The Duffer Brothers made us wait a long time. Almost two years. But good things come to those who wait. And Season 3 of Stranger Things was definitely worth the wait. Netflix debuted its original sci-fi horror series in the summer of 2016. Almost instantly, the 80s-centric show became a pop culture sensation, inspiring a merchandising empire. Following an uneven second season, The Duffer Brothers took their time developing the third chapter. Now it’s time to see how much that long production time helped. Do you know your ‘Demogorgon’ from a ‘Mind Flayer’.
A year has passed Eleven closed the gate to the ‘Upside Down’, seemingly killing the ‘Mind Flayer’ in the process. In the time that’s passed, the Hawkins’ kids have grown up. Dustin is away at camp. Mike and Lucas spend most of their time with their girlfriends, Eleven and Max. And Hopper feels like Eleven is growing distant from him. Meanwhile, far below Hawkins’ new Starcourt Mall, Russian scientists have torn open another gate to the ‘Upside Down’. With the gate re-opening, the ‘not so dead’ Mind Flayer is back.
Season 3 Delivers More Focused Story-Telling
While Season 2 seemed to detour too often on unnecessary subplots, Stranger Things’ third season course corrects. Simply put, Season 3 benefits form much more focused storytelling. This partly stems from the fact that characters, relationships, and mythology have been firmly established over two seasons. This allows Season 3 to set the table, so to speak, much quicker. As a result, we get stakes set early and a much quicker, action-oriented pace. And with only eight episodes, there’s little time for aimless filler. Once Episode 5 rolls around, Stranger Things feels like a race to the finish line.
…Stranger Things benefits from widening its universe.
In addition, Stranger Things benefits from widening its universe. Characters have previously name-dropped ‘Russians’ offhandedly over two seasons. Now Strangers Things finally introduces Russians as antagonists, drawing in a Cold War angle for its 1980’s setting. This opens the show’s world up a little bit, giving us a break from Hawkins Lab. By the season’s conclusion, it’s clear this story direction will have even greater implications in the next season.
Stranger Things Plugs Into Some Cronenberg Body Horror
Stranger Things has never been just a horror series. Instead, The Duffer Brothers have played with genres, blending fantasy, horror, and science fiction. While that’s still the case in Season 3, it does feel like there’s a little more horror thrown into the mix. David Cronenberg’s The Fly may have still been a year away from the show’s 1985 setting, but that movie’s body horror clearly influences Season 3. There’s a lot of gooey gore on display. Bodies implode, melt, and ooze across floors. Much of the extra production time must have been put into special effects. Steven Spielberg can complain all he likes, but there’s a cinematic feel to the final episode, ‘The Battle of Starcourt’.
…there’s a cinematic feel to the final episode, ‘The Battle of Starcourt’.
Cronenberg fans may also recognize nods to one of his earlier classics, Rabid. The Mind Flayer, and its infection of the ‘Flayed’, with protruding tentacles name-checks Cronenberg in both style and narrative. Its physical body is literally made up of the guts and gore from its mind-controlled victims. Some viewers may also cite John Carpenter’s The Thing among this season’s influences. Aside from a prominently featured movie poster, The Thing’s story of a threat hidden in plain sight is embedded into Season 3’s DNA.
Ensemble Cast Shines
Season 3 of Strangers Things adds to what was already a large ensemble cast. All the series regulars are back. Also returning from Season 2, step-siblings, Billy and Max, are back and given substantially more to do. Season 3 also gives conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman and Lucas’ younger sister, Erica, elevated roles. Jake Busey, Cary Elwes, and Alec Utgoff join the cast in smaller roles. Yet even with all these faces, Stranger Things effectively balances its characters and their relationships. This is in part achieved by breaking characters into teams before bringing everyone back together for a big finale.
Every character gets a chance to shine. You’ll come for the Demogorgons and 80’s nostalgia, but you’ll stay for more of the adventures of Steven and Dustin. Somehow their inexplicable friendship is one of the best parts of the series. Meanwhile, Hopper and Joyce’s ‘will they, won’t they’ bickering gets a little tiresome. Of course, David Harbour and Winona Ryder are excellent. And Hopper’s full character arc more is heartbreaking. But it’s Maya Hawke, playing Steve’s Ships Ahoy co-worker Robin, who stands out. Marking another strong female character, Robin is instantly endearing – smart, sarcastic, and resourceful. Her bathroom stall conversation with Steve is a highlight, handled with care, even amidst all the action.
Stranger Things Never Strays Far from Human Drama
In spite of its fantastical sci-fi premise and gooey horror, Strangers Things tells a familiar and very human story. Most viewers will be able to relate to Season 3’s theme of growing up and letting go of childhood things. Every social circle probably had that one friend clinging to kid games, while everyone else was starting to date. It’s painful to watch characters to whom we’ve become attached struggle. Will tearing down ‘Castle Byers’ is one of Season 3’s most powerful moments. This is a testament to the importance of characters and emotional story-telling regardless of action and special effects.
One Season Can Change Everything
Overall, Season 3 marks a return to form for Stranger Things. Its high-wire act of multiple characters, monsters, Russian spies, and 80’s nostalgia is nearly perfectly balanced. Most importantly, Seasons 3 opens the door for an even larger world to explore. Loose threads are tied, while new questions emerge. Be sure to stick around for a mid-credits scene. Stranger Things is binge-worthy television again.