Stranger Things Season 3 review: a welcome return to form for the Netflix juggernaut series of nostalgia, and it even ends on a surprising emotional note – let’s chat about if really sticks…
If you sat in all weekend during the 4th of July like Mary and I, you already know how Stranger Things season begins and ends. Yes, that’s right, we watched all eight episodes during the better part of three days – give us a break, we have kids that go to bed at 7pm.
But the big question on everyone’s mind seems to be, is it good? Is it worth the watch and continuing to invest in these characters? I think the resounding answer is an extremely enthusiastic yes.
You’ll probably hear that it wasn’t as good as the first season, or that it’s on par with the second season for whatever that’s worth. If you really care to know, I do think that it’s not as good as the first season, but a major step up from the uneven second. But, that’s not really the point here. The point is that our cast has grown (both literally and figuratively in age and numbers) and, with them, the story has evolved into a more personal coda to the eighties and those kids we fell in love with back in 2016.
Right before our very eyes, Stranger Things has evolved into a larger story that requires more than just “hey, look, that little girl has cool powers.” No, there is nothing quite like that first season when we were first introduced to Eleven, met this ragtag group of nerds, drooled over the ageless and ever fabulous Wynona Ryder, and embarked on our initial steps into Hawkins, Indiana. So, in that sense, the third season will never compare to the first.
Season 3 excels, however, because it finally closes out the arcs that began back in season 1 and it doubles down on it’s strengths while letting go of everything (for the most part) that didn’t work in previous seasons. Say what you will about the villain, the ode to Terminator, the likelihood of the Russians, and how nebulous the mechanics of the Upside Down are, there are some truly horrifying moments in Stranger Things 3 that pull you in to the world.
Once again, the battle between the kids and their foe are personal and I like that. The isn’t concerned with going bigger, being more shocking, or trying to twist itself into knots with reveals that blow our minds. This is a good thing, because after experimenting with some major world building in season 2 with the whole 008, lost family, aspect to Eleven’s background – the brothers Duffer chose to go back to what works best in Stranger Things – relationships with the kids we love.
Quick aside – I see why they tried to expand the Stranger Things universe in season 2, and respect the guts it took to make that decision. It feels like a natural progression for a show that exploded out of nowhere. Let’s make the world bigger! On the other hand, did anyone ever really care that there were other kids like Eleven out there? Sure, there’s probably a good story in there somewhere about a kinship that bonds people together because of their shared trauma, but the execution was botched.
At no point did anything that happened with the Eleven side plot affect anything in the main story other than to get Eleven out of Hawkins so she couldn’t just step in and save the day. We get a little bit of Elle’s pathos, and discover some of her background to help enlighten us as to her world before Hawkins – but it just feels like a trippy side project the brothers thought of after a couple nights of riffing on cool ideas.
The decision to unabashedly ignore the entirety of those events in season 3 is probably the right choice as it puts the onus back on the original group. But, this is not a case of the Duffers going back to the well either. Splitting the group, building on the relationships between Mike and Eleven, Lucas and Max, Hopper and Joyce, and even the dynamics between Steve, Dustin and season 3 standout Robin, are what gives the narrative drive the steam it deserves.
Seeing the kids grow apart, fall back in themselves, lose touch with D & D, fuss over their lovers quarrels, Dustin prove to Erica that she’s a nerd, watching Elle explore the parameters female friendship, getting lost in puppy love, or even coming to terms with her own abilities (as well as their consequences) is probably the most compelling the show has ever been. Though, perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and the fact that I have children of my own, I truly felt the most effective part of season 3 was the hard work that was put into the relationship between Joyce and Hopper.
Whether you liked Bob in season 2 or not, the chemistry between David Harbour and Wynona Ryder oddly works really well and the decision to lean into that was the right choice. Independent of that, however, both these characters have some real searching to do, and their are inexorably tied together. Hopper needs to become a better “dad”, Joyce needs to find her way in her emotional journey, and they both help each other find the better parts of themselves. Surprisingly enough, the emotional core belongs to Hopper, as he navigates his role in the town, his feelings for Joyce, and what it means to be a dad to a kid who technically isn’t his, and watching her grow up. This trajectory is what gives the ending the final astonishing emotional punch that I didn’t see coming.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SEASON 3…
So by now, you’ve probably seen the end of Stranger Things 3 – yes, Hopper dies in an attempt to blow up the Russian machine that’s creating another portal to the Upside Down. So is he really gone? My gut tells me no.
We have the obvious reference in the credits scene about “The American” and while that is intentionally left vague, it would be relatively disingenuous if it weren’t Hopper. Not to mention the fact that we didn’t see a body, or the act of Hopper actually dying, and as you know – if you don’t see a body on TV – then that person ain’t dead. Even then, it’s still not entirely an accurate barometer (just ask Tony on 24). Nevertheless, there are still some story elements that were, in my opinion, specifically chosen to foreshadow Hopper’s survival.
The biggest and most apparent STORY reason why Hoppers seems to survive lay in his final speech. It was a great joke throughout all of the season to keep referencing his desire to keep the door open a “three inch minimum” but there’s some real weight there for us as viewers. I may have been influenced by the river of tears cascading down my cheeks as Eleven read Hopper’s abandoned speech, but having his final words reference that three inch minimum speaks volumes to me. It’s as if the Duffers are begging us to keep an open mind and that no matter how bad it may look, there is still room for interpretation as to what happened to him. So, please, viewers, keep the door open just 3 inches for his return.
On a nerdy note, notice that after Dr. Owens and the too-late-American-armed-forces arrive, the slice into the Upside Down is not fully healed. Not only that, where the hell did all the Russians go? Perhaps it was an editing miscue, but one minute we have a small city of Soviets bombing around that control room, and then the next minute they’re all gone? I don’t buy it. Couple that with the appearance of the Demigorgon that was obviously being held in America (thanks to that keen sighting of the cage by Erica) now in Russia, and the clear references to Back To The Future at a pivotal moment in the show, I just wonder if time travel plays a role in his disappearance. I won’t pretend to know the mechanics of how he survived, or even attempt to figure it out. You nerds can do that on your time. But, it all just seems too convenient for Hopper to not be alive.
In fact, Hopper being alive would bring Stranger Things back full circle, allowing the kids and Joyce to embark on a journey of rescuing him from the clutches of either The Upside Down, or the Russians in season 4.
I will say though, Hopper being alive is hard for me to accept on an emotional level. I love when shows have the guts to take a beloved character and kill them. But, kill them for good. There was such a passionate and poignant goodbye to his character that I would hate to see anything undermine his final words, or even the growth for Eleven and Joyce to say goodbye to him.
But overall, I really enjoyed Stranger Things 3, and I am sure with time, I may even say it was better than season 1.
Mary & Blake Certified: A
Apropos of nothing:
- Having Eleven “lose” her powers by the end of the season is the BEST choice the Duffers made in the third season. Not only can she not just save the day with her powers going forward like she did in previous seasons, but it also prevents the idea of going back to the same old formula for future seasons. The kids are now exposed just like any other group and it changes the whole dynamic of the show going forward. Not only that, but who or what is Eleven without her powers? That is a story I cannot wait to see…
Did you enjoy season 3 and do you think Hopper is really gone?