I’ve been in love with Stranger Things since the premier of season 1, before I had a clue what it was about. The series is a wonderful homage to past science fiction and horror films, as well as a solid cultural reference for the 1980’s. I’ve found it amazing all the little things they get right, from the fashions of the period, to the various toys and games the kids are playing with.
When Season 3 was announced with what was perhaps the finest trailer I’ve ever enjoyed (a trailer I’ve watched over and over again, even after viewing Season 3), my preparations for the July 4th holiday took on a different timbre. No longer was I concerned with fireworks, or hotdogs (in a jar. . . that was a weird thing I found on twitter that folks are all agog about). Now it was about finding enough time to binge watch the series in between all the other reading I have to as I prep for upcoming novel critiques and Worldcon panels.
I’m happy to say I find that time. How could I not???? Stranger Things is this wonderful melding of so much good stuff, from fine writing, to fine acting, to twisted tropes that really create such a deep sense of nostalgia for me. At the same time, for those who didn’t grow up in the 80’s, it’s something new and unique and truly awesome.
Note: This review has spoilers. Stop reading NOW if you wish to avoid them.
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Hawkins, Indiana, really can’t catch a break, can it? The epicenter of some strange interdimensional research by quasi-government agency with shades of the Umbrella corporation, its become a focal point for some Very Bad Things. You’d think after the events of season 1 and 2, the residents would have all packed up their shit and headed for Boise, or Tempe, or maybe Guam. Anyplace but the land of demigorgons and demidogs and whatever might come next. Indeed, one of the complaints I have (a minor one for sure, but it troubles me) is how many people are dying in Hawkins and no one really seems to notice that much. Halfway through Season 3 we get a hospital attack that kills dozens of people on the eve of the July 4th celebrations. Yet no one at the July 4th fair mentions it. Which is. . . really, really weird. Movie amnesia is a terrible thing. Luckily it doesn’t inflict itself on our main characters.
Season 3 begins with Dustin’s return home from science camp. Never mind that it’s a bit strange that camp ends before July 4th, the important thing is Dustin. Dustin has been my favorite character since season 1, and remains so. His homecoming is less than the warm reunion he’d hoped for, though. His friends are all occupied with new relationships and other priorities, and he’s left standing alone on a hill with his new ham radio setup feeling pretty damned depressed. I certainly respect the show for allowing the kids to grow and change and fumble their way through adolescence, it’s novel in an industry where so often kids are forced to be kids for as long as possible, until growth spurts and changing voices dictates leap frogging them into young adulthood.
All of the main characters return, but some new characters are introduced. Maya Hawk plays Robin, Steve’s coworker at the Scoops Ahoy franchise in the newly completed Starcourt mall. She’s funny and sassy and a good counterpoint to Steve’s low-key machismo and hairdo. And she has one of the nicer reveals in the show which, as an adult who apparently graduated the same year from high school as these two characters, felt entirely real. I won’t say too much about this so as not to spoil the nice twist, but it felt accurate to the time period to me.
Steve and Dustin reunite in some of the funnest scenes in the season. But there’s more to Dustin showing up than hanging with his buddy, Steve. Dustin’s new ham radio has overheard something in Russia, and he and Steve decide to try and translate it. Of course they end up needing Robin, who is a bit of a language wiz to unravel the Russia words, which leads them into a deeper mystery when they realize it must be some sort of code, and that the signal was sent from inside Starcourt mall itself.
The use of the Russians as an adversary in the season is such a silly and wonderful call back to the 80’s. Every action film had the Russians as protagonists it seemed. We get a Russia version of the Terminator, a hulking operative who substitutes as a primary focus of the action scenes throughout most of the season. The characters land in a movie theater where Back to the Future is showing, someone drinks New Coke, and 80’s product placement is constant and obvious. There’s a Wargames vibe to the bunker, too. It’s the little things like that that tie this film to a greater past cultural moment in unique and cool ways, while still giving us plenty of the bizarre horror we’ve come to know and love.
While Dustin, Steve and Robin search for Russians, the other children are dealing with the problems of being children. Mike and Eleven have become a couple, much to Chief Hooper’s agony. Hooper, as played by David Harbour, has been a revelation since the show began. Early episodes painted him as a nearly broken man with drinking and drug use issues, but he shows true heart for the kids and a deep need to help them and stop whatever bad things are happening. It’s been a very nuanced portrayal, with far deeper currents than we’d normally get with such a character.
