TV Review: ‘Stranger Things’ packs in the thrills and ’80s nostalgia for a slow-building, emotional third season

stranger things horizontal poster
Courtesy of Teen Vogue

After an agonizing year-and-a-half-long wait, Stranger Things Season Three is finally upon us. And, if you’re like me, you finished the entire season in the first 24 hours of its release on Netflix. Let’s unpack what’s up with the Upside Down, Hawkins, Indiana and our favorite group of ‘80s kids.

The story picks up in the summer of 1985, roughly six months after the events of Season Two. Eleven “El” (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) navigate the struggles of their young romance, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) copes with a difficult loss, and Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) assumes the role of El’s full-time guardian — to mixed results for the pair. The season opens under the guise of a “return to normalcy,” but because it’s Stranger Things, that state is inevitably short-lived. When town bully Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) is attacked by a mysterious force, he becomes the key for a new threat to arise, signaling that the Mind-Flayer — the big bad from Season Two — may not be fully gone.

I fell in love with the mythology of Stranger Things in its very first episode, so a new adventure in this world was never going to be a hard sell for me. This is largely a testament to the Duffer Brothers’ storytelling prowess. Admittedly though, this season is somewhat of a slow-build, taking its time to set up its stakes before dropping the hammer. “Chapter 1: Suzie, Do You Copy?” fragments its run-time between different groups of characters to establish what they’ve been up to since we last saw them, and while Stranger Things bolsters talented actors, the consequences of having a large, ensemble cast are most acutely felt here and in the subsequent couple episodes. 

However, the Duffers are largely able to circumvent these issues by playing to the strengths of each character — which means doubling down on what worked in previous seasons, and testing out new, equally winning combinations. The show continues to explore the friendship between fan-favorites Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarrazzo). Steve works a summer job as an ice cream slinger at “Scoops Ahoy” in Hawkins’ new Starcourt Mall — an incredible piece of production design that harkens back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High — which will become the focal setting of the entire season. This time, Steve and Dustin are joined by Robin (Maya Hawke), Steve’s coworker, and Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson), Lucas’ younger sister. The foursome unwittingly become involved in a Russian science operation that prompts them to confront new revelations about their town and about themselves. 

steve-harrington-stranger-things
Courtesy of Vanity Fair

This unlikely group of characters (dubbed “The Scoops Troop”) provides the primary source of comedic relief, but it’s the addition of Robin that invested me in this B-storyline. Hawke brings the perfect amount of quirk and brilliance to the character, and her on-screen chemistry with Keery’s Steve leads up to one of the most heartfelt scenes in the entire series. Hawke shows tremendous range and potential as a relative newcomer, and the Duffers would benefit from fleshing out her character even more in a fourth season.

My favorite pairing this season, however, is El and Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink). I generally consider myself a defender of Season Two — a season with a few divisive elements and storytelling decisions — but one of its bigger missteps was in pitting El and Max — the only two female members of the show’s young friend group — against one another. Season Three thankfully rectifies that mistake in developing a genuine relationship between the two. Having grown up under difficult circumstances before being taken care of by primarily male characters, El was never given the opportunity to explore her individuality as a young woman. She finds more of her voice in spending time with Max, who shows El that “there’s more to life than stupid boys.” They embark on a shopping spree in the Starcourt Mall, flip through teen magazines and read “Wonder Woman” comics together. In a show that has previously focused on its male friendships, it’s a refreshing change of pace to showcase what can happen when its female characters are brought together, rather than separated — and it’s evident that Brown and Sink have a great time bringing that to life on-screen.

eleven and max
Courtesy of Entertainment Tonight

Stranger Things is at its best when it blends its idyllic, ‘80s DNA with its own horror mythology. While I root for the show’s relationships and enjoy spending time with the characters, this is the reason I invest in the story, and no episode exemplifies that better for me than “Chapter Four: The Sauna Test.” This episode, particularly its climax, is a riveting installment that propels the momentum forward into the back half of the season. Season Three finds its footing here, heightening the stakes as the monster’s abilities become more apparent — for terrifying, thrilling results. It will become impossible not to binge the rest of the season after this point. 

The show’s aforementioned mythology is largely embodied by Eleven’s story arc, tracing all the way back to Season One. She is consistently the most interesting character to watch, and Brown shoulders much of that responsibility as arguably the most talented young actor on the show. Although her telekinetic powers remain entertaining, the Duffers do use them often as a deus ex machina to write the characters out of corners, which grows old quickly (and certainly can’t be good for El’s health by giving herself nosebleeds every two seconds). However, this season does explore El’s physical limitations and vulnerabilities — particularly in “The Sauna Test” and “Chapter Eight: The Battle of Starcourt” — which is a step in the right direction for the character. 

This is less a criticism of Season Three and more about the series as a whole, but I often wonder about the moral dilemma associated with having these superhuman abilities. El’s darker impulses are primarily a product of her upbringing in Dr. Martin Brenner’s (Matthew Modine) laboratory, but as a result of that, she’s killed and injured others to survive without showing much remorse. Certainly Hopper, El’s adoptive father, has instilled more of a moral compass within her than she ever had previously, which remains a key dynamic in this season as well. Yet, outside of the critically divisive episode, “Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister,” last season, El never stops to ponder whether she has an obligation to minimize harm in the pursuit of protecting her loved ones. Brown is excellent at capturing El’s naivety and innocence when faced with seemingly ordinary events (like shopping in a mall), but it could add a new level of depth to the character if she were made to explore the idea that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” 

stranger things group
Courtesy of Junkee

El’s arc is informed by the villainous forces of the Upside Down, and in service of that, the Duffers make excellent use Billy, who acts as a vessel for much of this to take place. Whereas Billy is introduced in Season Two as somewhat of a hollow, one-note human threat, Montgomery has much more to do this time around in fleshing out the character’s complicated backstory and morality. Billy slowly becomes the most interesting character by the season’s end, and Montgomery’s performance invokes far more empathy for Billy than I thought was possible. 

The decision to focus on characters like El and Billy come at the expense of meaningful development for some of the supporting characters, namely Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), which is perhaps the season’s biggest missed opportunity. After a stand-out performance in Season Two, I had hoped the Duffers would challenge Schnapp even more with showcasing Will’s development in a way that (hopefully) didn’t involve more unfortunate scrapes with the Upside Down. Instead, Will becomes largely a background character, his connection to the Upside Down relegated to something of a warning cry for other characters (like El) to spring into action. Will is not the only character to fall victim to these issues; Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and even Mike Wheeler have few substantive moments that push their characters forward; the latter in particular is more tied to the label of “El’s Boyfriend” (and arguably, a poor one) rather than possessing his own story beats. And, for the third season in a row, Cara Buono’s Karen Wheeler is the least consequential character. The show has some fun with the dynamic between Karen and Billy (a la, The Graduate) but it always feels like wasted potential every time Buono gets too little to do on screen.

Stranger-Things-Couples-Season-3
Courtesy of Us Weekly

Although Season Three starts out a bit disparate and slow, it marks another successful outing for the Duffer Brothers’ hit show, building towards a gut-wrenching, emotionally resonant finale that places the characters in intriguing positions for a new season. That being said, there is a sense that Season Three marks the closing of a chapter for these characters — complete with a familiar song cue from Season One that closes out the eighth episode. I hope this gives the Duffers an excuse to expand the world that they’ve created and take new risks in the future; whatever they do, I’ll be watching it on Netflix right away.

And make sure you watch the end-credits after episode eight!


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