Warning: this review contains major spoilers for all episodes of Stranger Things season 3. Our spoiler-free review is here.
Repeating success is never as easy as it looks. For bands, it’s that tricky second album. For movies, more than anything else, the third instalment has so often been the one to undermine the greatness that has come before. Star Wars. Alien. Terminator. Compelling sagas all, shaping the genre landscape that inspires Stranger Things, but also coming undone in their trilogy entries. It’s only natural for any story to grow, if for no other reason than to allow its creators new ways to grow creatively. The third season of Stranger Things, a show so self-reflexive in its stylings, is clearly aware of this most notorious of genre pitfalls, and embraces it by leaning heavily into change. In the case of the show’s shift towards more adult horror and in some ways, in its portrayal of teenage angst, it’s often uncomfortable and sometimes ugly, but as a creative metamorphosis, it’s undoubtedly bold and largely successful, carefully threading the show into a new stage of its lifespan and delivering the goods as a trilogy entrant.
Growing pains are the order of the day in Hawkins, Indiana. Puberty has done what a hellish horde of demodogs couldn’t and divided the party. Mike and Lucas in particular have grown into insufferable teenagers, growth spurts of self-interest no doubt fuelled by the discovery of girls. Mike’s smug goading of Hopper in the first episode, alongside Lucas’ growing talent at infuriating Max, his on/off girlfriend, illustrate that growth isn’t always good. Even the physicality of the actors themselves is jarring. It’s been almost two years since we last saw them on screen and now lankier and filling out, it’s clear that the party we left behind at the close of season two aren’t the same children that we bade farewell to. In some ways, it’s difficult to watch, especially as some of the boys seem less than enthused with the one-way journey to adulthood and its detrimental effect on their friendship. The excellent Noah Schnapp as Will, so convincingly horror-struck in season two, is once again wonderful here, as he watches what’s left of his childhood, so much of it snatched away already by darkness, eclipsed by the insurmountable combination of pheromones and heavy petting. The moment in episode three (The Case Of The Missing Lifeguard) where he desperately addresses his friends, literally clothed in the trappings of childhood fantasy as Will the Wise, was as poignant as it was incongruous, set as it was in the junk food hangover, hormone-heavy hangout of Mike’s basement.
Will’s misery, along with Dustin’s realisation that the group he left for science camp is no longer the group to whom he has returned, is subtly underlined by the show’s approach to references and homage. That “Amblin’ feeling, so central to Stranger Things’ tone in seasons one and to a lesser degree, two, is subsumed into an aesthetic that has undergone its own evolution. Whilst the moon-lit mists of Spielberg’s E.T. are still present, sickly-green, interior lighting, spurts of high-frame footage and the buzzing of lights as they cut in and out of darkness are far more prevalent as the season progresses. This of course, is the visual grammar of horror, also reflected in the plot with episode one’s use of exploding rats in signalling a nastier, more graphic approach to the show’s horror themes.
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Graphically exploring the horrors of falling prey to bodysnatching inter-dimensional monsters proves to be one of Stranger Things 3’s strongest aspects in season three. With adolescence clearly exposing the party’s fallibilities, the season’s first half reconfigures the world of Hawkins, Indiana, shifting a show centred around BFFs into one where the ’F’ is suddenly called very much into question. That sudden feeling of ‘anything goes’ makes the show’s gradual descent into gross-out terror doubly effective. Not only is the Mind Flayer’s giant meat puppet a horrific abomination (and by far the most terrifying monster the show has given us yet), but the notion that even the most honoured aspects of the saga (such as the sanctity of our heroes’ party) were dispensable is equally disturbing. It’s said that good stories teach you how to read them and in that sense, Stranger Things 3’s first few episodes serve excellently in this regard.
Even more satisfyingly, that impending narrative threat is fully paid off with the (seeming) death of a major character. Hopper’s apparent demise whilst closing the gate to the Upside Down gave the finale the emotional punch it needed to validate the escalated level of threat this time around. It also led to the most bittersweet epilogue yet. Season two’s ‘snowball dance’ was a nostalgia-tinged surge of joy, watching the gang enjoy their first dance, their first kiss, with the Mind Flayer’s looming presence unable to dampen the audience’s pleasure that after all they’d been through, there was still time, a few moments at least, for our young heroes to enjoy defining moments of being young.
Don’t You (Forget About Me)
In season three, as the fellowship parted ways in the shadow of Hopper’s death, the only sweetness was laced heavily with sorrow and the finale felt all the more resonant for it. If the end of season two was about fighting to reclaim the good times, the rites of passage that mark a life, then the close of season three was about saying goodbye to those moments, understanding that some endings can’t be outmatched, outwitted or outfought and that sometimes, the most heroic thing you can do is to summon the strength to let go. Hopper’s final words to El, delivered in the form of a letter were both tender and wrenching, delivering the necessary emotional heft to add real weight to a satisfying finale. It’s also this writer’s sincere hope (that to maintain the validity of that finale) that Hopper has entered the realm of perma-death, although not seeing his body disintegrated (and with the mid-credit sequence teasing an American prisoner) suggests otherwise. With one of the more laudable aspects of Stranger Things 3 being its courage to edge away from being a trope-laden love letter to other stories and fully embrace becoming one in its own right, it would be a shame to see it turn to the hokiest trope of all: the resurrected hero.
