When Stranger Things debuted on Netflix in July 2016, its lack of stars and intriguing premise only enticed the bare minimum of viewers, only for the blend of sci-fi, horror, and nostalgia to quickly gain word-of-mouth buzz about the series which seemingly came out of nowhere. The buzz built immeasurably in anticipation for the series' second season, whose October 2017 release took full advantage of the spooky season to set a number of streaming records for the service. With fans having waited more than a year and a half for a new season, Stranger Things is in a make-or-break period where, if the third season disappoints, all of the waiting could have been for nothing. Luckily, the third season manages to not only deliver fans everything they loved about previous seasons, but also elevate elements to new heights while offering some fresh perspectives on the concept that crescendos with the best season to date.
In the summer of 1985, our heroes are getting older and embracing all of the changes that come with being a teenager, whether that be building romantic relationships or having to take a summer job at the new local mall. Hawkins, Indiana has a way of harboring dark secrets, with a variety of threats looming large in the small town that will take terror to an all-new level.
With fans having waited so long for this season, the series wastes no time in giving them everything they loved about the previous seasons, to the point that it becomes a hindrance, with the first episodes offering viewers the roughest entries into the new season. We get to see Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) embrace their feelings for one another, much to the cringing dismay of Eleven's adoptive father Hopper (David Harbour). We also see that Hopper's sexual tension with Joyce (Winona Ryder) escalating, resulting in a number of awkward encounters.
These first episodes also overwhelm the audience with reminders that the series takes place in the '80s, a setting which some viewers love and others hate. It's entertaining to see beloved characters embracing the spirit of goofy '80s films, but these homages feel so blatant that it feels more like a parody than a tribute. This will be a breaking point for even the most devout fans, though once the season finds its groove, it begins to deliver its signature blend of genres that first earned it its well-deserved following.
A pivotal plot point is Will (Noah Schnapp) growing tired of his friends being too busy for their more juvenile passions, like spending the night playing Dungeons & Dragons without girlfriends around. While we've all seen the "jealous best friend" trope before, the use of flashbacks in the show and glimpses of the series' most memorable moments allows Will to act as the audience surrogate. Three years after the series debuted, the young stars look drastically different from when we first met them, with the third season of the show feeling vastly different than the one we fell in love with. That first season offered the mysterious intrigue of a boy who has gone missing in another dimension, whose characters are just as perplexed as the audience, but it has since shifted gears to offer an action-adventure storyline with heaping helpings of romantic comedy, while also keeping within the sci-fi narrative. Much like Will is forced to make a decision, audiences will either have to accept that things change as time goes by and appreciate the adventure or abandon ship to relive their favorite episodes. Much like the first season finale saw the characters become self-reflexive about the unanswered mysteries of the storyline, it seems as though the series once again uses its fictional characters to reflect the audience's experience.
Fans who do stick with the story will be treated to a delightful mix of characters in mostly-new dynamics to create fresh and exciting chemistry. There's plenty of Steve (Joe Keery) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) banter that we grew to love last season, with audiences also meeting Robin (Maya Hawke), Steve's coworker at the ice cream shop, who makes for a great new foil for the familiar duo. Much like how the second season broke up the familiar group of friends, this third season continues that trend by rotating key cast members into new configurations to deliver scenes that are tonally consistent with the series while also offering new opportunities for exchanges. Luckily, the male-driven series drops the Season Two rivalry between Eleven and Max (Sadie Sink) to deliver what feels like the first female friendship since Season One's Nancy (Natalie Dyer) and Barb (Shannon Purser). Granted, series creators Matt and Ross Duffer deliver their interpretation of a female friendship, which results in shopping at the mall and glamour shots, but given the abundance of testosterone in the series, this is at least a refreshing step in the right direction, especially given their combative past.
The series also returns to its first season form, delivering eight episodes as opposed to last season's nine, allowing the narrative to have a more efficient overall arc. While the players are scattered across the board early on, they all move into place towards the season finale, making its rocky start feel like a distant memory. The story evolves in surprising ways from what we've seen in previous seasons while still feeling organic, with the unexpected new relationships feeling just as exciting as the familiar ones we were hoping to revisit. Fans of the horrific aspects of the show will surely delight in what are some of the more gruesome sequences depicted to date, while never feeling gratuitously gross just to take things up a notch.
Additionally, the season finale is truly a triumph for the series, as it manages to totally shatter the status quo in seemingly irrevocable ways. For a series whose focus has been young characters, no matter what threats our heroes have faced, there's a prevailing theory that things will turn out OK. The more permanent paradigm shifts of this season not only offer audiences a number of powerful dramatic moments, but it also sets the stage for an entirely new dynamic in whatever comes next while also concluding this journey in a fulfilling way that doesn't actually require another season. After having spent three years with these characters, these revelations feel fully earned, all while reminding both the audience and the characters that you can never go back to merely sitting in your basement playing D&D, no matter how much joy that would bring you. Even if you love this third season, you likely aren't the same person you were while first wondering about the Upside Down. Luckily, no one can take those memories away from us, and trying to chase them would be a futile exercise, forcing us to confront our inevitable journeys both personally and with these characters.
Stranger Things Season Three manages to both be exactly what you wanted and nothing like you expected, with its summer setting shifting from the confounding mysteries of the Upside Down and Dr. Brenner into an explosive and action-packed romp towards adulthood. Despite its rocky start, the creators and performers find a way to pull off the impossible and deliver the best season yet, all while honoring their loyal fan base and challenging them to want more from a series known for playing it safe.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Stranger Things Season Three debuts on July 4th.