Stranger Things: Season Three Review
The kids of Hawkins return in the third and arguably best season of the hugely popular Netflix series. A shift away from the traditional Halloween period, both in setting and airdate, to the long hot days of summer makes for a refreshing change in tone. Season three explores some universal themes such as young love and the pains of growing up and being forced to leave your childhood behind. In addition there are some specific 1980’s ideas at play such as the death of small town America and the Cold War-induced fear of the Russians. At it’s heart though, Stranger Things is an exciting monster-filled romp chock full ’80’s nostalgia and is absolutely all the better for it.
The season starts about nine months after Eleven shut the gate to the Upside Down below the town of Hawkins, setting Will Byers free of the Mindflayer and generally saving the day. Now it’s the summer of 1985, Independence Day celebrations are on the horizon and new relationships have been established, not always to everyones liking. In my opinion, Stranger Things season two suffered slightly by sticking pretty much to the formula established in the show's premiere run. Will was in trouble, the underground laboratory was up to no good and Eleven’s psychic powers were called on to save the day. It was still a good watch but lacked the freshness and inventiveness of it’s preceding season. It is to the Duffer Brothers credit that they have given the show a new lease of life. An injection of new characters, team dynamics and a seemingly bigger budget allow them to tell a richer and much more exciting story.
The character dynamics of the previous seasons are blown wide open right from the get go. Mike and El have now a couple, causing many a headache to Hopper. His rules on keeping appropriate distances are hard to enforce when his adopted daughter can slam doors in his face and move objects about at will. Hopper himself is trying to establish a relationship with Joyce who is still mourning poor old Bob. Lucas and Max are now an on again/off again item. Dustin has been away at science camp and on his return claims to have a girlfriend called Suzy. Of the remaining original group members, only Will gets left on his own. To begin with I was slightly disappointed as it seemed they were going to follow a familiar pattern. After Will got trapped in the Upside Down and then possessed in the previous seasons, it seemed he was destined to get short shrift once again. This especially seemed to be the case when he develops a sort of “Spidey sense”, being able to tell when the Mindflayer is near. Happily though this was to be his only torment and the show moves passed this and onto a much bigger story. Rounding out the main returning cast are Nancy and Jonathan who are now both working at the Hawkins town newspaper and Steve “The Hair” Harringon. Steve is gainfully employed at Scoops Ahoy, the ice-cream parlour at the new mall.
Starcourt mall features heavily this season. Not only is it an integral location for a significant part of the running time, but it also symbolises one of the aforementioned central themes. Hawkins, as a town, is dying. Like a lot of small towns across America in the 1980’s, large out of town malls were killing the highstreet businesses. Mom and Pop run stores that had served their neighbours for decades were closing as people wanted more mass produced cheaper goods. This is highlighted by demonstrations outside the mayors office when Hopper and Joyce go to pay him a visit.
Larry Kline, the smarmy mayor of Hawkins, is a new addition to the cast, played by Cary Elwes of The Princess Bride fame. He’s cast straight from the same mould as other sleazy small town leaders such as Mayor Vaughn from Jaws. Working mainly for his own benefit rather than that of the town, Mayor Kline joins the ranks of scores of other corrupt officials that have graced the small and large screen. Elwes plays him with effortless charm, a reminder that he should be a much bigger star than he is. Underneath his confident public facade is a whimpering cretin, revealed when Hopper takes him to task. Mayor Kline’s biggest addition to the show is the fact he has done a slew of dodgy property deals and got in bed with some Russians.
Ah, the Russians.
In any other show the Russians would not work. They shouldn’t really work in Stranger Things but they absolutely do, and gloriously so to boot. They are depicted in the absolute broadest stereotypes. Dodgy accents, big furry hats and relentless appetites for vodka. Bordering on parody at times it could easily all slip into farce at any moment. It doesn’t for several reasons: the comic book feel of Stranger Things allows us to accept big ludicrous ideas. I mean if you can accept that a thirty foot tall monster made of mashed up rats and unfortunate Hawkins townsfolk is running amok then what’s a few Russians building a secret base under a shopping mall?
In addition the ’80’s setting lends a sort of meta quality to the whole thing; this is exactly how Americans thought of Russians back then and exactly how they were depicted in all the movies of the time. Bringing them in as the bad guys was a brilliant move and a really refreshing change from the shady US government types we’ve been used to.
In another great ’80’s nod, the main Russian is an absolute walking talking tribute to The Terminator. He could easily be a stunt double for Arnold Schwarzenegger and he captures the mannerisms perfectly. He is also pretty relentless in his pursuit of Hopper, Joyce and Alexei, a Russian scientist they kidnap.
Alexei is another new cast member who instantly becomes a firm favourite. He doesn’t speak much English but when Murray, the conspiracy nut from season two joins their group, the interplay between all four characters is fantastic. There are a lot of incredibly funny scenes as they at first try to locate the kids and then later infiltrate the Russian base. Brett Gelman brings a paranoid intensity to the role of Murray and his expanded screen time is very welcome. His rapport with Alexei is a highlight of the show, even when over something as trivial as the best flavour of a slurpee. It’s cherry by the way. This group of characters could be the shows MVP’s if it wasn’t for the undeniably genius decision to reunite Stranger Things greatest duo.
Hawkins greatest ever babysitter is back and gets teamed up again with arguably the shows best character. Steve and Dustin are some of the most entertaining characters around and in Stranger Things season three they get more than their fair share of love. I suspect the writers took notice of the fans' reactions to Steve becoming a much more likeable guy in the second season and his interactions with the kids a she became a sort of surrogate big brother. Gaten Matarazzo is a joy to watch, his performance as the sweetly innocent Dustin deserves every accolade coming his way.
