This is a spoiler-free review of Season 3’s opening episodes but contains spoilers for previous seasons. Not caught up? Read our reviews of Seasons 1 and 2 here.
There’s a lot running on the third season of Strangers Things. After the near-perfect first season, the follow-up seemed a bit looser, with a sagging middle section and some plot lines and characters that took us out of Hawkins and almost broke the show’s spell. Were these missteps a sign of terminal decline for the Duffer Brothers’ beloved creation, or just a blip in an otherwise beautifully-realised universe?
We’re glad to report that it’s the latter. While things zip along nicely at the start of Season 3, the pace isn’t rushed, leaving time for us to reacquaint ourselves with the characters fans have come to love. The Brothers seem to be confidently back in their stride.
Returning to 1980s Hawkins, Indiana, feels like returning to your childhood home after some time away – things have changed, subtly, while remaining seemingly the same. The cast are that little bit older, but it makes the world of difference, as children become teenagers and high school students start navigating the world of work. And, of course, there’s the ever-present sense of danger as a new threat begins to rear its head.
Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and El (Millie Bobby Brown) are full-on snogging, which, call us old-fashioned, is even more shocking than the ‘evil Russians’ who appear in the Chernobyl-style cold open. This development doesn’t thrill their friends, who feel neglected as the couple try to spend as much time as possible alone with each other and their raging hormones. And nor is Hopper (David Harbour) taking it well, although it does give him an excuse to hang around Joyce (Winona Ryder), soliciting parenting advice. Joyce herself is still feeling the effects of the previous season, grieving for Bob Newby over a microwave meal for one in front of new episodes of Cheers.
Will (Noah Schnapp) is having visions of the Upside Down, and feeling increasingly isolated, longing for the less complicated days of Dungeons and Dragons in the basement, with no girls allowed. Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are still a couple, but a rather less intense one than El and Mike, while the first episode sees Max’s ladykiller brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) turn the heads of Hawkins’ bored housewife population with his lifeguard job at the local swimming pool. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are now working together at local paper the Hawkins Post, although while he’s respected in his photographer position, she’s experiencing sexist bullying – her main tormenter being Bruce, played by Jake Busey (real-life son of 1980s uber villain Gary Busey).
Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), meanwhile, is returning from a science summer camp, where he’s been busy building his inventions – one of which may or may not lead directly to those evil Russians from the introduction – and he’s also claiming to have a Phoebe Cates-lookalike girlfriend (you wouldn’t know her, she lives in Utah). He’s quickly hanging out with Steve (Joe Keery) again, although there’s a role reversal, as Dustin finds himself doling out the love-life advice. Steve’s having something of a dry spell, which he puts down to his new job at an ice cream parlour, where he has to wear a hat which covers his best feature: his hair. New character Robin (Maya Hawke – the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke), Steve’s acerbic co-worker, is a welcome addition to the cast, and when she’s not sparring with Lucas’ scene-stealing little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), she’s quickly roped into some codebreaking.
It’s not just the kids who have grown up, though: Hawkins itself is changing. The ice cream parlour is situated in the Starcourt, a new and influential mall, all neon signs and bright lights, where the young people hang out – whether sneaking into the cinema to watch Day of the Dead, or taking part in shopping trip montages soundtracked by Madonna’s Material Girl. This comes at the expense of failing local businesses, leading to upset at the town hall, as protesters target the mayor, played by another 80s favourite, Cary Elwes.
It’s all done with a lightness of touch, as long-running jokes mingle inside that vortex of nostalgia – synth music, jazzercise, signed posters of Ralph Macchio swooned over in teenage girls’ bedrooms – conjuring an extended exercise in sense-memory for those of us who were young at the time. And in among this near-perfect world-building is this season’s big bad, which we won’t talk much about at present. Let’s just say it involves exploding rats, electro magnetic fields, and something along the lines of invasion of the body snatchers. Suffice it to say, it’s all shaping up to be another hell of a ride.
Stranger Things 3 is available on Netflix, as part of a £8.99 monthly subscription.