The first season of Stranger Things was a pleasantly surprising nostalgia trip that, among other things, resurrected Winona Ryder’s career, made Dungeons & Dragons cool (or at least mainstream), and gave millions of viewers a sudden craving for Eggo waffles. Season two was a much more forgettable version of the same thing. Season three is far more memorable than its immediate predecessor but it fails to surpass the original.
The Mind Flayer is back. The Russians have infiltrated Hawkins. A group of teenagers (including Steve and Dustin) have infiltrated the Russians. Hopper has donned a Hawaiian shirt to become the fashion icon we never knew we needed. In other words, there’s a lot going on here. This is precisely what prevents the third season from achieving the greatness of the first: the various story arcs distract from one another.
As a result, season three is the least coherent installation of Stranger Things to date. And certain plot elements — such as Mrs. Wheeler and Billy’s short-lived, unsuccessful romantic arc — should never have made the final cut to begin with. In a season that includes everything from a Terminator-esque Russian government agent to a supernatural showdown at a mall, the show’s greatest strength remains its exploration of the main characters’ personal lives.
The kids we met in season one are teenagers now, and with that comes new challenges. When Mike and Eleven are dating, we get to enjoy the endearing awkwardness that defines all teenage relationships. Steve’s transformation from high school bad boy to an ice cream shop employee (and 14-year-old Dustin’s best friend) is one of the funniest and most wholesome elements of the season. And Max and Eleven’s shopping montage to Madonna’s “Material Girl” is just the sort of over-the-top homage to 1980s pop culture that caused viewers to fall in love with the series in the first place.
However, the main characters’ personal lives aren’t purely comical. Will’s isolation from his friends is one of the strongest elements of the season. While Mike, Lucas and Dustin are busy with their new girlfriends, Will tries desperately to hold onto his childhood. This culminates in Will destroying the fort in his backyard — a scene which showcases both Noah Schnapp’s acting prowess and the Duffer brothers’ ability to create a truly poignant moment in a series that otherwise sticks to the thriller and comedy genres.
Newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) provides another one of the series’ most touching moments. Her coming out to Steve provides LGBTQ+ representation in a show that otherwise has none, and the moment feels authentic. Steve’s immediate acceptance of Robin’s sexuality and their resulting platonic friendship is an uplifting and deeply human moment.. As a result, it is one of the best scenes in season three — no monsters or “evil Russians” required.
To top it all off, season three ends with the series’ best finale thus far. With the death of a beloved main character, an intriguing post-credits scene, and a shocking development regarding the Byers family, the final episode of the season leaves viewers wondering what the Duffer brothers have in store for the future.
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