dragged into affairs and instantly steals any scenes she’s in. And seeing as she’s stealing most of those scenes from the dynamic duo of Steve and Dustin, that’s saying something.
Other highlights include Andrey Ivchenko as the aforementioned Arnold Schwarzenegger doppelganger. His seemingly unstoppable force of nature styled baddie is a taciturn delight, evoking the very best – and cheesiest – machismo-fueled 80s action movies. That’s not where the homages end though as the Duffers use various themes, plot points, scene stagings and Easter eggs to tip their hat to the likes of Red Dawn, Alien, Jaws, Dawn of the Dead, Jurassic Park, The Thing, and more.
And they do a masterful job of balancing it all out. Coming of age dramatics receive equal standing with edge-of-your-seat slasher thrills, all performed with aplomb by the cast. They will have your heart swelling with emotion as much as it seizes up in icy fear. The Duffers also tackle socioeconomic issues, specifically the encroaching impersonal commercialization of the era as the new Starcourt Mall, with all its neon-lit franchises and mannequin-filled department stores, is directly responsible for the shuttering of several small-town businesses in Hawkins. Hell, the season even juggles some sexuality issues with classy tact. This is a story of identity and camaraderie, of growing up and letting go, of sacrifice and redemption.
And although there are a couple of minor character/plot beat missteps, altogether this third season works gangbusters. It is unequivocally bigger and better than what’s come before in every way as both the cast and creators are firing on all cylinders. There is a definite feeling of penultimate finality by the time the final credits roll though. The Duffers have previously said that they envisioned the show would play out over four seasons, and if Stranger Things will indeed end with its next season (y’know, instead of a being a *cough* neverending story *cough*), it’s doing so at the top of its game.
Stranger Things 3 is out on Netflix right now.
Last Updated: July 12, 2019