Stranger Things season three arrived on Netflix for the Fourth of July holiday, and the Hawkins, Indiana crew came back to suffer more torments at the hands of the Upside Down. But how did this season hold up compared to the previous two? Let’s separate it out….
- The relationships between female characters were given a bit more than a passing glance this year, and they all had more to do in terms of the plot. Eleven gets to have a friendship outside of the original DnD quartet! She and Max have a fun shopping montage! Nancy spends time actually speaking to her mother and they bond! Women are aware of each other’s existence and they help each other and talk to each other! Why did it take so long for the show to get here, again?
- 1980s legends continue to pop up all over the place, but the key player of this season is Cary Elwes’s turn as Mayor Larry Kline. Equal parts odious and cowardly, it’s not really a commentary of Elwes’s major 80s role (which would be Wesley from The Princess Bride) the way Paul Reiser’s role of Dr. Owens was, but he’s clearly having a ball getting to be a creep.
- The entire plot thread of Steve and Robin and Dustin and Erica (Lucas’s little sister, who was introduced last season) deciphering Russian codes, accidentally breaking into an underground KGB facility, getting caught, getting rescued, and generally causing trouble is the best thread of the season, hands down. With the season finale button showing Dustin handing over the gang’s DnD manuals to Erica, it looks like we’ll be seeing much more of her should the show continue. And that’s a good thing, too.
- Robin turns out to be a lesbian! The way that they handle her reveal to Steve is super sweet (as public bathroom confessionals go), as is the fact that they continue to be friends following the revelation that Steve’s crush on her is misplaced. Honestly, it was just enjoyable to watch a bond between one same-aged girl and boy on this show not end in some form of romantic tension or relationship. Robin is played by Maya Hawke, daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, who both got their start acting in the 80s, so her casting is a little extra on-the-nose in the way that Stranger Things is wont to be.
- There are two music cues in this season that effectively beat out all the others in the entire history of the show. One occurs when Dustin and Erica have shoved truth-serumed Steve and Robin into a movie theater that’s showing Back to the Future so they can hide out from the Russians. In order to contact friends and ask for back up, Dustin heads to the projector room and tries to get in touch with Mike. While the two proceed to have a useless conversation hampered by low-battery walkie-talkies, the soundtrack music from Back to the Future plays beneath it—music from a scene at the film’s climax where Marty and Doc Brown are also speaking frantically over walkie-talkies. It is pure television magic.
- The other music cue occurs when Dustin finally gets through to girlfriend Suzie over the radio, needing her help to figure out a secret Russian code—but she refuses to aid him in saving the world unless he agrees to do something for her. Which turns out to be both of them belting out perfect two part harmonies to Limahl’s “The Neverending Story” from the eponymous film. They do the WHOLE SONG. It is an utterly senseless diversion moments before the end of the world, and I have never loved anything more than this moment, and possibly never will.
- While it does seem like it was perhaps intentional on the part of the Duffer Brothers and writer’s room, this season of Stranger Things is all about the women on the show knowing more than the men around them, constantly begging for their help and their belief, and being shoved aside by male fragility. Mike is too scared of losing Eleven to trust her with her own powers, Robin has to force her way into Steve and Dustin’s code-breaking circle, Jonathan insists that Nancy wanting to be treated with respect by male coworkers is a reflection upon her economic privilege rather than sexism, Hopper is too pissed off at being stood up by Joyce to care that she’s putting together the pieces of yet another a mystery in Hawkins—despite the fact that Joyce has never been wrong in the history of the series when she believes something’s wonky. Even if this is meant to be commentary, it’s tiring at best, and also not very interesting. Yes, I’m aware, it’s the 80s, but the show doesn’t need so much casual and ingrained sexism to function.
- Will Byers only gets a brief moment where the show actually considers his emotions. Aside from Eleven, Will has been through the most over the run of the show, but the narrative can’t seem to figure out how to accommodate him if he’s not interested in dating someone. It’s never made clear if Will is gay, or asexual, or simply less precocious than his friends, but he does have a point of falling out with Mike and Lucas where he smashes his outdoor fort to bits in pain at the thought of losing his friends. When Mike asks if Will thought they’d spend all their days just playing Dungeons & Dragons together, Will responds that perhaps he did. And that’s a real struggle that plenty of teens go through when their own friends start to mature a bit faster. Will Byers deserved a bit more time to go on that journey before getting swept up in Upside Down trauma.
- It’s nice to see Max and Eleven spending time together, but the show doesn’t know how to make them friends without resorting to “teen girls only care about clothes and relationship drama and obsessing over boys” tropes. Which is particularly hard to buy when we know Max loves to skateboard and is sure to have plenty of other interests that she can foist onto her unsuspecting new pal.
- He may be the fandom darling, but… we’ve got to have a talk about Sheriff Hopper. It was hard enough watching him be emotionally abusive to Eleven in the previous season. (I don’t care how scared you are for your child’s safety, keeping a kid isolated in the middle of the woods when she’s desperate for friends and company is abusive. Full stop.) This season features a far more brusque and outwardly violent Jim Hopper, one who roars like a bear the instant his daughter’s door is closed because he can’t stand how close she’s become to her boyfriend. His entire character arc this season is summed up in hamfisted Indiana Jones references, and an inability to voice emotions in a productive and peaceful manner. What’s worse is that the show seems to think all this blundering is somehow a form of comic relief, setting him up to get progressively more and more violent, like it’s some form of narrative game. It’s not funny. Hopper getting blind drunk because Joyce forgot their dinner, then barreling into Eleven’s room again like he’s ready to tear it down isn’t funny. Hopper threatening Mike out of dating his daughter isn’t funny. Hopper constantly threatening all the men around him because he can’t handle how much he cares about Joyce isn’t funny. And while his fate was left deliberately fuzzy by the end of the season, I can’t say I’m in a hurry to have him back.
The Body Horror
This season was very much an ode to body horror and Cold War horror films of the past, starting off with the kids going to a showing of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, and moving through countless other references—The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stuff, Poltergeist, most zombie films, practically every David Cronenberg movie. These visual references were everywhere, and building upon them was the only way to bring about the season three climax.
The problem is that these references were only ever that: reminders of smart stories of yesteryear. They never really moved beyond to say something new or enrich the show’s world. And while Stranger Things is meant to be a simmering stew of 80s nostalgia, one of the show’s weakest points is the fact that it never transcends its many references. It’s nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, with no greater awareness or commentary attached. (Particularly irritating because the tropes of the 1980s—especially horror ones—were rife with metaphors.) With each season, the Upside Down feels like less and less of a threat because it doesn’t represent anything, or even make much sense as a world/dimension unto itself—it’s just a place where monsters come from. And that alone isn’t particularly interesting.
Given the mid-credits tag scene following season three, one would hope that show has something a little more unique up its sleeve if/when it returns for future seasons.