I was late hopping onto the Stranger Things train. I tried watching the first season back when it was initially released in 2016 but I just couldn’t get into it. It featured all the things that so many Spielberg movies (many of which the series is clearly trying to emulate) have that annoy me – too much focus on the adolescent drama and not enough focus on the actual spooky stuff. So, I never got into it. Fast forward to December 2018, when I finally sit down to watch through the first two seasons of the show. I still stand by a lot of my initial thoughts, but it’s hard not to get into the show. It fetishizes the 1980s to the point where it almost feels masturbatory, never having anything interesting to say about its time period and merely mining the era for as many nostalgic references it cram into the show as humanly possible; it never explores its mythology with any of the depth you’d want it to; and it often gets too caught up in the kids’ needless drama and odd side stories, but it’s a mostly fun show. The two novels and comic series that have been released in the downtime between season two and season three have gotten me far more interested in the universe of the story than the show ever did, so, naturally, I’m interested in seeing what season three does with the storyline. Will it finally explore some of the more interesting elements of its mythology or will it just be more of the same frustrating balance the first two seasons had? Spoiler alert: it’s the latter. Season 3 of Stranger Things is more of the same stuff we’ve already seen and not much new. (Mild spoilers ahead!)
It’s 1985 in Hawkins, Indiana, and summer’s heating up. School’s out, there’s a brand new mall in town, and the Hawkins crew (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, and Sadie Sink) are on the cusp of adulthood. Romance blossoms and complicates the group’s dynamic, and they’ll have to figure out how to grow up without growing apart. Meanwhile, danger looms. When the town’s threatened by enemies old and new, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and her friends are reminded that evil never ends; it evolves. Now they’ll have to band together to survive, and remember that friendship is always stronger than fear.
Here’s the thing: if you’ve been totally satisfied with the first two seasons of Stranger Things, you’ll likely be satisfied with season three. It’s exactly everything you’ve come to expect from the show at this point. But, if you’re like me and have always felt the show had some room for improvement, you’ll very much still feel that way – and it’ll be even more frustrating. Much of season three of Stranger Things just feels like more of the same stuff you’ve already seen. Same old scenario, same old villain, same old uninteresting adolescent drama – just with a new coat of paint. A year (or so) has passed since the events of season two and nothing has really changed. It’s summer break and Mike (Wolfhard) and Eleven’s romance is blooming alongside that of Lucas (McLaughlin) and Max’s (Sink). Meanwhile, the Mind Flayer has found its way into Hawkins and is looking to take over the world. If this sounds like the same basic plotline as season two, you’re really not wrong. Sure, there are a bunch of differences – the Mind Flayer actually has a plan, Russians are involved, the characters are all going through different emotional arcs than they previously were – but it’s hard for it not to just feel like more of the same, especially as it feels like there is no plan for the wider mythology of the show. Nothing gets answered, nothing new really gets introduced. It’s just the same old motiveless monsters – just, this time, the Mind Flayer snatches bodies like it’s in a lame rip-off of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and then proceeds to avoid doing anything remotely interesting with that idea.
As much as I don’t really care about any of the adolescent drama found within this show, it remains the most interesting aspect of the season – purely because the overarching threat is so uninteresting. I have the same complaints about the romantic plotlines in this season that I had for Spider-Man: Far From Home – that it frequently feels like adults trying to write teenage characters but not really understanding how teenagers act. Maybe I’m just way outside of the target age range for stories about teenage romance, but these kinds of plotlines do absolutely nothing for me and the first few episodes of this season are filled to the brim with lots of adolescent romantic drama. Once you get past that, though, there are some interesting character arcs that a number of characters go on: Hopper has to cope with Eleven growing up, Nancy has to deal with sexism in the workplace, Max tries to help Eleven become her own person (instead of being defined by the men in her life), Joyce tries to move past the death of her previous boyfriend (Bob), Will deals with his friends growing up at a faster pace than he is, etc. Unfortunately, none of these arcs are ever really given enough time to properly shine. They’re all interesting in their own rights, but there are just so many characters in this show that there’s not enough time to adequately explore all of these plotlines – this problem contributes to just how slow and pointless the first few episodes feel as they deal almost entirely with setting up character arcs that don’t end up anywhere truly satisfying. Honestly, I’m still not really sold on the necessity of the children being the main characters of the show – they are frequently significantly less interesting than the adult characters and it feels like there is only so much you can do with them. Most of the character arcs for the younger characters are fairly similar to the ones they have previously gone on, just tweaked a little bit; honestly, it feels like the writers don’t have any ideas on how to further handle these kids, so they seem to retread similar storylines for them ad nauseam. It might be time to move the focus away from the children – but that’ll never happen.
