I wrote a piece earlier this year after watching the initial trailers for the new season of Netflix’s Stranger Things. In it, I was concerned that the series was going in the wrong direction, that the series was abandoning its initial appeal (a small town mystery show that blends eighties horror/adventure/sci-fi influences into one big delicious mix) and instead focusing on delivering expectations and fan service created by the popular culture at large. Showing the characters doing more of the same was more important than everything else, so everything else stagnated.
My fears were real and true, yet I remain wrong. Season 3 is a great season precisely because the show has doubled down on the new direction. Season 2 seemed unsure of itself, yet season 3 completely and intuitively understands its new direction. The science-fiction mystery now is exaggerated and colorful and consistently familiar yet striking. The characters are the pure focus, and the power to make any character and any relationship engaging in spite of first impressions otherwise is very impressive storytelling.
Light spoilers ahead, I won’t reveal anything major, but if you want to be blind then read this review after you watch the season: it’s good. You can go now.
The season is beautiful and haunting, perhaps more than anything else the Duffer Brothers have done. Color doesn’t only seep into shots to scream eighties and terror, but the bright summer colors and fashions cement a more emotional tone. Mystery has been dropped for more visceral avenues. The human antagonists are the first things we see in the season. The mystery about them is shallow, yet colorful and fulfilling. In previous seasons it was the American government making mistakes and covering them up, giving mystery and complexity to it all. Here, our bad guys are cut and dry and at its worst, it can dissolve tension or take you out of the show but at its best lets our heroes shine.
The Upside Down sees very little screen time – probably due to how ugly it is – and Eleven’s mind world is given a more distinct visual due to Eleven’s own fashion. What also stands out as fantastic are the monsters, and the haunting visuals that accompany the big monster’s plan this time around.
From the Ashes of the Old
If there were any characters that were essential to the original idea of Stranger Things, it was the Byers family. Joyce, Jon, and Will crafted much of the original season’s experience. Ryder’s Joyce carried most of the first season’s acting weight, playing a desperate mother trying anything to find her son. Jon’s connection with Nancy was more adult and complex than the simplistic kids’ stuff, and allowed for some of the socially dark turns the season could explore. Will meanwhile was the franchise’s big mystery. What happened to this child? His initial journey in the Upside Down was our own introduction into those fantastic elements. Eleven’s powers and backstory really only started to take shape after the introduction. When Will came back for season 2, he remained essential to the plot, being a conduit for the dark forces.
Yet, the Byers lack potential in the world of season 3. Joyce’s crazed explanations don’t feel as personal or as pure when she’s not fighting for her son. Jon and Nancy are no longer the kids in high school trying to fight against appearances, especially when their relationship is resolved and the kids are turning into the teenagers now. Will meanwhile never had a true character, instead, he is given the responsibility of being the kid that doesn’t want to kiss girls. Will wants to play Dungeons & Dragons and cling to the same childish dreams that the other kids are moving away from. For many, this is a coming of age story for these kids. To me, Will’s role is a symbol that this series is no longer what it used to be. It’s an entirely different animal now, and these characters are now functionally worthless. Joyce and Jon are possibly the worst characters of the season from a writing standpoint, though Joyce giving parenting advice near the start of the season almost makes things worth it.
Yet, in the ashes of the discarded, we get subplots and relationships that are much more fulfilling. Now we get kids really figuring out their personalities and desires, we get adult characters like Hopper going from a typical police hero for a mystery series into a complicated paternal figure. Hopper’s complexity is refreshing here, you hate him as much as you love him and you wish he spent more time with the kids instead of trudging through the season’s lackluster mystery or relationship with Joyce.
Eleven becomes a real character now. For the first time, Millie Bobbie Brown is given a chance to showcase a personality. Before we saw her in terms of “How good is her superpower really?” and “I hope her and Mike get together.” and while those questions are still totally there in this season, she’s given way more to do and the show is very aware it needed her to grow beyond what she was.
Steve gets more chances to become completely lovable. This time around instead of being a big brother figure to the boys, he instead gets a female counterpart (in new character Robin) that questions his original role and personality and enables the new version of the character to grow and shine. Their friendship is a personal highlight of the season.
Even a character as problematic as Billy was in season 2 can be fixed with proper writing. Before, he was an abusive jock that thrived on a vicious id. Here, the character gets a rewrite. Even when his character does terrible things, in season 2, we feel hate but here we have nothing but sympathy. I think here is another case where the Duffer brothers learned their lessons from seasons 1 and 2: instead of trying to make key supporting cast unlikable for the sake of antagonism they instead tried to make every character likable.
But What About the Plot?
So I can praise the characterizations and relationships all day, but I still find that the elephant in the room – the plot – messy. This is less of a problem than in season 2, yet there are still entire episodes dedicated in this season to mysteries that don’t feel worthwhile. The characters carry the weight in their stead, but I think they falter in certain moments. It never breaks my enjoyment, however, and ultimately just makes me wish for better pacing.
The plot is never as tight or as surprising as it used to be. Because of the focus on character relationships, the plot is built like a sitcom. Hijinx ensues based on misunderstandings and miscommunications, characters forget or ignore things because it would make better scenes later, with no regard to building tension or being logical.
But, again, maybe the point is The Duffer Brothers knew of the problems with the season. Maybe it’s a necessary evil. There’s a discussion near the end of the season regarding an infamous brand launch – New Coke – and how while it may not be what the original beloved Coke was, there’s nothing wrong with the newer and bolder flavor. I agree.