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By the time the fireworks started popping on July 4th, most of you Strangers had finished bingeing Stranger Things season 3. My plan had been to hop right on here and write up my own review and have it in the queue to publish in the morning.
What I wasn’t expecting was to be emotionally drained when the credits rolled. Each season of Stranger Things has left me bouncing off the walls, giddy as all get out and ready to rush into tons of discussion. This season left me “needing a moment” to get my thoughts together.
So before I jump off into spoilers, I’ll give you this quick spoiler-free nugget: Stranger Things Season 3 is a triumph of storytelling. It’s on-par with the first season and, in some ways, surpasses the perfection of season one in its scope and themes.
Now, if you haven’t watched Stranger Things Season 3, you might want to stop here and go watch it, because beyond here, there be spoilers, matey.
When the first promos for Stranger Things 3 hit the net, we were promised a lot with this tagline: “One Summer Can Change Everything.”
They weren’t kidding. Season 3 changes everything for the residents of Hawkins, Indiana. The overall theme of the season is one of change. Changing bodies and desires. Kids growing into adults. A town coping with the destructive changes of time.
When we rejoin our friends in Hawkins, we can see things have already changed. Voices have deepened. Kids have gotten taller. They’ve found romance – or what they understand about romance so far. Nancy, Jonathan and Steve have graduated and are beginning to find out how difficult the world is to navigate as adults. The town itself has gained a new mall at the expense of killing the downtown area, putting people out of business and turning Hawkins’ heart into a ghost town, a story that’s been experienced in the United States a hundred times over.
Underneath all of that, quite literally, is the promise that horrors still lurk beneath Hawkins. With the close of Season 2, Eleven supposedly closed the gate, leaving the Upside Down lurking on the other side of reality, but hopefully safely tucked away.
Enter the Russians. Those of us who grew up in the 80s remember how frequently the big bad Russians were featured as the enemy of all things good and pure in movies and television. Stranger Things, true to the decade it sets out to recreate, revisits this trope and it pays off in more ways than I was prepared for. The Russians have been busy trying to open their own gate. And if you like 80s in your 80s, what better way to disguise the Russians’ secret operation than by using a newly constructed shopping mall as a diversion for the horrors going on beneath the Americans’ feet.
Each season of Stranger Things has presented its horror in a new way. With season one, the horror was a solitary monster stalking the night, the Demogorgon, who easily moved between the Upside Down and Hawkins. With season two, the horror got larger, but remained in the Upside Down, using Will as a key to attempt to make the rift larger so he could escape and an army of “Demodogs” that were controlled as a hive-mind to assist in that opening.
Season 3 was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Stranger Things’ most ambitious horror set piece, bringing the Mindflayer of season 2 through to Hawkins in a completely unexpected way. Using the melted bodies of some of Hawkins’ residents, the Mindflayer was able to create a franken-flayer for some pretty epic “giant monster” scenes that evoked scenes from Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings. This also allowed Stranger Things to introduce some fairly epic body horror on par with John Carpenter’s The Thing (which is actually name-checked by Lucas at one point).
But as much as we love our monsters in Hawkins, it’s the characters we keep coming back for and kudos to the Duffer Brothers, because they really broke some hearts this time around.
The most obvious emotional beat was that of Hopper. Hopper has been, since season one, my favorite character. So pour one out for my poor beat up heart, because this season destroyed me. I wasn’t exactly sure when the season began what they were going to do with my poor Hopper. His need to keep Eleven as the little girl he had met in season one was understandable, but at times, infuriating. Enter Joyce, who has the patience and wisdom of a saint and fire in her heart to match every bit of that patience and wisdom. Helping Hopper craft a “speech” to explain to Eleven and Mike how he feels about their constant need to be connected at the lips, that speech will eventually come to drive us to the Dairy Queen at 9 PM on July 4th to eat our feelings. Or maybe that’s just me.
Of particular note in Hopper’s story this time around is a scene that occurs in Murray’s Illinois hidey-hole. When Hopper loses his temper with Alexei after he refuses to drink a strawberry Slurpee (that was supposed to be cherry, but Hopper got strawberry – and it’s a whole thing), there’s a scene that at first frustrated me because I was absolutely convinced that the writers were going to play my Hopper for a fool. Hopper’s a lot of things. He’s got a temper. He’s unsophisticated at times. But he’s no fool. What he lacks in patience and book smarts, he more than makes up for in street smarts. This is the man who outwitted the US government not once, but twice, just by being able to think on his feet.
So when it seemed like they were going to have Hopper lose his temper and lose his one chance at saving Hawkins (and the world) by getting irritated over a Slurpee, I was close to coming unglued. It had already felt like Hopper had been letting his “dark side” get the better of him with both Eleven and Joyce. But this? This felt like too much. It was out of character. It was wrong.
And then, Alexei, who it appeared was going to “get away” due to Hopper’s temper, stops the car. Hopper’s expression never really changes during this whole escapade and there he is: the Hopper we know and love. It was a pretty effective way of reminding us, “Hey, this guy is foolish in matters of the heart and doesn’t know how to pronounce Chianti, but when it comes to the actual game? This man is made of iron and knows exactly what he’s doing.”
The Duffer Brothers have crafted a pretty incredible narrative, but what continually amazes me with their storytelling is how they take characters who seem either irredeemable or forgettable and make you care about them. The most obvious example of this is of Steve Harrington from season one who seemed like a stereotypical “popular kid” through most of season one, only to have him show up at the Byers’ house, pick up a spiked baseball bat and become the MVP of Hawkins. This has continued over and over again with Nancy appearing as a selfish teenage girl at the beginning of season one and growing into a fully-realized, strong, yet flawed young woman and even with Bob Newby, Superhero in season 2.
Season three was no exception and by the time Alexei, the kidnapped Russian scientist, was proudly holding a stuffed Woody Woodpecker in his hand, I realized that I’d once again been had. My heart was breaking for a character who I’d spent less than probably 20 minutes total with and was mostly understood through Murray’s translation services. Even Billy, the bully of season 2 and the unwilling antagonist’s pawn of season 3, becomes a tragic heartbreak.
Much like the seasons before it, season three will become one that goes into heavy rotation for me. More than season 2 and possibly up there with season one. It’s truly a work of art in its scope and emotional resonance. The writers, directors, actors and the entire cast and crew behind Stranger Things season 3 really have something to be proud of here. I could go on for hours about this season, but I’ll leave you with this final thought: Stuff happened in Hawkins that we didn’t want to happen. Namely, change happened. Big changes. Life happened. And it hurt, but it was beautiful. Just like Hopper said it would be.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.