And, at the end of the day, that’s probably my problem with the show. How many times can we do the same general thing? How many times can some government people (American or otherwise) somehow open the Upside Down, releasing either the Demogorgon or the Mind Flayer, and forcing this ever-expanding cast of characters to come together and stop the inhuman threat before this formula gets old and repetitive? We’re three seasons in, now, and we still know very little about what the Upside Down is, what inhabits it, and why those inhabitants act the way they do. I’m not asking for the entirety of that concept to be explained because I think explaining it in too much detail removes some of the mystery from it, but explaining none of it makes it really hard to care about. What are the stakes when someone’s just gonna open it again – for reasons – and our heroes are just gonna close it again after some monsters destroy a bunch of stuff – again, just because? Sure, there are always some losses, but it all feels so unnecessary. If we’re gonna have to lose characters, can’t the threat be different? It all feels a bit boring. Each season takes forever to get its central mystery moving and it’s increasingly looking like it’s because the writers don’t actually have a compelling mystery to tell. They keep killing off the human antagonists before they can be developed and they refuse to give any of the monsters from the Upside Down any kind of sentience that might make them feel like compelling antagonists instead of scary monsters – and, potentially, start to actually reveal some of the mysteries of the Upside Down. It feels like the overarching storyline isn’t going anywhere. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this, any greater plan behind any of these events – things keep happening because new seasons have to be made because it makes Netflix a boatload of cash.
It’s not all bad, though. The show looks better than it ever has; I suspect Netflix is pumping more money into the show’s budget because it genuinely looks better than a lot of Hollywood blockbusters do. Both the cinematography and the CGI and other visual effects look incredible in this season. Of particular beauty (if you could really call it that) is the Mind Flayer. While it merely looked like a smoke monster in the previous seasons, it’s a lot more visceral here. It feels truly monstrous and sickening. There was always something a bit endearing about the Demogorgon – until it opened its mouth, of course – but there is absolutely nothing redeeming about this updated design for the Mind Flayer. It is a monster and it will mess up your day. I wish it had more than a cool design, though, but at least it’s cool to look at. All the actors do as good a job as they can with the material they’ve been given. The younger actors struggle a bit – but that’s mostly because they’re not being given anything to really work with. The older actors, however, shine pretty brightly. David Harbour’s Hopper has a more comedic role this time; it’s nice to see Winona Ryder get to portray Joyce as something other than a panicking mother, Maya Hawke’s Robin is a great foil for Steve Harrington, and Cary Elwes is a lot of fun as the town’s mayor – it’s a shame we didn’t get more of him! Of some surprise to me was just how good Dacre Montgomery was as Billy. He’s given a pretty challenging role to play in the series and he manages to play it really well. Billy is given a touch more depth here than he was in season two – though, not much – and Montgomery pulls that depth off really well. Stranger Things still has a lot going for it, it’s just that it’s frequently let down by its scripts.
At the end of the day, season three of Stranger Things just feels like more of the same. If you really dug the previous two seasons of Stranger Things and just wanted more episodes that felt exactly like the previous 17, then you’ll be pretty happy. If you wanted something new or wanted the show to actually explore some of its mythology with any kind of depth, you’ll be disappointed. The Duffer Brothers have clearly found a formula they think works and they’re not gonna deviate far from it, regardless of how repetitive it makes the show feel. While there are plenty of great moments throughout these eight episodes, some stellar visuals, and some solid acting, it’s hard to really care about the storyline when it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. We still know very little about the actual world of Stranger Things and we’ve yet to be given any kind of a truly compelling antagonist. It’s hard to get invested in these events when it feels like you’re just gonna go through it all over again in the next season – as that’s what’s happened in each of these first three seasons. If the show wants to continue to thrive, it’s gonna have to do something new one of these days instead of banking off of nostalgia – from both the 1980s and from its first two seasons. It would be nice if Stranger Things would figure out what kind of overarching story it wants to tell and actually take steps to tell that story instead of treading water the way it has been. But, alas, perhaps that’s not what they want. Perhaps it’s not what the fans want. If so, this will please them immensely. For me, it wasn’t anything amazing. It was fine, but I’ve seen it before.
3 out of 5 wands