The following is a review of the third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things — Created by the Duffer Brothers.
Today, Stranger Things is, alongside The Crown, probably the original show that has become the face of Netflix. The first season of the series was a surprise hit that seemed to have significantly overperformed. It was a nostalgic 80s science-fiction drama with children in the leading roles that made people think of E. T., The Goonies, and many other films like those. It was a 2016 breakout hit that gave career boosts to David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown, and Finn Wolfhard. The much anticipated second season, which was released the following year, wasn’t met with as much acclaim, but still succeeded in developing characters’ relationships satisfyingly while still bringing pleasant references to the beloved 1980s-era cinema, with Aliens now being the primary inspiration.
In spite of the incredibly frustrating episode Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister, which the third season completely ignores, I, unlike some critics, adored the second season, and, after having rewatched it recently, I still enjoy the second volume of the Duffer Brothers’ story greatly. But while I certainly never thought this series was in need of a return to form, as I was pleased with the second season, it gives me great pleasure to confirm that the new third season of the hit series is every bit as nostalgic, cute, and cinematic as you would like, and, to add to that, Stranger Things: Season Three is more grisly and gory than I ever remember it being.
The third season of the Duffer Brothers’ hit show Stranger Things takes place in the summer of 1985 as characters are returning from summer camps, working summer jobs, and getting ready for the 4th of July celebrations. The young characters at the center of the story are all growing up, and young love has come to define their daily lives. Mike (played by Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown) spend their days kissing, much to the frustration of Jim Hopper (played by David Harbour) who has become very protective of his adopted daughter.
Lucas (played by Caleb McLaughlin) and Maxine (played by Sadie Sink) are still a couple, and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who has been away on summer camp, even claims to have a girlfriend in Utah. That leaves Will in the awkward position of being the only one willing to play ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ Growing up can be confusing, and taking that next step into adulthood can be trying, which Nancy (played by Natalia Dyer) and Steve (played by Joe Keery) both experience this season. Nancy has a tough time making an influence in the offices of the local newspaper, while Steve feels stranded in the local mall where he’s tasked to serve ice cream to locals with his co-worker Robin (played by Maya Hawke).
The challenges for our main characters this season are threefold. First, friends are growing apart and relationships are going through rough times, and both of these problems divide the young friend group. Secondly, as Will (played by Noah Schnapp) is sensing, the Mind-Flayer is back and it wants to build an army. Finally, believe it or not, the Russians have discovered ‘the Upside Down,’ and they’re sending coded messages that make the central characters suspect that there are Russian spies in Hawkins, Indiana.
Whereas previous seasons have referenced films like Spielberg’s E. T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or James Cameron’s Aliens, this third season of Stranger Things directly references Invasion of the Body Snatchers, George Romero films, Carpenter’s The Thing, Back to the Future, and Red Dawn. Also, one character, in particular, is presented with exaggerated sound effects and is compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger, so, naturally, I started to refer to him in my notes as ‘the Russian Terminator.’ So, it is safe to say that the Duffer Brothers have plenty of cute references to the cinematic era that this show has always enjoyed paying homage to.
But this show has always been more than references and homages. I think this season of television is more cinematic than the show has ever been before. There are some really exquisite shots this season, and I think the visual effects are clearly better than they’ve ever been on the show before. The Mind-Flayer looks terrifying and not as silly as I thought it did in some of Will’s visions last season. The creature design is terrific. This is probably the darkest, most gory and grisly season of Stranger Things yet. There is a lot of human-on-human violence this season. When characters are kidnapped and put in front of the Mind-Flayer, it is, frankly, horrifying to watch. This season we see rats and humans turn into these bloody pools of mush that can move around. It’s a spine-chilling and stomach-turning reference to The Thing, and it works really well here.
But this season is also undeniably fun. They spend a lot of time in the local mall as a couple of the central characters work there. We get to see Eleven shop, Lucas and Mike ponder gift-giving, and we also get these very cute scenes where Dustin, Robin, and Steve try to translate Russian into English. It is a lot more fun than it sounds. Though the first couple of episodes may be a little bit slow plot-wise, they work because audiences have come to love and appreciate these characters, and the Duffer Brothers, through some experimentation last season, have come to learn exactly what character pairings work and which don’t.
Wisely, Joyce (played by Winona Ryder) and Jim are basically attached at the hip for most of the season. While I must admit that I do think David Harbour’s character is exaggerated in the first couple of episodes and, frankly, quite annoying and overly comedic, he works much better when paired with Joyce. Maxine and Eleven is an entirely new pairing that works wonders for the show. It is about time Eleven gets to just be a girl, and Maxine allows for that to happen. Seeing them shopping is so much fun, seeing them use Eleven’s powers for childish games is also really humorous.
Last season, we saw how great Joe Keery is with Gaten Matarazzo. They have great chemistry together, and they feed off of each other’s energy to positive effect. And, don’t worry, Steve and Dustin spend a lot of time together this season, seeing as Dustin doesn’t feel like a part of his normal friend group, due to him having been to camp. Into Steve and Dustin’s group, the Duffer Brothers have added Priah Ferguson’s Erica, who we first saw last season as Lucas’ confident sister, and her performance as the sassy little sister is, once again, a lot of fun to watch. And perhaps the season’s greatest success story is the casting of Maya Hawke, who, yes, is the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, as Steve’s colleague Robin. Keery and Hawke have great chemistry together, and Keery and Hawke’s scenes together are easily my highlight of the season. Hawke is a great addition to the show.
With Dustin spending more time with Steve and Robin, and Maxine and Eleven hitting it off, Lucas, Will, and Mike are grouped together and often feel sidelined as a result. The show boosted Finn Wolfhard’s career, but he really doesn’t get to do a lot this season. Also, it never felt like Nancy and Jonathan’s storyline this season quite worked (there is some forced drama in their shared storyline), and some side-characters in both Nancy and Jonathan and Joyce and Jim’s storylines feel underdeveloped, with Cary Elwes’ character feeling particularly thinly drawn. It also didn’t help that I, for some reason, had a tough time telling Elwes and Michael Park apart.
I had hoped that with the improvement in visual effects, the showrunners wouldn’t have felt the urge to rely on flickering lights to mask effects as it isn’t necessary anymore. Frustratingly, they still use those flickering lights to infuriating effect. There are also a few instances in which product placement clashes with the plot. I’ve noticed this in select other Netflix series, but the Coca Cola product placement almost makes one scene, in particular, seem like a commercial for New Coke. It’s not as funny as the writers must’ve imagined it as, and it just ends up feeling unnatural and jarring. Also, were it not for a completely unnecessary mid-credits scene that actually lessens the impact of the season finale, then this would’ve ended on a riveting and moving season finale that could’ve doubled as the perfect series finale.
Though the growth spurt of the young actors is tough to ignore or mask, there is no steep decline in quality in this season of Stranger Things. It is another strong season of television for the severely nostalgic Duffer Brothers. The creative duo has presented us with another charming season that is perhaps both more comedic and gorier than ever.
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.