That’s what made Hooper’s portrayal in season 3 so disappointing. Instead of continuing his path of growth and change, he reverts to all the bad 80’s tropes of Angry Dad. He yells at Mike and Eleven when he catches them kissing, and later threatens to shoot Mike if he doesn’t stop seeing El so much. He decides to start hitting on Joyce, though she’s clearly still grieving over the death of Bob to the demidogs in Season 2, and ropes her into agreeing to a date. When she misses the date, he pulls the jealous boyfriend routine. He spends much of the rest of the season squabbling with Joyce constantly over stupid issues. He’s a bad 80’s bro stereotype, and he doesn’t really improve from start to finish of the season. He has one fine moment when he talks to Joyce about wanting her to feel safe in Hawkins, but overall the writing did him wrong, and Harbour could only do so much with what they gave him. The season ends with him “sacrificing” himself for the town, but given his actions during the season, and the proximity of the portal to the UpsideDown right behind him – not to mention the epilogue scene with Russians mentioning “the American” they’re holding in a prison cell – it didn’t have any emotional weight.
The only other thing that annoyed me as much as what they did to Hooper was the use of Priah Ferguson as Erica Sinclair (Lucas’ little sister). She gets a much bigger role this time around and becomes a key part of Dustin and Steve’s plan to infiltrate and discover what the Russians are doing. Erica is, I assume, supposed to be sassy and funny. Instead, she came across as petulant, obnoxious, and whiny to me. She was every rotten kid I’ve ever known, and I disliked that such an obnoxious little girl got to play the role of hero. Although I did enjoy seeing Dustin take her down a peg or two when he noted that she was actually a nerd, too (her love of math gave it away). And she does get a little redemption in the end which improved my overall view of her when she’s gifted Will’s DnD stuff and accepts it with a smile. Still, I didn’t need a version of Arnold Jackson to improve the show.
The rest of the show is full of the usual high expectations. Carey Elwes plays the wonderfully sleazy mayor of Hawkins who has plenty of secrets to uncover. Billy, the older brother of season 2 standout Sadie Sink who plays Max (who is now dating Lucas) plays a prime role in the events that unfold, and also gets more depth of character (not quite a redemption, but certainly a chance for us to better understand why he is the way he is). We get a great use of period music, though it’s a bit heavy on the front end of the season and they rely on it less near the end. Special effects remain solid, and now come with a wonderful John Carpenter vibe, complete with gooey monster parts that move and morph and recombine, a creature they call the Mindflayer this time. Never mind that the “magic” of the Upside-down keeps changing and the creatures are different from season to season. I don’t need consistency to enjoy what they’re doing. Who the fuck knows what will come out of that dimension anyway?
Best of all, we get Dustin and his science camp girlfriend, Susie, and their rendition of the theme from The Never Ending Story. It was beautiful, it was funny, it was the exact break we needed from all the running and fighting and horror and tension. And it keeps me squarely in the “Team Dustin!” camp. The kid is awesome, how can you not love him?
And the show managed to put handcuffs on their overpowered main character, Eleven, by denying her her powers near the end of the season. From overuse, perhaps, and maybe they’ll return (there will be a final season 4, so I’m pretty sure they will). That makes it far tougher for the characters to win, and as I told my wife early in the season “they’ll probably hamstring Eleven somehow and make this one about how the team wins together.” Truer words, my friends. We’ll see how that all plays out later I’m sure.
The plot unfolds at a brisk clip, but it never overwhelms the viewer. While I would have liked more time for Dustin to interact with his old friends, the dueling plot threads that are all part of the overarching narrative make sense. Eight episodes is plenty of time to give the story a chance to breath without rushing things, and yet few enough episodes that stuff must continue to happen to drive us towards the conclusion. And what a conclusion. The Battle of Starcourt Mall is wonderful, and a perfect episode to end the season on. Who doesn’t want to see those obnoxious bastions of capitalism destroyed? Given how angry the people of Hawkins were as the mall stole business from main street, they might be happy that it’ll take months or longer to repair all the damage.
Stranger Things occupies a really strange place in our cultural moment. It’s a wonderful callback/reference to so many previous pop culture icons, and yet a unique icon all of its own. The writing and characters remain strong, and while there were some problematic moments in Season 3 with our “father figure”, all in all I think it was a bit better than season 2. I’m giving it an 8 out of 10 Reynolds wraps. A wonderful series that continues to deftly wrap 1980’s nostalgia in a new package, while gently and lovingly mocking its own source material.