Stranger Things: Why Season 3 Was the Show’s Best

Stranger Things season 3 succeeds as a middle chapter and a fun summer vacation.

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in Stranger Things season 3.
Photo: Netflix

Each season of Stranger Things feels unique and captivating, both tonally and stylistically, and fans love to argue which of the four is best. Much of the fandom enjoys the first season’s novelty and tight scripts. The horror elements and intimate setting made Hawkins shine. Others enjoy the fourth season the most because of its blockbuster size and scope. The introduction of Vecna as the endgame villain also raised the stakes beyond what the first three seasons’ antagonists could. That often leaves season 2 and season 3 fighting for the bottom of the rankings, and the second season’s similarities to season 1 make for a safer bet when putting together the hierarchy.

Stranger Things season 3 was still critically acclaimed and well-loved by audiences at the time of release. In the five years since, this return to the Upside Down has been criticized for various reasons, though. The eight episodes took place during the summer, and the setting was primarily in the Starcourt Mall. This created more upbeat, cheerful vibes and colors than many had come to expect from the show, both literally and metaphorically. Others complained about the excessive use of goofy humor and the uncharacteristic personality traits of longtime characters, like Hopper’s (David Harbour) change in demeanor. While the police chief was a calming, stern presence in the first two seasons, Hopper becomes entranced in a romance with Joyce (Winona Ryder) that manifests as cartoonish bickering between the adult leads.

While all of these sentiments have merit, Stranger Things 3 deserves an analytical reevaluation a half-decade later. As we wait patiently for the final act sometime in the next year or two, showrunners the Duffer Brothers should receive praise for some of the most instrumental changes they made to the show in season 3. These changes updated the story’s outlook and set up the fantastic sequences fans enjoyed so much in season 4 and beyond. Perhaps season 3 will become your favorite season with a new perspective on things!

Stranger Things Season 3 Introduced Beloved Characters  

One could argue that Stranger Things needs to eliminate some of its cast rather than add to it, but season 3 undoubtedly introduced and integrated some of the series’ best characters into the mix. With the original group of kids and teens making new friends and moving up in life, they meet people who would spice up the story and continue to make Stranger Things the juggernaut it remains today.

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Steve’s summertime job at Scoops Ahoy ushered in the perfect female foil for him. Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke) is energetic, sassy, and always ready to call out others when they go astray. In a show where most of the leads are masculine, Robin represents a much-needed feminine perspective. Not only does Hawke have exquisite chemistry with Keery, but her banter with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica (Priah Ferguson) made for high-stakes, fast-paced dialogue in season 3 and beyond. 

Speaking of Erica, the Duffers leveraged Ferguson’s growth and talent to make her character a bigger part of the ensemble. While she seldomly appeared in season 2, Lucas’s (Caleb McLaughlin) sister harasses her friends with rowdy retorts and ample encouragement (in her own special way) to aid Dustin, Steve, and Robin in the most offbeat storyline of the season (the infiltration of the Soviet layer underneath Starcourt Mall). 

Stranger Things Season 3 Was a Love Story

Love was in the air during Stranger Things season 3. With many of the younger characters approaching adolescence, lustful crushes turned into tangible relationships. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) plunged deeper into their yearning for each other while navigating their first breakup. Lucas and Max (Sadie Sink) lay the foundation for the steadiest romance in the show, while Dustin gets a long-distance girlfriend who isn’t seen until the last episode of the season. 

Even characters who don’t have a significant other grapple with romantic issues. Mike makes fun of Will (Noah Schnapp) for not having a girlfriend, but this scene helps push both characters toward a potential union that could break down LGBTQ+ barriers in the final season. The use of dark colors, ominous tension, and fantastic acting by both Schnapp and Wolfhard make this one-minute clip hold so much weight in the larger scheme of both the season and the series. 

All of these relationships and romantic roller coasters may seem jarring compared to the first two seasons, but Stranger Things season 3 deserves massive applause for understanding the true meaning of the series: people are always more important than monsters. The characters at the heart of the story connect to the audience in profound ways, and seeing them bind together in romantic unions makes for a stronger group of heroes to take down the villains of the Upside Down. 

Stranger Things 3 Had an Incredible Climax and Cliffhanger

The third season had one of the hardest tasks in TV: beginning to close the story. With only two seasons left, Stranger Things needed to make the viewers feel the pressure of a potential ending. When Hopper *dies* in the underground Soviet layer, it makes fans think about the danger the rest of the characters are in. No longer is there always a clean, happy ending for the heroes at the end of every season. This type of plotting was enhanced in season 4’s ending when Hawkins is seen falling into chaos as the Upside Down bubbles up over the top of the surface. 

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Eleven, Will, and Mike move away to California, signaling a change of scenery and an evolution in our protagonist’s lives. This makes the last moments of season 3 feel simultaneously like the dawn of something new and the closing of a significant chapter in a book. It’s hard to find this sweet spot when pacing a season finale, but the writers and directors nail it perfectly. Much like everything else in season 3, Stranger Things’ brilliance during its third act just needs a little more introspection to see how multifaceted it truly is!