Almost two years after its second season debuted, Stranger Things 3 finally comes to Netflix this week. We’ve seen it, we’ve enjoyed it, and we’ll get into a lot of the specifics after everyone else has had a chance to do the same. Until then though, we thought you might be interested in some broader, non-spoiler thoughts on the season.
Here’s the main takeaway: After every episode of Stranger Things 3, you’ll find yourself eagerly skipping the credits to jump into the next one. So, in that way alone, the new season works. Almost all of the characters get denser storylines to play out. The action is exponentially bigger than the previous seasons. It’s funny, gross, sweet, and fun, and by the end, the whole thing gets so massive and exciting, you’re likely not to remember a few of the hiccups along the way.
Among those hiccups, and it was the same problem last season, is that series creators the Duffer Brothers have not crafted an eight-episode television series. They’ve made a single eight-hour movie. One that probably could have been more like six hours. The show is absolutely designed to be binged over a single day in that it tells one story, structured with a single crescendo, and everything leads toward the final episode. In a normal television series, storylines would get wrapped up, and others started, throughout the season. It would be more of a marathon than a sprint. But not in Stranger Things. Here things start slow, end fast, and almost every mystery set up in episode one is not solved until episode eight. As a result, there are some full episodes (and lots of stretches in other episodes) which feel like the whole series is pressing the pause button. Sure, things are happening and those things may even be advancing the plot or developing characters, but they’re in no rush to do so. Everything is geared only for the end. So, a superfluous battle here and fun little aside there are fairly common, even if they feel like treading water.
What is cool about the structure of this season, though, is that the characters are broken into their own little groups to solve what they think are isolated mysteries. They don’t know all of their stories are different aspects of the same one. Therefore, the audience pieces together much of what’s happening long before the characters, and as the characters make those discoveries, it’s great drama. Plus, having everyone tackle the story from unique angles allows for a larger caliber of mystery and richer character moments.
Again, without getting too specific about those moments, the relationship between Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) that started at the end of season two plays a huge role here. Same for the relationship between Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink), the burgeoning bromance between Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery), as well as Will’s (Noah Schnapp) connection to the evil Mind Flayer which, yes, is at the center of this story.
Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) have lots more to do. Lucas’ sister Erika (Priah Ferguson) and Max’s brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) are each way, way more important this season, and may become fan favorites because of their increased narrative responsibilities. Then there are a few new characters—such as Steve’s co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke) and Cary Elwes’ evil mayor Kline—that add very specific new angles to the show.
Those relationships are all more complex and mature this time around too. Eleven, Max, Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin all in some way have to deal with romance and sexuality. Hopper and Joyce each are more on edge and emotional after what’s happened to their kids in the past. Basically, everyone is growing out of the things they thought made them who they are, and seeing each character discover that about themselves is extremely rewarding.
In addition to that emotional maturity, Stranger Things 3 also ups the ante in terms of sheer scope. Everything is massive this season. So, for example, not everything takes place in Hawkins. The sets (like the Starcourt Mall, which has been teased for months) are big, beautiful, and ripe for detailed exploration. There are fewer direct pop culture references but, when they happen, they really happen. Eleven embraces her powers in new ways and isn’t afraid to use them. Just the overall scale and stakes have been taken up more than a few notches. Plus, they’re up against the Mind Flayer, a villain that we’ve seen in previous seasons, who is physically massive. So the way that plays out is quite interesting as well.
That sheer size of the action can overshadow the actual story being told though. There are set pieces that get lost because they either feel repetitive or don’t forward the story enough. Then, tonally, that level of chaos at times takes the focus away from the best part of the show, which is the characters. As a result, Stranger Things 3 feels more like a big, mindless, summer blockbuster than the independent movie the first season was. But that’s okay. After two hit seasons and a long absence, it’s nice to see things turned up to Eleven, pun intended. There are shocking consequences here. Fists will be gleefully pumped in the air, jaws will drop out in awe, and tears will be shed for a number of reasons.
Stranger Things 3 may spin its wheels to get where it’s going, but it lights a fire once it gets there. The season is flawed but solid, and we hope it’s not another two years before we see part four. If it is, who knows how big the kids are going to be, both on screen and off. And we mean that literally. They are growing very, very fast. Will is taller than Joyce this year!
Okay, so that’s one spoiler. We’ll discuss many, many more after July 4 when Stranger Things 3 debuts on Netflix.
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