This review is spoiler-free for Stranger Things season 3 and is based on all eight episodes.
Although the residents of Hawkins, Indiana show remarkable resilience in recovering from nearly annual monster attacks, Stranger Things season 3 shows no intention of slowing down or backing off. In fact, when the series returns to Netflix on July 4, 2019, it will capitalize on the various main characters’ ability to notice when things are amiss even when others might not be as suspicious. The Mind Flayer still has a strategy or two to hatch, and thanks to a new bit of help from our side of the breach, its presence will be felt very quickly and in fact will end up feeling much creepier than last season, evoking more of what gave season 1 its vintage 80s horror movie feel.
One thing Stranger Things continues to excel at is allowing different teams of characters to tackle the Upside Down scourge from a variety of angles without necessarily crossing paths with each other until much later in the season. For example, Nancy and Jonathan, who are now both working for The Hawkins Post newspaper, will have their own investigative path this year as usual, and Hopper and Joyce will pursue their own mission as well. These are familiar pairings for fans and not just because of the romantic possibilities, although those will certainly be explored. The comedy team of Dustin and Steve is also thankfully intact from season 2, and their chemistry feels even more natural this year.
With the kids having reached their teenage years, there will be much more to be said about the evolving relationships within the group, especially the one between Mike and Eleven. Thankfully, with Hopper’s paternal discomfort focused on the two of them, the other couples, like Lucas and Max, benefit from a more understated approach so that the hormonal quotient doesn’t overwhelm the main story. Adding in some female bonding between Max and Eleven fits well with Nancy’s quest for empowerment at the local paper this season as well.
Stranger Things season 3 takes an innovative approach by focusing on how the new Starcourt Mall will affect the businesses downtown and the social lives of our teenaged protagonists, and the series does an amazing job of tying the culture of the mall directly into the central conspiracy, although viewers may have to stretch their sense of credibility a bit on that score. The setting will also permit the show to sprinkle in its customary copious amount of nostalgic elements such as Sam Goody record stores and theater marquees with popular movies from 1985.
Not much can be said about the actual circumstances of the Mind Flayer’s reappearance without spoiling things, but it’s almost certain to please fans who might not have enjoyed the demadogs of season 2 as much as the original demagorgon. The creep factor is back in a big way this year, and the fear will manifest both in the story’s action sequences as well as Eleven’s forays into the dark corners of her mental void. The horror elements surrounding how the threat manifests itself will almost definitely not be what viewers are expecting, and that unpredictability definitely works in Stranger Things season 3’s favor.
As always, the real quality is in the details along the periphery. Things like the addition of Lucas’ sister Erica, played by Priah Ferguson, could easily have backfired, but the precocious child from season 2 makes an excellent sassy pre-teen in season 3. And the addition of Maya Hawke as Robin, Steve’s co-worker at the mall, is simply delightful to the point where we have to wonder how we ever enjoyed Stranger Things without her. Even elements like Will’s desire to recapture the innocence of the party’s D&D days or Jonathan’s arguments with Nancy about the value of having a job are perfectly dropped in to flesh out the full context of the overall adventure.
Guest stars Cary Elwes and Jake Busey are also passable antagonists, but their value lies mainly in their ability, through roles they (or in Jake’s case, his doppelgänger dad, Gary) played in the past, to evoke decades gone by as Matthew Modine, Paul Reiser, and Sean Astin have done in prior seasons. Billy also maintains his somewhat villainous status, but viewers will be amazed at how the depth of his character is both more fully explored and completely upended. Even the mall itself acts as “bad guy” for the season, not only because it steals customers from businesses like the general store where Joyce works but also because of the secrets the younger residents uncover behind the scenes.
The plain truth of the matter is that Stranger Things season 3 more than lives up to the legacy its predecessors have established. In fact, the Independence Day storyline surpasses last season’s Halloween-themed outing in many ways, although some aspects defy comparison. Although there are plenty of logical leaps and areas where viewers will have to suspend their disbelief, this is par for the course not only for Stranger Things itself but for 80s properties this series seeks to emulate. So break out the sparklers, and enjoy the fireworks! There’s quite a spectacle ahead.