My Review of 'Stranger Things 3' (2019)
Poster for Stranger Things 3
The Fourth of July became one of the most anticipated holidays of 2019 with the release of season three of the Netflix hit, Stranger Things. Ever since season two ended with the Mind Flayer looming over Hawkins Middle School during the Snow Ball, fans have been dying to find out what happens next. Naturally, the eight-episode arc of season three left us with more questions than answers but it also delivered the most energetic season yet. Here is my in-depth, spoiler-filled review of Stranger Things 3.
It’s mid-summer in Hawkins, Indiana. School is out, the pool is open, and the Russians are trying to reopen the portal to to the Upside Down under the brand new mall that has opened in town. The Starcourt Mall is the subject of protest as local businesses are closing left and right, including the retail store where Joyce Byers works. As she helps Hopper deal with Eleven spending every waking moment with Mike, she also investigates why, after a power outage, the magnets in town have lost their magnetism.
Meanwhile, Nancy and Jonathan, interning for the summer at the local newspaper, decide to investigate reports of diseased rats infesting some of the more rural areas of Hawkins. Back from camp, Dustin reunites with Steve who is now working at Scoops Ahoy, an ice cream shop at the mall, and they, along with Steve’s co-worker, Robin, spend their time deciphering a Russian message that they picked up on Dustin’s super antenna that he created to communicate with his camp girlfriend, Suzie.
At the same time, Max’s brother, Billy, the pool lifeguard, most popular with the moms of Hawkins, especially Mrs. Wheeler, ends up possessed by the Mind Flayer, who has been trapped in Hawkins ever since Eleven closed the gate at the end of season two. As a result, he possesses Billy and uses him to capture various Hawkins residents and create an army of “The Flayed,” who merge together to create a super monster. It’s up to the Stranger Things gang to stop the Russians from opening the gate, The Mind Flayer from possessing the entire town, and the corrupt mayor from allowing these enemies to infiltrate their town through his shady business deals.
Billy and Mrs. Wheeler Have a Creepy Moment by the Pool
Summer in the Mid-80s
While the late fall settings of season one and two were tonally and stylistically appropriate for the show, the Fourth of July setting was a colorful, refreshing depiction of life in Hawkins in 1985. I love the vibrant sets of the mall, the carnival, and the local pool. The kids are out of school, allowing room for new distractions to take the place of classes, A/V club, and bullies, such as camp, dating, and sneaking into the movies.
As the story moves deeper into the 80s, we get into the meatier parts of the decade, from the brightly colored clothes to the summer blockbuster releases and the emergence of era-defining classic products such as New Coke. As with the previous seasons, the story doesn’t rely too heavily on the pop culture references. They’re more like Easter eggs rather than driving forces of the story, less moodier than the previous seasons but just as authentic.
Will, Lucas, Dustin, and Max Attempt to Set up Cerebro
The cast has grown to an enormous number of varying personalities, motivations, and side plots to balance. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, and this show’s answer is to break the characters into groups to gather information and have them converge at the end to save the day. While this helps to neatly lay out every major plot element to the audience, it also limits the interaction between individual cast members and always leaves you wanting more.
The new characters seamlessly insert themselves into the plot, including Steve’s sassy co-worker Robin, and Russian scientist, Alexei, who is captured by Hopper and doesn’t speak a word of English yet is a huge fan of its Slurpee sucking, cartoon-watching culture. He provides a funny yet endearing character for Hopper to take his frustrations out on and wins over the audience until his undeserving and untimely end.
There is also a Terminator-based Russian assassin after Joyce and Hopper who appears superhuman just like the iconic cyborg. He adds a more action-movie element, straying from the 80s children’s sci-fi and horror homages that the show is known for. This allows for more chase, gun play, and hand-to-hand combat fights that help to raise the tension and stakes.
Returning characters who get more screen time include Lucas’ younger sister, Erica, who helps add to the growing collection of female characters and represents the upcoming generation of Hawkins nerds. Her pastel overalls and biting one-liners make her a welcome addition to the gang and allows Dustin to play dad to her the same way that Steve does with him.
Then there is Murray Bauman, the conspiracy theorist who speaks fluent Russian and is great asset in the plan to stop the Russians. He too is great comic relief without being a distraction or annoyance to anyone other than Hopper.
The character who seems to fall by the wayside, though, is Will Byers. After going missing in the first season and being under the influence of the Mind Flayer for much of the second season, he now has less to do than ever now that he is not the focus of the story. His only actual contribution is his ability to sense when the Mind Flayer is near, but it isn’t a helpful one.