Enhancing their friendship this time around is Steve’s Scoops Ahoy co-worker Robin, played by Maya Hawke, the daughter of Hollywood royalty Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. Another fantastic addition to the show, Robin quickly makes herself a valuable asset as she deciphers the intercepted Russian code that Dustin accidentally picks up when trying to contact his new (and potentially made up) science camp girlfriend. Rounding out this group is Erica, Lucas’ little sister who also increases her screen time this season and comes in very handy when required to squeeze through air ducts in order to infiltrate the secret underground Russian base. In yet another of many ’80’s inspired moments this whole section takes on a very Die Hard feel, in fact at one point the dialogue between the hulking Russian and Hopper is lifted straight from the seminal action flick. Hopper also says at one point that he can do whatever he wants because he’s the chief of police. Jaws fans will instantly recognise these as the words of another police chief.
It is to the shows credit that I haven’t really mentioned the main characters yet. There is such a lot going on this season that El and Mike’s story is only one facet albeit an important one. El is slowly starting to acclimatise to the real world, especially when she dumps Mike prompting a full blown ’80’s style montage with Max as they head to the mall to dance about and try on hideous clothes. Now left to hang around with Lucas and Will, Mike has plenty of time to regret his less than stellar decision making.
The subject of teen romance could easily be mishandled in a mawkish way but Stranger Things handles it with aplomb. The almost nebulous fashion in which the relationships begin, break up and rekindle captures the spirit of young love and it’s many pitfalls. It’s during this section of the show that one of the most important themes plays out. I mentioned that Will gets slightly sidelined this season, maybe understandably so after his central roles in the other seasons, but he does get some important scenes. maybe because of what he has gone through he is the one kid who doesn’t really want to grow up. All he wants to do is play Dungeons and Dragons with his friends like they always used to do. Mike and Lucas have moved on past this and Dustin is always busy with Steve and Robin.
The old group has split, probably destined to never be the same and Will takes this very hard. You really get a sense of the disappointment he feels and it’s something we have all probably gone through as we have grown up. At the peak of his resentment Will goes out to Fort Byers, his childhood playground and main protection from the Demogorgon during his time in the Upside Down. In a fit of anger he tears it apart, symbolically accepting the loss of a youth he can’t go back to. It’s powerful stuff and Noah Schnapp puts in a terrific performance.
The main villain this season, besides the Russians, is the the returning Mindflayer. It seems that when El closed the gate it was stuck on our side of it. Experiments to reopen the doorway by the Russians have strengthened it. This time however instead of being the smoke-like shadow that infected Will, it’s a full blown giant monster that consumes flesh and send out its infected minions in a very Invasion of the Body Snatchers way. It’s rendered superbly, presumably with CGI but it has a very practical feel to it. The effects team have really captured the visceral latex and fake blood qualities of horror movies from the period.
This is definitely the goriest season of the show, from exploding rats to people melting and merging with the tentacled terror. It is Max’s brother Billy that gains the Mindflayer's attention this season and becomes its chief lieutenant. Billy makes a great bad guy, creepy and menacing as he goes about the business of turning regular Hawkins folks into mindless slaves. He’s brutal when he needs to be, particularly when facing Eleven, Mike and the other kids. You genuinely feel that they are in danger and you’re never sure if everyone is going to survive.
I was worried after the first two seasons that they would rely too much on El’s powers to save the day. After a few instances this seemed to be the case again but a sudden change showing that she can overuse them and get exhausted really turned things on their head. Making a character too powerful can cause issues as they then basically become a crutch the writers can lean on to get them out of any situation. I thought it was a really good move to show that even El has her limits and it’s going to take everyone helping out to win the day.
There are a few things that don’t quite work but not too much. With all the additions to the cast it was probably inevitable that something was going to have to give. Some characters are sidelined for a while. Nancy and Jonathan are investigating a series of strange happenings involving rats eating a lot of chemicals. Nancy also has to put up with constant sexism at her job, mainly from the great Jake Busey who cameos as a repulsive newspaper employee. But these storylines never really go anywhere. Except for a few large moments Will is also used less this season, mostly just being a radar that senses whenever the Mindflayer is about. We also only see the Upside Down once near the start. It’s a shame and quite surprising as it is such a major part of the show and visually great. I imagine with such a lot going on that involving it would have been one plot element too many.
One of my favourite things from season three is the fact that the writers made Steve spend the entire time dressed in nothing but his natty sailor suit uniform from Scoops Ahoy. I can only imagine how Joe Keery must have felt when presented with that as his sole piece of wardrobe. The other highlight for me is the Neverending Story duet between Dusty-bun and Suzy-poo. It is simply joyous and uplifting and brought a massive grin to my face. If it doesn’t fill our heart with joy then you might want to check your pulse. I was also glad not to see a return of El's siblings from what was ultimately the worst episode of last season. I think the Duffer Brothers may have taken fans criticisms to heart as no mention is made of El's little trip to the city at all.
The first season of Stranger Things stands as one of the great science fiction shows. Season two is still good but slightly repetitive. Season three with it’s larger, more involved and action packed storytelling is easily up there with the first. In terms of excitement and re-watchibility it may even surpass it. The cast is uniformly brilliant, both originals and new additions. Milly Bobby Brown leads with another great performance but really everyone is exceptional. The production values are incredible, easily on par with features you’d go and see at the cinema. If you have a surround sound system then I recommend cranking it up, the opening scenes of the Russians trying to open the gate and anytime El enters the blank space in her mind are particular audio highlights. Voices and sound effects swirl around you in an engaging presentation. Obviously we’re also treated to many ’80’s hits on the soundtrack.
The emotional and cliffhanger type ending to the show ensures we’ll be eagerly waiting for Stranger Things season four. If it’s half as good as season three, bring it on!