Despite what the title suggests, Stranger Things proves itself time and time again as a delightful trip down memory lane. Between the horror-infused storylines and the light-hearted vibe, the show captures a retro aesthetic that elicits the right amount of nostalgia for audiences. At the same time, it updates the traditional tropes by expanding it to a television-sized canvas. As such, what initially seems like basic archetypes evolve into layered and compelling characters.
It is with this third season that Stranger Things faces an important dilemma. How does one maintain the emotional core while continuously raising stakes and horror spectacle? After all, the previous season attempted to face this same question with arguably mixed results. While showrunners Matt & Ross Duffer provided a fair amount of resonant character beats, they struggled somewhat in weaving them into the main narrative seamlessly. At the very least, it felt like the writers were unsure how to develop the super-powered Eleven for new subplots.
So it comes with great joy to say that Season 3 resolves this dilemma in a deeply satisfying manner. In fact, that might be understating it. For one thing, season 3 of Stranger Things is a welcome course-correction from the fun but cluttered Season 2. But more than that, it is also the strongest run of episodes in the entire series. By far the most crucial factor behind this is its universal depiction of growing up. In spite of its large ensemble, it is superb at conveying the effects maturing has toward the characters.
Perhaps the best way to analyze this season of Stranger Things is to look at its structure. Although the Mind Flayer is the catalyst to the plot, the eight episodes play out as a juggling act of four main vantage points. As it turns out, each group can be easily delineated by how old they are as a whole. In addition to having a group comprised of pre-teens, we have one that is a combination of children and teenagers, one that consists of young adults, and another featuring no one but middle-aged adults. So the fact that the writers can depict these groups maturing in their own manner all at once is truly something to behold.
With each group having its own struggles, some certainly end up as more compelling than others. When observed through the thematic lens of maturity, there is one group that has the most drama-intensive struggles of all: the pre-teens. To clarify, this group consists of Eleven, Mike, Lucas, Will, and Max. Given their age bracket, it is not surprising that they have the most overt changes. On top of that, this season shows Mike and Eleven in a relationship that slowly morphs their world view. In the first half of the season, Eleven and Max bond over their experiences with boyfriends. As this is happening, Mike speaks to Lucas and Will about how women are almost a different species.
It is these interactions that make them into engaging characters that just happen to face dangerous creatures every once in a while. Even Will, whose sole significance to the plot is to detect the Mind Flayer’s presence, plays a large role in the season’s exploration of maturity. Most notably, he is the only one in his circle of friends who wants to relive the times of the past. In fact, one recurring gag involves everyone rejecting Will’s offer to play an elaborate board game. By contrast, the other four are more worried about maintaining their relationships, both platonic and romantic kinds. With these five characters alone, this season of Stranger Things manages to be an excellent progression of child characters that were already great before. If nothing else, it incorporates Eleven in a considerably more seamless fashion than Season 2.
Admittedly, the other groups are somewhat less involved in terms of exploring the effects of maturity. However, this makes sense given that the narrative drives their subplots more than anything else. This especially applies to the group featuring the other young characters: Dustin, Steve, Robin, and Erica. After all, most of their scenes are connected to the other major story thread involving Russian activity in America. Not only do they intercept a coded message, but they also infiltrate the facility responsible for releasing the Mind Flayer to the world. Of the group, Steve is the one who matures into adulthood by doing the bare minimum to get by. But aside from his scenes at the ice cream parlor that plays into the central theme, it is the main narrative that brings momentum to their screentime.
That said, there is a lot going for this group of youngsters. The writing team certainly deserves credit here, as they give most of these characters an inviting, likable presence. This comes to no surprise in the case of Dustin and Steve since the previous season developed them into such a fun duo. But is more of a delight that Robin, the most prolific newcomer for Season 3, turns out to be just as delightful as the others while offering a welcome hard-edged personality to that group. Only Erica, Lucas’s sister, remains as annoyingly sassy as she was in previous seasons. Except for this time, unfortunately, she tags along for most of the episodes instead of appearing in brief flashes.
Elsewhere, we have the group comprised of Joyce and Hopper. These two become involved with the Russian story thread in their own way. At the same time, this pairing creates quite a clash of personalities. While Joyce is determined to get the results she needs, she rarely needs to be forceful or angry. On the flip side, we have Hopper, who is almost unable to get any effective results without relying on aggression. In fact, the very element that divides Mike and Eleven is his hateful opinion towards them being a couple. So by pairing these two to solve a nationwide problem, they are able to broaden their approach to establishing authority. As a result, their quest to find and stop the Mind Flayer allows them to grow as parental figures.
On the surface, there is potential for their scenes to devolve into tedious sessions of people bickering. While there is a fair amount of moments in which this exact thing happens, rarely do those scenes feel unnecessary. In fact, certain characters like Murray Bauman call attention to how it is just a phase and that pairings like them will find common ground after some time. Combine this with the fact that their personalities do change after a while, and it honestly becomes difficult to be upset whenever they show up.
If there are any uninteresting characters in this season of Stranger Things, it would be Nancy and Jonathan. In all fairness, it conveys the theme of growing up by depicting problems for young people in the workplace. Specifically, we spend a lot of time seeing Nancy’s struggling to make an impression on her chauvinistic co-workers. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only element keeping these sections from being a total drag. To go straight to the point, the fun dynamics of the other groups go away every time they show up. At no point do their scenes not involve a rather trite detective story. It does not help either that they are easily the most milquetoast characters in the whole series.
Fortunately, it is easy to look past the Nancy/Jonathan material when the remaining 80% works as much as it does. And this does not just apply to the characterizations either! With three seasons and counting, it is clear that the production design plays a large and infectious part into the show’s 1980s aesthetic. Just the overall layout of the Starcourt Mall, where most of the season takes place, conveys an odd level of chaos that could only come from old malls. Additionally, the episodes often show off popular items such as New Coke and Day of the Dead to concisely convey the time period.
As before, the creative team behind Stranger Things is terrific at serving up several genres at once. Thanks to the moody atmosphere and grotesque monster designs, this season embodies enough horror elements to keep the stakes high. Meanwhile, it brings in plenty of humor to prevent the experience from feeling monotonous. Most of the gags rely on the strong characters, to be sure. But other moments such as the impromptu musical number hit their mark simply because of their unpredictability. Although some gags are worse than others, they are not enough to stop the experience from being effortlessly watchable.
In terms of aesthetics and iconography, the third season of Stranger Things is more of the same. At this point, it is almost expected for the show to deliver as a love letter to the 1980s. But once you observe how the characters develop, it becomes clear that it is more than just a well-made pastiche. Instead, it turns out to be a compelling exploration into how people transition to their next stage in life. While there are a few shortcomings in places, it is admirable how much this season never loses focus of that. If that is not a wonderful way to continue one of the most prolific shows of the late 2010s, I do not know what is.
If you’re reading this review in preparation for the next season, get a refresher on everything about Stranger Things with this trivia quiz.
Stranger Things is now available on Netflix.
The show stars Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Dacre Montgomery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Cara Buono.