For anyone predisposed to comparing the new season of a series to its last, ‘Stranger Things 3’ is a rip-roaring reminder to shake the habit, but triumphs anyway at living up to expectations
Warning: minor spoilers ahead.
Stranger Things 3 marks the beginning of a new era for the Netflix original. In the same way its cast has matured quite a bit, the hit series finds itself on the cusp of outgrowing the familiar. It isn’t apologetic either, as the first few episodes suggest, about venturing away from what the show once was. (Whether or not that’s ultimately a good thing, fans can decide for themselves.)
As Matt and Ross Duffer’s pop culture phenomenon returns two years after its sophomore installment, the sibling-writer-director-producer duo is a little wiser regarding approach, a little more mindful about pacing and, by leaps and bounds, a lot more confident in orchestrating a production on an epic scale. The in-your-face yet perfectly appropriate brand placements (shout out to Coke!) hint at how epic-scale the backing likewise is.
The CGI effects are even more remarkable. The graphics? Grislier when need be and could easily satisfy any slasher film fanatic. With sprawling aerial shots, played-up sets, the much larger number of recruited actors, this season does a lot to set itself apart in terms of big-time visuals. The Stranger Things 3 storyline achieves just the same: It coils relatable coming-of-age scenarios into the original sci-fi plot, putting a heavier weight on character relationships as the Hawkins gang deals with the inevitability of change.
For the first time, audiences get to know them outside of the trauma they’ve experienced. In the previous season, investigator Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) goes so far as to enlighten Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) with what legitimizes their relationship, saying: “You’ve got chemistry, history, plus, the real shit: shared trauma.” But what happens when that shared trauma ceases to govern their lives––whether for better or for worse?
Unlike the first two seasons, Stranger Things 3 takes place in the peak of summer. 1985 is a different time for Hawkins, which is starting to feel like a different place, too. Downtown is deserted. With the exception of the bustling community pool, people are pouring into a newly built mall called Starcourt instead. Here, a whole lot of “normal” ensues with enough ‘80s references to go around. The series even takes a page straight out of The Fast Times at Ridgemont High playbook. There’s a Gap on one end, a Jazzercise studio on one floor, an Orange Julius stall in the food court. There’s no shortage of feathered hairstyles, electric blue eyeshadow, scrunchy-secured hairdos or retro-print button-downs. With not a single ominous Stranger Things-esque element in sight, the third season begins as a full-tilt 1980’s zeitgeist: the most ‘80s an ‘80s-set series could get featuring the most mundane of activities in a mundane mall. It’s almost as though one is tuning in to a different show altogether.
Adding to this is the party of main characters that doesn’t even call itself that anymore. Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), the Paladin, has made way for Mike Wheeler: the teenager smitten with his girlfriend Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Still equipped with psionic abilities, the ever-powerful El has learned to lead a deliciously mediocre life herself. She’s retired from blowing up Demogorgons and Demodogs and closing gates that lead to another dimension. Her powers are but a tool for getting away with very teenager things such as being able to lock lips with Mike in her bedroom as her adoptive father Jim Hopper (David Harbour) pretends to watch TV right outside. The earlier half of the season finds the formerly short-fused, now “Fat Rambo” of a dad and chief of police struggling to get through to the two teens hopped up on summer love and hormones. “Keep the door open three inches,” says Hopper time and again. It’s a request that would mean so much more as events unfold.
The rest of the party, Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), has no problem easing into young adulthood as well. Lucas and Max bicker somewhat like an old married couple; Dustin has leveled up from trying out the AV Club’s Heathkit ham radio to assembling his own one-of-a-kind radio tower. For Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), however, it’s a quiet scramble to cling to his youth a while longer. There’s no faulting him; parts of his childhood have been lost forever––to that disappearance in the Upside Down and later, that shadow monster exorcism. But everyone else, to his dismay, is on the same page: life goes on and they need to move on along with it. The closer to “ordinary,” the better.
The ordinary means the predictable like first loves, first relationships and first jobs at the mall. Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) knows a thing or two about this. Although through with love and relationships for now, he’s hands-on as a Scoops Ahoy ice cream-slinger. He winds up working with a former schoolmate of his, a girl named Robin (Maya Hawke), who eventually proves to be an integral part of, well, everything that moves Stranger Things 3 along.
