Rating: 3.5 out of 5
The amount of hyperbole that has been established about the third season of Stranger Things is simply staggering, even only a week after it’s release. Much ink has been spent praising and criticizing this seasons myriad of significant plot developments. Whether one’s opinion is negative or positive, everyone who begins this show will finish it. The Duffer brothers and company have crafted an enduring, exciting, occasionally confounding eight episodes. As the box office continues to disappoint and blockbusters become consistently less entertaining, Stranger Things injects some much needed fun in a summer distinctly lacking in that area. In an extremely cynical age of television where people stick around for multiple seasons just to watch their favorite characters die, it’s refreshing to see a show that concerns itself with the nature in which its characters live.
Stranger Things 3 picks up a year and a half after the events of the second season, which means all the key players are noticeably older. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolffhard) have coupled off, spending their summer days making out to romantic power ballads, much to the displeasure of Eleven’s surrogate father Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) who finds himself in a manic stupor as he desperately attempts to woo Joyce Byers (Wynona Ryder). For the first time, the entire cast feels older and as a result, everyone is a bit of a mess. This leads to moments of terrific character progression, whether it’s the continued humbling of Steve Harrington (Joe Kerry) or Maxine and Eleven’s deepening friendship. Every character reacts and interacts with each other, no plot thread feels wasted between them, even the seasons most polarizing moment is an objectively well-placed story beat. This scene does exemplify one of the shows largest continued flaws, a tone that can give way from intense, blood-soaked drama into buddy-comedy before falling into romance. Scene to scene Stranger Things can be ruthlessly jarring.
The town of Hawkins is reintroduced this season as a character in itself thanks to the inclusion of the Starcourt Mall, a town fair, an upcoming election and perhaps most crucially, the presence of a mind-controlling monster, the “Mind Flayer” from season two. The aesthetic continues to be a near-perfect amalgamation of classic sci-fi films, Stranger Things 3 is somewhere wedged between Star Wars, E.T., Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, it’s got wit, banter, wonder and genuine horror. The monsters from seasons one and two had some frights sure, but always more in concept, the mystery of their intention created a veil of ambiguity. Not only does this season add an incredibly frightful and implicating reason for the monster to want these children dead but the creature itself is repulsive. The Russian villains do not quite receive the same attention unfortunately. They are thinly sketched and serve little more than to bring some spooky, bad-intentioned men to Hawkins, Indiana, but their inclusion does introduce a wonderful character who is certainly one of the more unexpected new faces.
This entry introduces quite a few fresh characters and fleshes out old ones, the amount of character development that occurs over these eight hours is genuinely impressive, no one feels shorthanded. The show continues to lean a bit too heavy on archetypes, both in the 80’s pastiche and characters themselves. They were able to salvage Billy (Dacre Montgomery) by turning him into a full-fledged villain but he remained a stereotypical bully, he was never given the chance like Steve to grow out of himself. The Duffer’s struggle similarly with Joyce Byers, they seem confused by where to take her character after season one. She is no longer worried for her son which leads to some weirdly thoughtless paths her character traverses down that feel entirely inconsistent with what we’ve known about her.
So resist the chatter, this season is not a perfect viewing experience, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t transcend the size of it’s screen. This show continues to care about its characters in an area where so many showrunners seem to be more concerned with weighty plot revelations and shocking deaths. These kids are growing up, for better or worse they are all being pushed to their grizzliest, honest and occasionally most vulnerable places. If season four should truly be the swan song that the cast has teased than the Duffer’s may have crafted one of the most complete and satisfying science-fiction experiences of the last decade. And no. That’s not hyperbole.