Warning: This contains spoilers for Stranger Things Season 3. Not finished watching? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes here.
By now, it’s probably safe to say that most of us have watched the third season of Stranger Things. Breaking viewing records, Netflix reported that almost half of the 40 million households who tuned in between its Thursday drop and the following Sunday watched the whole eight episodes that weekend. We believe them. The experience of watching their now-flagship programme is much like the tagline of a Pringles advert – once you pop, you can’t stop.
It’s has also had an overwhelmingly positive critical reception. Everything we’ve come to expect from Stranger Things – the pop-cultural references, the 80s soundtrack, the action and adventure, the humour and the cleverness – is here. But there’s an extra element of depth, as we watch the characters visibly and emotionally grow older. As Joyce says to Hopper early on, they’re “not little kids any more”. With Season 3, the Duffer Brothers have proved themselves willing to tackle head-on the transition of their young, adorable cast into teenagers, by maturing the themes right along with them. As our group of heroes become less of an organic unit, their own distinct identities emerge, with complicated interpersonal relationships and burgeoning sexualities.
Even as the spectacle goes into overdrive in the last few episodes, there is room for these all-too-human aspects of character to be explored. The pacing is such that high-drama monster assaults are intercut with quiet, tender moments, which are given the sensitivity they deserve – Robin coming out, for example, on the floor of a public toilet, even while in another part of the mall the Demogorgon rages and the Russians assault Hopper.
The humour, too, expertly skews the action. As Steve, Robin, Dustin and Erica flee the Russians, it’s subverted by Steve’s verdict on Back to the Future (“I’m pretty sure he was trying to bang his mom”), a discussion of whether Oswald was a patsy, and, of course, Dustin’s My Little Pony nerd thesis. Then, of course, there’s the musical interlude as Dustin duets The Never-Ending Story with his girlfriend, Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo), right in the middle of trying to save the world.
As to the plot – well, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s never explained why the Russians want to open the Hellmouth. (For all the many film and TV references running through this – everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Alien via The Terminator – we’re going to go out on a limb and say that Buffy is the overarching inspiration, from an evil mayor in league with the baddies to stopping ‘the key’ opening the entrance to the Upside Down. The Starcourt mall can be seen as a stand-in for Sunnydale High, destroyed at the end of its own third season. There’s even a mother called Joyce.)
But we digress. The fact that it is set in 1985, at the heart of the Cold War, perhaps explains the inclusion of the duel between east and west. It also allows for the inclusion of Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), returned in order to translate. While Erica’s stone-cold love of capitalism gives us the best line of the season – “You cant spell America without Erica” – it does, too, allow for some thoughtless ‘commie’-bashing. The American iconography, which becomes more outré as the season goes on, culminates with El using the American flag as a blindfold, and the 4th of July carnival during which poor Slurpee-loving Alexei (Alec Utgoff) is shot. But it’s undercut by Murray’s critique of consumerism, as he explains that the fairground games are rigged, creating an illusion of fairness to put money in the rich man’s pocket. “That, my dear friend,” he tells Alexei, “is America.”
The Russian plot also gives Hopper an excuse to upgrade his weapons, to the point that he’s just blowing away multiple Russians with an AK with nary a thought. Which brings us to the deaths. Finally, we get to the heart of Billy’s mommy issues, and the reason he seems to find the older women of Hawkins so irresistible – and he ultimately dies a hero rather than a villain. But the real shocker is the fate of Hopper – although a scene after the closing credits suggest that rumours of his death may have been exaggerated. What really matters is that the rest of the characters are convinced he is gone, and must grieve for him. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved as El reads his posthumous letter – and by ‘be moved’ we mean ‘submit to an hour-long crying jag’.
The season is a masterclass in how to mix light with dark. The Duffer brothers have put to bed any fears that Stranger Things might be outstaying its welcome, and have proved, with aplomb, that they’re just hitting their stride. Their only problem they have, now, is how to top it.
Stranger Things 3 is available on Netflix, as part of a £8.99 monthly subscription.