The rest of the time, he is suffering from immaturity in his desire to spend the summer playing D&D with his friends rather than chase girls and hang out at the mall like the rest of the gang. He might have been better suited for the Steve and Dustin group where the focus was more on escaping the elevator rather than looking for a makeup gift for Eleven, especially when his frustrations are tossed aside once he realizes that the Mind Flayer has returned.
Likewise, Jonathan Byers doesn't get much to do either. His shining moment is in the hospital scene with Nancy while they are escaping their Flayed bosses and fighting the monster that they meld into. It's one of the best sequences of the season, but it's also the bulk of Jonathan's screen time aside from playing sidekick to Nancy's reporter sleuth.
When Will We Get Answers?
Stranger Things has always been a character-driven show. Keeping the sci-fi elements simple and allowing the acting and character development to take center stage is what has made it so beloved. We care about the characters so we keep watching. But after three seasons, we know very little about the Upside Down, the organizations that keep exploring it, or the cover ups that it has instigated. The story is ongoing, but we’ve yet to understand what they’re getting at.
Each year, the gang uncovers the same information, battles some monsters, and saves the day. Then, all is right in the world, until it isn’t again. The story itself moves so slow that by the time any new information is revealed, it leaves more questions than answers.
Season two seemed to do a better job of expanding our knowledge of the lab and the Upside Down using Eleven’s back story of the rainbow room, the attack on her mother, the speculation that her “Papa,” Dr. Brenner, is still alive, and her reunion with Kali. They might not have been the most interesting elements of the season, but they seemed to be building toward something interesting, or at least backtracking towards the origins of the discovery of the Upside Down and the lab’s experiments on young children, just to be ignored in place of the Russians attempting to undo what was corrected in season two.
Why and to what purpose? We’ve yet to get anything more than a glimpse as to why this is all happening to Hawkins, to Eleven, and to its numerous victims.
Also, there were certain moments that built up the tension only to fall flat. One scene that comes to mind was the Ferris Wheel scene with Holly Wheeler and her parents watching the fireworks from the top of the ride while the Mind Flayer appears to be heading their way. It seemed logical that the monster was going to attack the fair, and when it doesn't, it felt like a missed opportunity to really up the stakes and reveal the existence of the Upside Down to the entire town.
Eleven Has a Lot of Heavy Lifting This Season
Season three is much more fast-paced than previous seasons, providing a fun energy that is driven by heightened action and an expansive number of locations to play in. The Mind Flayer wastes no time in taking over Billy who gets to work building his army and wreaking havoc on the town just before their Fourth of July celebrations. Meanwhile, there are personal relationships to explore, mysteries to investigate, and pieces of the usual puzzle to connect.
The momentum stays relatively consistent throughout each episode, slowing at some frustratingly crucial moments to have an unnecessary conversation or to break the tension with humor. Though admittedly funny, Dustin and Suzie’s Neverending Story musical number that pauses Hopper and Joyce’s progress in opening a vault containing an important element to their plan is one jarring halt to the pacing as is Robin and Steve’s hijinx after being injected with truth serum. I would have preferred a longer showdown between the gang and the Mind Flayer rather than these breaks in the story or at least shifted them to post-battle scenes.
The Group Is Split up Again
The final battle was the most action-packed yet. Using fireworks as bombs to weaken the Mind Flayer and Billy sacrificing himself to save Eleven were extremely satisfying scenes along with Hopper, Joyce, and Murray’s maze chase through the underground tunnels beneath the mall. The too little too late arrival of Hopper’s back up led by Dr. Owens capped it off just right. Everyone seemed to have more to do and a crucial part to play.
Despite the emotional ending of episode eight, it didn’t grab me in the way that the previous seasons did. Maybe I found it too predictable and hokey for a show that, while it is influenced by previous iconic stories, usually manages to make original plot choices. I, like most, don’t buy for a second that Hopper is dead. It was also frustrating to stall the building relationship between Hopper and Joyce with no payoff to the audience in one of the side plots that tends to run unnecessarily long on the show.
The big redeeming factor was Hopper’s speech to Eleven which she reads before moving away with Will, Joyce, and Jonathan to start fresh. The gang’s reunion should be a good jumping off point for season four. We may see a brother/sister relationship having developed between Eleven and Will, and hopefully the relationships will endure the long distance that separates them.
While I had my issues with this season, I would gladly watch eight more episodes if they dropped today. The performances are still going strong, the visuals are still top notch, the music and references add to its signature authenticity, and the open-ended questions will keep me coming back. Stranger Things is still getting a lot right for all of my griping. I can’t wait to see what the second half of the 80s has in store for Hawkins and the Upside Down.