Well, geeks and geekettes, it’s been a week, so hopefully by now the news has settled in, and everyone’s had a chance to check out Netflix’s hit exclusive series by the Duffer Brothers. Yes, we’re talking about the nostalgia-fueled behemoth that is the third season of Stranger Things…
Set once again in Hawkins, Indiana, only this time in 1985, we once again find our eclectic young cast facing off not only against the fantasy-tinged monsters of the Upside Down, but now we’ve got the Russians to contend with as well! (Side note: I was more than once tickled pink with the notion that it is taking a fantasy television show to remind us, as a people, that Russia has rarely had our best interests at heart!) And while their were considerable strengths this season, there were just as many moments that could have been handled better.
For those who have yet to catch up — although, given its record-breaking viewership, that might not be too many — I’ll keep this as SPOILER FREE as I possibly can (I’m not even going to touch on the larger plot…just a few very specific things that either did or didn’t work, but will in no way affect the core mystery…).
First off, the cast is once again top-notch, and have a very palpable, believable rapport and chemistry that goes beyond acting: it’s clear the actors (Finn Wolfhard as Michael “Mike” Wheeler; Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven / Jane Hopper; Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson; Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair; Noah Schnapp as Will Byers; Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler; Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers; Joe Keery as Steve Harrington) had no trouble getting back into their respective characters.
While it was a delight to see such a cast play off of each other, the recurring cast tended not to interact together as often as past seasons; while that helped push the growth of some of the characters (Eleven, and Dustin, especially), it seemed to short-change some of the others; although, again, they were still a delight to watch, even if they were off doing their own thing for the most part.
Lead adults David Harbour (as Jim Hopper) and Winona Ryder (as Will’s mom, Joyce) enjoyed a great rapport that hinted at mixed feelings…but thankfully didn’t fully go in that direction. To be fair, Joyce is still not over watching her ex, Bob (played by the affable and, frankly, endlessly endearing, Sean Astin) get killed demo-dogs last season. And, on the other hand, Jim is probably not prime “boyfriend” material. They had a decidedly complex relationship, one in which it seemed more like they were clinging to each other; first, due to the shared trauma of the last two excursions into the Upside Down, and, then, due to the circumstances that leads the characters to the newly constructed Starcourt Mall…and back to the Upside Down.
Eleven’s and Mike’s relationship evolved to its next logical conclusion, whereas it appears Lucas’s relationship with Max (Sadie Sink) seemed to have been included as a means of introducing main antagonist Billy (Dacre Montgomery), whose relationship to him comes to play in the last half of the season. And while Dustin’s character grows considerably since the last two seasons (he, Eleven, and Hopper are effectively the “face” of Stranger Things), even his relationship to Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo) is played as a joke up until the very last episode. This is where we are introduced to Suzie for the first time, in her only scene, and the payoff is a 2-minute-long song break that, while charming in literally any other context, stopped the action dead.
And while it was great to see Steve’s continued evolution into a remarkably fun, charismatic character (and playing him off Dustin, the where-the-hell-did-she-come-from Priah Ferguson as closeted geek Erica, and Maya Hawke‘s Robin, was genius), confining the strongest core ensemble to a mall-based ice cream parlor felt like a cheat.
Every scene at the Scoops Ahoy was fantastic, oozed energy, charm and charisma…until Robin, Dustin, Erica and Steve had to sneak into a Russian base and become a weird mix of Die Hard, Red Dawn, and War Games. In fact, the entire last two episodes felt so bizarrely like an entirely different story/plot/genre it was difficult to remember that this was the same show from the first episode.
And yet, of course this is Stranger Things! We’re once again looking at a Mind Flayer, who emerged from the Upside Down. And there’s a small-town government cover-up, and conspiracies, and the mind flayer wants.. something to do with doppelgangers? Only this time there’s pesky Russians! For as much mystery as the Upside Down provides, there aren’t any more answers to what exactly its purpose is — or why it’s so important — in season 3 as there was in season 1. And as tantalizing a mystery as the Upside Down is, its importance and implications seem to only ever be hinted at. Again, it’s both good and bad.
Ultimately, this season leans much heavier into nostalgia, at times, even nostalgia to itself. There’s a preoccupation with nostalgia that at times threatens to derail entire scenes. Steve/Dustin/Erica/Robin’s Russian base infiltration played off of 3 separate 80’s movies…one of which hadn’t come out until 1988; there is a sequence that was essentially a riff of the kitchen raptor scene in 1993’s Jurassic Park, and a corridor-behind-the-mall sequence out of 1991’s Terminator 2, and featuring someone who was presumably cast due to his uncanny likeness to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger (but I digress), or bring them to a complete stop (I say again…Dustin and Suzie’s duet).
Look, I love references and homages and nostalgia as much as the next guy (and trust me…I do), but there has to be a point to it, or at least a momentum. Or, lacking that, at least a stability of character or tone. Nostalgia for its own sake is tiring, especially when there is already an established world and characters worthy of so much growth.
Which is why the last few minutes of the last episode are so promising (at least until that scene halfway through the credits). This could be considered a SPOILER, so…
…alright, still here…?
…moving half the characters away from Hawkins is exactly what the show needs to move on. How many times can the exact same people (children no less! And their parents!) experience the exact same supernatural shit and not think “Fuck this town. We’re moving last week.”
Up until that scene (if you watched it, you probably know the one…at least I hope you do), there was genuine excitement for what Season 4 is going to bring. The gang has grown considerably, both as individuals and a group, but they’re apart! There’s a whole new dynamic, and great new characters! Maybe now we can actually get away from Hawkins and the Upside Down and explore some new great weird, supernatural, weird-fiction-tinged stuff!
And that potential is still there! And I genuinely hope season 4 expands this mythos-based world so much further, and brings us something we’d not seen before, something that isn’t as beholden to the past, or to the show’s own history. If Will and Joyce can get over their pasts and move on from Hawkins, I genuinely hope we, as an audience, can likewise move onto something bigger and different. 3.75/5 Cherry Slurpees (but I’ll settle for strawberry…).
P.S. I totally dug the episode “The Sauna Test” due solely to the fact it is so reminiscent of the low-budget movie Zombie Nightmare…which starred the episode’s director, Shawn Levy. I’m no geek? Think again!