I'll be honest: Your Friendly Neighborhood CultureGeek bailed on Stranger Things in the second season. By the scuttlebut running around the internet, it's possible this decision was unwise.
Still, that means it falls to the Guest Voices to tell us what's going down in Hawkins, Ind.
In Season 3 of Stranger Things, the people of Hawkins face the most terrifying horror yet. Not Demogorgons, Mind Flayers, or various supernatural inter-dimensional beasts (although there are those as well), but something far more hideous: hormonal teenagers!
Like many shows that feature children as a part of the cast, Stranger Things has to decide how to handle the simple fact of the cast growing up. Stranger Things elects to lean into that most relatable of early teenage angst: young love. Much of the season is dedicated to the various romantic relationships of the young cast, particularly psychic telekinetic Eleven and her beau, Mike.
Though the cast is adorable as always, these forays into teenage dating can feel distracting. Luckily, at a trim eight episodes Season 3 does not suffer from the long stretches of filler that plague some Netflix outings (Hi there, Iron Fist!). This season is more action-packed than the previous two, and the episodes zip along quickly. The show is built for bingeing, as the end of each episode usually has a cliffhanger that demands the next episode be viewed NOW.
As a show whose initial hook was 80s nostalgia, Season 3 ramps up the 80s culture to an almost absurd degree. Central to this is the new Starcourt Mall, ground zero for your 80s fix this season. Inside the mall, the discerning 80s connoisseur can find a bewildering array of 80s stores, foods, and fashion, from Waldenbooks to Orange Julius to that ungodly big hair that 80s culture apparently demanded as some sort of entrance fee. People of an, ahem, certain age will squee in delight the first time the interior of the mall is shown. (Yes, I am of that age, and yes, I squeed.)
Overall, the plot of the season moves along well, as the obligatory monsters are discovered and dealt with. The breakout star this season is clearly Maya Hawke as Robin, who spends most of the season with Steve, her Scoops Ahoy coworker, with whom she has loads of chemistry. Dacre Montgomery as Billy Hargrave, who had a smaller role in Season 2, is featured in Season 3 and does not disappoint. He is arresting on screen; my teenage daughter rather disturbingly describes him as a "thirst trap."
Of course, I have questions. Can someone explain to me why the people of Hawkins are still, well, there? People are dying and odd paranormal events have been occurring, but the good people of Hawkins are still going about their business, getting ready for their July 4th party like everything is perfectly normal. Still, I suppose they could have bought the government coverup.
Less believable is the fact that throughout the season, the cast, split into various groups, each gets a piece of the main picture, yet does not come together immediately. As soon as anyone that knows what has really been happening in Hawkins comes across the slightest oddity, especially gross Mind Flayer-adjacent ones, they should gather up the whole gang. Instead, everyone has their own little adventures that only converge in the finale. It strains credulity nearly to the breaking point, though not beyond.
With Season 3, Stranger Things is growing up. More mature storylines and pairings take the place of Dungeons and Dragons, which while causing a slight "loss of innocence" feeling, seems the proper way for this show to evolve. However, it has not lost its sense of fun, making it a superlative show that stands out from the streaming crowd. It's worth every second.
Oh, and keep an eye out for the song in the last episode. The kid in you will scream in joy. (Yes, I screamed. No, I am not ashamed.)
Stranger Things 3 charges full-speed ahead into the dangerous world that was looming at the end of the second edition of this series: puberty.
It’s 1985, and the quartet of boys who started this series are now keeping company with 2.5 girls. (Mike’s dating Eleven, Lucas is still dating Max, and Dustin returns from camp with tales of a girl named Suzie who’s “hotter than Phoebe Cates” but lives out of state.) Will, for his part, just wants to play Dungeons & Dragons like the old days.
There’s a lot to love about this season: the arrival of actress Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) as Steve’s fellow mall ice cream server Robin and the expanded role for Lucas’s younger sister Erica are just a couple of highlights. But the more mobile lifestyle of teens gives us a new, colorful set in the Starcourt Mall, and the anxieties of first love allow us new insights to these characters, particularly when Mike and Eleven hit a speed bump in their relationship and turn to Lucas and Max, respectively, for advice.
(Cue the mall makeover scene for El, scored to Madonna’s “Material Girl.” With the guys … there’s some belch- and fart-derived humor. It’s a miracle we ever made it out of the trees.)
It was great, by the way, to see Max (Sadie Sink) fully integrated with the gang after being introduced last season … and even better to see Max and El becoming thick as thieves after Eleven’s initial jealousy last season (when El was isolated from the boys most of the season).
I’m on board with some critics’ complaints that the season’s Big Bad is lacking in originality or a clear purpose. And that the Little Bad that gets us there — though timely — has the same shortcoming. But I’m not sure I care. I’d rather have the magnificent character moment between Steve “The Hair” Harrington and Robin “Girl He Overlooked in High School” Last Name Eludes Me in episode 7 than watch a villain give a grand speech, to be honest.
My only two complaints are that the writers seem to have trouble finding things for Nancy and Jonathan, Mike and Will’s older siblings, to do now that they’re a couple as of Stranger Things 2, and that we got virtually no time re-establishing the status of Max’s relationship with her older stepbrother Billy for him to be such a major character this season.
Dacre Montgomery gives a standout performance that made me care about Billy, a character whom I’d deemed after season 2 to have few redeeming qualities, but he does so in virtual isolation from the rest of the teen cast for all but two episodes. The Duffer Brothers seem to have at least one more installment in them, based on the post-credits teaser in the final episode, and Netflix’s rare statement about just how big a viewership tuned in for this season would seem to suggest they appreciate what they’ve got here.
I’m on this ride as long as they keep it going.
David Tyler is a lifelong aficionado of all things geeky, ranging from Star Trek to chess. He carries his Infinity Stones everywhere he goes.
Jason Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered former journalist living a few miles beyond that place you stop to use the restroom off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.