There are several others who wear this normalcy well. Like Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder). She gets to settle into her working mom role with a lightness about her now, manning a general store downtown and armed with a supply of great parenting advice for anyone who swings by asking for them (read: Hopper). She sports the same can-do attitude but is calmer, more reserved. Even in awkward social situations, like Hopper’s unwarranted fit of jealousy after being stood up on their platonic date, Joyce has it together. She politely evades the prospect of dating in the meantime and is too preoccupied anyway with her broken refrigerator magnets. This brings to light the unpleasant side of all-is-normal Jim Hopper: His tantrum over a non-existent relationship, however endearing the portrayal of Harbour, is a peculiar direction to take the once cool, brooding character in. Perhaps this candid display exists to underscore how laidback––to the point of sloppy and informal––he’s gotten. Regardless, it’s a development that could have taken a backseat sooner.
Then there’s Nancy and Jonathan. Struggling with their version of normal, the two clash incessantly about their summer internship at The Hawkins Post. Nancy, inspired by a previous stint at playing detective, is taken by the world of investigative journalism. She receives a phone tip about rabid fertilizer-eating rats and springs into action to look into the case. But her partner in crime Jonathan is having none of it. He’s averse to any form of rebellion and would much rather downplay any sign that danger is imminent. He wouldn’t be the first, though, to chalk up the new strange events to coincidence. “Apophenia,” Hawkins Middle School teacher Scott Clarke reasons with Joyce, who comes to her own wild conclusion about why her magnets aren’t working. “You’re seeing patterns that aren’t there. A coincidence.”
But the power outage, wonky magnets and imploding rats don’t point to a coincidence. The worst is yet to come and the problem is beyond anything a small town in Indiana can handle (nothing like a Soviet espionage storyline to spice things up). On top of good old-fashioned American capitalism in effect and Russians operating in secret to reopen the gate to the Upside Down, the Mind Flayer from Will’s shadow monster exorcism also comes alive. Out to inflict carnage, grow a legion and end all of humanity, it makes a point to go after the only being powerful enough to stop it: Eleven.
Everything in Stranger Things 3 is bigger: the creature that needs to be killed, the figurative fires that need to be put out on the way and, overall, the attempts to take the story next-level. It is only here where certain events in the second season (dubbed by critics as weak, if not, dragging) begin to make sense. The introduction of siblings Max and Billie Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) makes season three what it is. Max helps Eleven realize who she is on her own––not defined by Mike, Hopper or her powers. Billie becomes the unwilling vessel of the season’s The Thing-inspired antagonist that would alter the dynamic of nearly everyone later on.
Even with the characters pairing off to take on smaller adventures (because there simply is too much ground to cover this time), Stranger Things 3 is balanced and shines the spotlight on just the right moments, a notable one being the character arcs written for women. Newcomer Robin eliminates the “every semi-competent male hero has a more talented female sidekick” trope as a street-smart geek who can hold her own. Erica “You can’t spell America without Erica” Sinclair is a take-charge boss babe at the age of 10 who gets involved in Operation Child Endangerment on her own terms. Circling back to Nancy, the meek good girl of Hawkins High is obviously no more. Her desire to stick it to the man at a misogynist hotbed of a workplace is laudable. So is the leadership role she assumes and carries to the end of the season. Finally, Millie Bobby Brown is captivating as ever in her role. This is the most beat-up Eleven has been in the history of the series (that pseudo leg surgery scene is not for the faint of heart), but it comes as no surprise that she pulls through…close calls with the Mind Flayer and one frightening trade-off involving her powers taken into consideration.
It all ends with “The Battle of Starcourt,” an adrenaline rush of a finale that does feel very final. Yet somehow, it manages to simultaneously pry open the new chapter for its characters, adding confusion to sorrow for any fan processing the amount of change that has taken place. In this despairing ending, the only glimmer of hope is the two-minute-long post-credits scene (which, really, only speaks to how tragic and wildly traumatic this finale is). Whether or not this is enough to carry fans through the agonizing wait for the fourth season, it’s official: from here on out, like it or not, nothing will ever be the same.
‘Stranger Things 3’ premiered on July 4 on Netflix. Watch the season three trailer below or jump straight into streaming the series here.
Featured Image Netflix
Art Alexandra Lara