Stranger Things, one of the biggest series’ out right now, has returned for a third season after nearly two years and it brings with it everything that makes the series the masterpiece that it is.
This season brings a new mall to Hawkins marking the beginning of the Summer. The crew are beginning their early growth into adulthood and dealing with all the new experiences and challenges that comes with that. Their celebrations are cut short when the town is once again under threat from the evil of the Upside Down which is, for some reason, no longer contained.
Stranger Things 3 does everything in its power to change things up and deliver a fresh experience whilst retaining all of the qualities and elements that were so successful in the previous seasons. This seasons does this by evidently dialling down the horror elements and having more fun with the 80s Summer vibe. There is still plenty of scary content, but the presence of the new mall this season brings along a more fun and adventurous feel that is oddly nostalgic even if you didn’t grow up in that time. This means there are a lot more jokes and more time, in the earlier episodes specifically, dedicated to simply seeing the Hawkins crew enjoy the new experiences that come with growing up.
The tones and vibes didn’t feel jarring at all, it fit within the story being told and where all these characters are in their lives. There’s one point mid-way through the season where tension has been slowly ramping up but it’s still very rooted in that fun and upbeat tone. It’s uncertain whether it’s going to allow the horror/thriller elements to take over or if this tone is going to ride out to the end. However it knows when to let the horror/thriller elements take charge and going into the final stretch it is as tense and suspenseful as it has ever been. It’s never too far in the realm of comedy or horror, Matt and Ross Duffer (the Duffer brothers) have their finger on the pulse of this series and know exactly what works and when to incorporate scares and jokes.
It’s like Stranger Things 3 is the first season of a new series, in that the story feels so fresh, natural, and uncontrived that it just shows the amazing work the Duffer brothers have done with it. Forget about the evil threat and how all of that comes together. The real draw of this series, the real stories that matter and get every viewer invested in each episode are the character-centric stories of the Hawkins crew. Seeing these kids navigate things such as love, relationships, changing interests, and all the struggles and opportunities of growing up is the highlight of this season just as it has been for the last two seasons.
The Duffer brothers do an incredible job at giving each and every character their own arc where they grow and learn over the course of this eight-episode run. They pair off characters in smaller groups all throughout the season to develop different relationships and allow all of the kids to grow and change more than they have in previous seasons. It’s endlessly entertaining watching these kids just be kids, or shall I say teenagers because they’ve grown so much. The development here is incredible and not a single minute is wasted with any character all season.
On the other hand, there are threats once again gearing up to put the town of Hawkins through another night of terror. I initially, through the first few episodes, didn’t feel the weight, size, or danger of this new threat as much as I thought I would. The development of the villain, the reasons for its arrival in Hawkins and how it grows stronger are great story beats which I was fully on board with. However, because the season is having so much fun early on, it takes a while to feel the sheer size of the threat and what it means for the characters. But the wait all pays off once the horror kicks in.
When it comes to characters, the Hawkins crew are all great, everyone young and old is fantastic, but the standout character this season isn’t a living thing (in the biological sense). The Starcourt mall, which acts as the setting for much of the drama and action this season, is the best character in here. Every inch of this location has been polished with so much detail it captures everything good about the pop-culture impact of the classic mid-80s mall. It’s the most important element of this entire season in bringing something new to the table, and it’s exactly why the entire tone of the season is more fun.
It’s amazing how the Duffer brothers have managed to give a location so much personality that you feel just as attached to it as you do the actual human characters. This mall could have very easily been a flashy display of lights in the background so the Hawkins crew doesn’t have to spend the entire season in the Byers’ basement again. But it plays directly into the main plot, is the source of a number of jokes and easter eggs, and has just as much personality as the human characters. Along with the Starcourt mall, Stranger Things 3 brings with it a couple of new characters, one of whom makes a stellar impression.
Upon hearing Cary Elwes was going to be involved in the season as the mayor of Hawkins I was pumped as Cary is an amazingly talented actor who I have been a fan of for a while. However, while he is just good in this series, another new character completely steals the show and makes the biggest impression a new character has made to date. Robin, who is played by Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) is fantastic every time she’s on screen. She brings an attitude, personality, and complexity that is unique to every other character in here. That’s what makes her stand out. The fact that she too, as a character who we’ve just met, grows over the course of this season, and is someone who you care about, shows the strength of good writing. This really is Maya’s big break as she makes a lasting impression I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
Everything new in here is amazing, but what brings everyone back to Hawkins every few years are the returning characters who are all just as loveable (and in some cases hatable) now as when we last saw them. Let’s start with the youngsters, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Will (Noah Schnapp), and Max (Sadie Sink) who we met in season 2. This is such a tight crew with such strong relationships that watching any combination of these characters hang out is a joy. The Duffer brothers do a great thing at one point where they separate the girls from the boys and it’s magical what comes from it. The performances from these youngsters are fantastic and they’re all so in tune with their characters you forget you’re watching actors. Their real-life relationships are strong which means it’s not hard at all to buy into them all being friends.
Noah Schnapp, who hasn’t necessarily had ‘the most’ to do in previous seasons, puts in another incredible performance this season that is very strong and emotional. His arc is one linked to the whole growing up and moving on theme of the season and it’s a powerful one.
Winona Ryder and David Harbour are back of course as Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper respectively and the two talented actors do what they do best. They contribute a tonne to the emotional weight of the season, especially coming off their experiences last season. They’re both going through their own issues, on their own arcs, but they have a shared goal and that sees the two of them have plenty of time in the limelight once again. Still, to this day, I’m amazed at the spot on casting of Winona because if there’s one thing she can pull off well in her acting, it’s crazy.
Then you have Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Steve (Joe Keery) who all return and contribute to their own arcs in different ways I won’t spoil here. All three of them are on journeys in some way related to the main plot of the season whether they know it or not. One returning character who has a much more involved role this season and becomes a standout supporting character is Lucas’ younger sister Erica played by Priah Ferguson. In the last season, Priah was limited to a handful of scenes, but in those scenes she made an impression which left many hoping she’d be back for this season. Sure enough, she has a very involved role this time around and she is hilarious. Priah brings so much to the character and is instantly a favourite of the season.
When it comes to scores in film and TV, the Stranger Things score is right up there with the best of the best for me. The synth-heavy score is magnificent and so much of the drama, horror, and emotion is captured entirely through it playing over pivotal scenes. So many moment through the season I became lost in the music as it harkened back to key moments of the previous seasons with cleverly injected cues. The score is also backed up by an array of classic mid-80s music that always kept the tone very upbeat and in-line with the mall setting.
When it comes to the comedy, easter eggs, and pop culture references, this season is packed full of all of those. There are sequences involving a certain classic 80s film that I loved more than almost anything I’ve seen this year. As a whole, the humour is smart, witty, and never really misses a beat allowing for consistent laughs, except for when it gets deeply emotional. What’s good is that through all the moments characters are cracking jokes, or some serious emotional drama is going down, the story never loses its tension as there’s always the reminder of the looming threat on the horizon.
Stranger Things, in the past, is one of the closest things to flawless that has ever graced the small screen. Season 3 has continued that trend with another season I wouldn’t hesitate to watch all over again tomorrow. It’s the perfect example of how to create a new season to a series that keeps things fresh and original without changing much more than the overall tone very subtly. There’s a reason why this series is my all-time favourite, and that’s because after three seasons and 25 episodes it hasn’t dropped in quality. It’s still the best thing Netflix has to offer and is something that would be difficult to top.