Billy, Don’t Be A Hero
Elsewhere, the balance of the various threats afflicting Hawkins this time around was crafted well. Dacre Montgomery does sterling work as Billy Hargrove, channelling Ace Merrill (in Stephen King’s Needful Things/The Body) as the corrupted human face of evil. It was also satisfying to see the character’s motivations fleshed out in the final episode and to see him earn a measure of redemption. The payoff to Billy’s debut in Stranger Things 2 felt significantly undercooked so it was gratifying to see it explored here. As previously mentioned, the Mind Flayer’s corporeal form was sickeningly wonderful, from its horrifying Alien-style face-huggers to its grotesque process of reformation. The creature’s design should be commended as topping the towering vastness of the Mind Flayer’s Upside Down form, from last season, wasn’t easy and yet this creature manages to do just that. Finally, the Russian threat, teased for so long, added a new dimension to the story whilst also providing some humour too. The Schwarzenegger-looking Russian KGB operator was a largely one-note creation, but in some ways, that only added to his robotic, Terminator-inspired character. It’s highly doubtful that anybody out there was expecting a developed character arc here, instead, it was simply fun to see what was in effect, 80s Arnie rampaging around Hawkins, providing a more than able physical foil for Hopper. The idea that a mammoth underground facility could be planned, constructed, manned and run in the space of a year stretched the narrative credibility of the show further perhaps than it’s ever been stretched before, but when you’re having this much fun, it doesn’t feel like it really matters.
Here Comes My Girl
With Hopper struggling to make sense of the emotional connections in his life, Steve Harrington’s superpowers with the ladies seemingly emasculated by a Scoops Ahoy uniform and the boys in the party struggling with the manifold burdens of puberty, it was left to the female residents of Hawkins to assert some strength, and they did so in style. It was a joy to see Winona Ryder finally get more to do as Joyce Byers than simply be the ‘incredibly strong mother’. It’s a role she’s performed magnificently in the first two seasons but with Will’s connection to the Upside Down (mostly) severed, it was fun to see different sides of Joyce, from her dogged detective skills to humorous bickering with Hopper. Whilst strength has always been the core of Joyce’s character, it was refreshing to see her get to do so much more this time around, and if she is, in Hopper’s absence, to become the youngsters’ only adult protector, her daring forays into secret fortresses have set the stage nicely for this to continue.
After telling Mike ‘I dump your ass’, it was cool to see El also free herself of controlling influences (not that we’re putting Mike in the same leagues as Brenner, Kali or Hopper here, just to be clear). All the same, her liberation at the hands of Max (“We make our own rules”) was great to see and one of the more fun elements of the series. Discovering Wonder Woman comics, the hotness of Ralph Macchio (and erm, using superpowers for the purpose of voyuerism) is the sort of simple, innocent fun that we got to see the boys enjoy in seasons one and two so it was great to see the girls bonding in the same way. Other female characters got to shine too, Maya Hawke’s Robin proved to be a great addition to the cast and Erica Sinclair’s expanded role fulfilled the potential of her brief scenes from Stranger Things 2. Both characters enjoyed character arcs with intriguing resolutions: Erica receiving the Dungeons & Dragons set felt like the passing of a torch and Robin’s comedown heart-to-heart with Steve after spacing out through Back To The Future provided an outcome that was not only a welcome diversion from the obvious path of blooming romance between the two, but also was in keeping with the untidy, uncertain nature of this season.
If Nancy and Jonathan haven’t been mentioned, it’s because in a growing ensemble cast, aside from some an interesting mystery plotline, they seemed slightly underserved. On the whole, Stranger Things 3 not only delivered the hallowed third entry of a trilogy in some style, it also found a way to give us that thing that we love, whilst reshaping it into something different, allowing it to forge an identity that feels both earned and unique as opposed to being a beautifully made collection of references and Easter Eggs. This in turn, is an especially important process as the creatives behind it begin (one would imagine) to really think about the endgame. The lean into graphic, gross-out horror revealed a nasty underbelly to Stranger Things that we haven’t seen before, but not only was it as compelling as it was horrifying, the body horror aspects especially segued perfectly with the thematic streak of change and the fear of growth that was paid off so beautifully through Hopper’s final words to El.
With the party dissolved and Hopper gone, Stranger Things 4 promises to be something different still, but if this season taught us anything, it’s that you embrace that change, even when it hurts. Parts of this season were hard to watch, sometimes because we’re watching young people who’ve we seen grow up face hardship and uncertainty. Other times it was simply hard because, well, exploding rats. But if the best stories teach you how to watch them, then Stranger Things 3 teaches us that growing is good. And boy, this was good.
Stranger Things season 3 is out now on Netflix.