Stranger Things Season 3 (Netflix)
Written by Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, William Bridges, Kate Trefry, Paul Dichter, and Curtis Gwinn
Directed by Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy, and Uta Briesewitz
When the 1980s is referenced in modern popular media it is typically with bright neon colors and pop music, nods to Ghostbusters, Goonies, and Gremlins, the sound of Mario snatching a coin backed by synthesizers. When did the 1980s as an aesthetic and unique cultural touchpoint begin? The early 1980s are naturally a carryover of the late 1970s but when did this decade come into its own? 1985 is a reasonable touchpoint; when the color got turned up, and the consumption of the Reagan era went into full swing. If you noticed a marked difference in the look and feel of Stranger Things, you wouldn’t be wrong. This third season is unashamedly dripping in its time, arguably more so than the previous seasons. This is also the most cohesive season if we look at the plot structure with very clear throughlines that bring us to a conclusion. There’s not a lot of character downtime, for better or worse.
Life is finally somewhat at peace for Eleven, the young girl experimented on and turned into a psychic powerhouse. She is caught up in makeout sessions with now-boyfriend Mike, much the chagrin of her adopted pop Hopper. There’s also the Starcourt Mall taking up the attention of all the adolescents and many of their parents, a fluorescent playground of deep-fried consumerism. The mall also happens to be driving business away from downtown where Joyce Beyers is still trying to keep things going. Nancy and Jonathan both have graduated high school and work at the local paper where Nance is struggling to gain the respect of the middle-aged male staff. However, for those of us familiar with Hawkins, Indiana, we know these peaceful times don’t last, and eventually something evil is going to poke its head into this otherwise quiet corner of the midwest.
Gone are the allusions to E.T. and Stephen King, now we’re in the realm of Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, Back to the Future, Day of the Dead, and Madonna. The tone of the series shifts to something more action-driven and less contemplative. These characters’ relationships with each other have been pretty well explored in the first two seasons, so now it’s about complicating those bonds. Love blossoms and dies, former high schoolers confront the challenge of becoming adults, the idea of packing up and leaving all this drama and tragedy behind arises. The moments of character development are saved for the new characters. Maya, Steve’s co-worker at ice cream parlor Scoops Ahoy, is one of the best additions to the series and she manages to surprise both the audience and Steve by the end of the season.
I much appreciated the attention given to Billy, the abusive step-brother of Max. The Duffer Brothers play with our expectations and take Billy, who could easily have been another Biff or Johnny of the Cobra Kai, and give him some powerful emotional depth. Frankly, what happens to Billy this season is a form of rape, and we learn his entire childhood has had him facing deep emotional turmoil. I think the development between his relationship with Max isn’t explored to its fullest, and if the series had been able to slow down and take a breath, we could have understood them better.
This might be my favorite season of Stranger Things because it does do away with some of the self-importance and pretension. There is a true embrace of the silly and fun, pitting kids against Soviets and inter-dimensional monsters. The eight episodes function as one oversized movie with almost every chapter’s cliffhanger being picked up immediately in the next one. I binged watched episodes in batches of three, and I can see how the whole thing could be digested faster than a viewer would realize in a single setting. My hope for a fourth season would less of the Upside Down, please? I feel the show has mined that concept about as thoroughly as it could and unless it has a fascinating twist to throw at the audience then I think the universe could use a little expansion.