Better than season 2. Spoilers I suppose.
Stranger Things is an odd one. Clearly, it’s an homage to the perception of the 80s, with very little basis on the actual 80s people lived through – so it comes across as super meta (anyone under 30 won’t get most of the references). It’s also a mix of sci-fi/horror, of which there’s very little in today’s market. Finally, it’s Netflix’s flagship series now that OITNB is on a downward trend. That puts a LOT of eyes on it, and I can only assume a fair amount of pressure to deliver.
Season 3 follows the familiar formula – a bad force captures a character, there are bad scientists, Eleven has super powers, threat averted in final episode, cliffhanger. What Season 3 suffers from is character bloat, or rather character redundancy. Set in ’85, the kids are now 14/15 and Back to the Future is all the rage.
Let’s talk about the additions first:
- Alexi – Used entirely for exposition as the portal can’t be closed without the information he provides over multiple episodes. When the info is transferred, he naturally dies.
- Murray – Was in season 2, but more as a nutso. Still eccentric but the only real purpose here is to translate Alexi’s Russian. Irrelevant otherwise.
- Karen Wheeler – Mike’s Mom and used to project defeatism and regret. Her chat with Nancy was tragic. She does a great job representing “normal”.
- The Russians – The super stereotypical bad guys, following every trope possible, including the inability to aim their guns.
- Robin – Steve’s partner in slinging ice cream. An older, female version of Dustin. Stand-out this season.
- Erica – Lucas’ sister realized she’s a nerd. Audience surrogate for most of the story.
And the regular crew.
- Eleven – fluent in English, goes through some self-discovery, loses her powers by the end. Given that 99% of the heavy lifting is done by her powers, there’s no way to continue this series if those aren’t returned.
- Steve – Honestly, he’s more of the star here than Eleven. He rolls with every punch and has come miles from his start in Season 1.
- Dustin – Same ol’ Dustin, though a bit more confidence. Most of the story triggers off his actions.
- Max – Plays a ton of roles here. Catalyst for Eleven’s growth, comic relief, voice of reason, Billy’s sister… a really strong role.
- Lucas – Feels like he’s less present, though also the one who’s matured the most by the end. His actions in face of fear are impressive.
- Joyce – The derangement is gone and instead replaced by pure focus. Sure, the focus was there before, but now it seems more tempered by her experience.
- Nancy & Jonathan – It’s really frustrating to see kids act smarter than these two, and some seriously poor writing when it comes to their relationship. Only saved by the fact the 2 actors clearly have good chemistry (and are dating). I will say that Nancy with a gun is impressive.
- Hopper – Episode 1 and Episode 8 are good. Everything in the middle makes him look like a rageaholic. Hopper’s strength lies in the excess of calmness, with odd bursts of emotion. This season is the opposite and you lose a lot from it.
- Billy – Episode 1 is great. Then he becomes a blank faced bad guy until the last 20 minutes of the season. His arc makes no sense, and the redemption even less so. All he needed was a hug? Really?
- Mike – Even more useless than Season 2. He’s the catalyst for many of the other character changes, but does little himself.
- Will – Bad-guy detector, and only when the bad guys are 20 feet away.
The season splits up most of the crew into 4 teams, and has them join up near the end. Which for story purposes I get. The downside is that some storylines are really weak compared to others. Steve/Dustin/Robin/Erica absolutely shine. Eleven’s feels like Degrassi High. Joyce/Hopper is like a bad rom-com. The less we talk about Nancy/Jonathan the better (which is less about sexism than it is about a child in an adult’s world… which really seems lost on the writers.)
I will point out some scenes that have some great weight.
- Nancy & Karen’s kitchen chat about chasing dreams. Karen gave up on hers, and the pathos here helps drive Nancy to commit even more crimes in search of the story (which should be hyper obvious given the past 2 seasons). If Nancy was smarter, then this would have had a different impact.
- Hopper’s funhouse battle, as well as the basement battles are more rip-offs than homage to classic 80s action films. Gregori’s Arnold/Terminator vibe really helps sell it.
- Steve & Robin’s bathroom chat. There’s an undercurrent that Stranger Things is just a story concocted from the imagination of the Breakfast Club to fill up time. This scene really drives that point home. Every beat here is well earned and dramatically changes the group dynamic forward.
- Hopper’s letter. This season is all about the transition from one stage of life to the next. Seeing the kids understand that they are no longer kids. The letter shows that Hopper understood that fact, and offered some solid advice. Sure, overly sentimental, but it’s the Hopper than should have been there across the season as he was in season 2.
Frankly, if Stranger Things ended here, I’d be content. There’s very little growth left for any of the characters, unless Mike & Will decide to actually do something. The stakes can only get higher if it threatens more than Hawkins, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than a group of Elevens being purposeful in that situation. The series needs less characters, and more focus. There are stakes – since every kid is invincible.
Clearly Netflix needs a Season 4 more than the actual series does.