(This review does contain SPOILERS)
While Stranger Things Season 3 manages to deliver an effective story thanks to likable characters and tight writing, the show can’t help but feel a little redundant at times. That’s not to say that the season is bad as there is a ton to love due to our characters growing up, new monsters, and a spectacular production design. But I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by the end as if I had just watched many of the same story beats from previous seasons play out again and not nearly as gripped as I was in season 2. Suffice to say the popular Netflix show is still going strong and it’s great to be back in Hawkins, Indiana with new threats and stakes.
The Hawkins kids have grown up and with that there is a new dynamic within the group. Mike and Eleven are now dating, Lucas and Max are dating, Dustin is just coming back from camp after a month of being away, and Will just wants to play D&D with his friends reminiscing about when they were kids. Meanwhile, Steve Harrington is working at an ice cream shop in the new Starcourt mall with his new co-worker Robin as he wrestles with life post high school. Hoppers and Joyce are on their own adventure uncovering new mysteries going on in Hawkins while also dealing with the romantic tension between them and Nancy and Jonathan are using their own detective skills to bring to light new truths. And while the portal to the Upside Down was closed by Eleven in the previous season, the creatures and forces are still not done with this peculiar town.
There are a lot of characters in Stranger Things now which presents a challenge to the writers to balance everything effectively and bring it all together in the end. For the most part they succeed, but that’s mainly due to how attached we are to these characters now rather than the plot actually being anything of substance. Particularly Nancy and Jonathan’s storyline could be taken out and you wouldn’t miss anything from the plot, but it is nice to see them even when their story isn’t entirely interesting in the grander scheme of things.
Seeing the kids wrestle with their raging hormones is one of the most compelling dynamics of the new season. Given that the cast started out as young kids, we were eventually going to see them grow up and the Duffer Brothers handle that change endearingly. It’s nice to see them grow up while also remaining true to the little kids we fell in love with. They bicker, they laugh, they fall out, they work together and watching all of their interactions with each other shows just how strong and developed these characters truly are.
Seeing them argue and fall out throws a wrench in the established group dynamic from the previous seasons which is a big risk, but luckily it led to some exciting and fun team-ups. Steve’s bromance with Dustin continue to form this season and it is entirely endearing. They both mentor one another yet banter like siblings and its highly entertaining to watch. They are also joined by Robin and Erica (Lucas’ little sister) on a quest to uncover a Russian conspiracy going on and this unusual group brings a lot of laughs and entertainment with their interactions.
I love the characters in the show and seeing them wrestle with both personal and “stranger” things is one of the season’s strengths. But I did not feel the storylines they were given were as interesting this time around and began to feel all too familiar by the time we reached the finale.
Having the Mind Flayer return and infect Billy this season was a welcome twist as it gave his character more to do and expand upon his backstory. Having the Hawkins kids investigate that aspect proves to be fruitful especially around episode 4 when they face off with him in the sauna room. Seeing them continue to fight against these creatures with Eleven’s powers and the amazing special effects team is highly entertaining, especially as it ramps up towards the finale when the Mind Flayer has taken its true form and they fight in Starcourt Mall. But it’s also interesting to see how they try to solve this issues combining their childish instincts with some smart ingenuity. This kept the season going for me and lead to a spectacular final two episodes.
But the build up to get to that point is poorly paced and features a phenomenon that I am going to dub the “Netflix Syndrome”. This is when a TV show on Netflix doesn’t actually ramp up the action and tension until the last 10 or 15 minutes of the episode and then ends on a cliffhanger so that you keep watching. Then the episode begins with the fallout and then its “slow” up until the end of the episode again where the action kicks in. For the first six episodes this occurred: end of episode 3 they knock out and kidnap Heather’s parents, end of episode 4 was the showdown with Billy, end of episode 5 was the scary monster hospital chase, end of episode 6 ended with Eleven entering Billy’s mind. All the excitement happens at the end of the episode until we reach the finale where the tension, drama, suspense, romance, and plot is woven throughout.
This happens with most shows but it bothers me here because the storylines aren’t that interesting. The Russians trying to open a portal, Hopper and Joyce escaping a Terminator-esque figure, Nancy and Jonathan investigating, these were not as interesting as the show made it out to be. While it all comes together at the end, the bulk of the season is a lot of slow methodical dialogue and exposition which isn’t as interesting as opposed to dealing with Will’s encounter with the Mind Flayer last season that provided shocking reveals and elevated tension as it geared towards the finale. It’s fun to see all these characters interact and solve things, but the reveals in the story don’t consistently keep the stakes elevated.
The other issue I take is that it feels sort of familiar and repetitive at this point. Someone opens the portal to the Upside Down in the beginning of the season unleashing a new monster and by the end of the season they make a valiant and dramatic effort to close it. As that is happening, the gang is fighting some sort of monster from the Upside Down be it a Demogrogon, Demodogs, or this season’s Mind Flayer. This has happened in each of the three seasons and while the presentation and settings are different, it is still the same. What’s the point of closing that portal if you’re just going to keep opening it up in the beginning of the next season? The writers need to do something different next season to elevate the stakes.
I did really enjoy the action and the special effects in this season and you can tell the show spared no expense in its production value. The setting of the Starcourt mall is gorgeous to look at and provides an excellent set piece for when they fight the Mind Flayer in the finale. Speaking of the Mind Flayer, the effects on it look astounding especially with all the goreiness that happened during the hospital scene. The scale of that creature was intimidating and I was on the edge of my seat watching how the characters could get out of an encounter with it.
While I did complain all of the action happens at the end of the episodes, they are still amazing sequences! My favorite has to be the finale in Starcourt Mall followed closely by the mind trip into Billy. Both packed an emotional punch and elevated tension that almost met the standard set by when Will revealed he was being controlled by the Mind Flayer in season 2! The scale and production of all this needs to get some serious credit as it is starting to be on par with what Game of Thrones had at one point.
With everything I did enjoy season 3, I just think season 2 had better tension and story twists that elevated the show to new heights. This season took a step down in terms of tension but supplemented it while with great character chemistry and an impressive new villain in the form of Billy with the Mind Flayer. It really found its footing in the finale particularly with those heartbreaking goodbyes with the gang. While I don’t believe Hopper is truly dead, his note to Eleven was incredibly heartbreaking and well directed with the emotional farewell of Will and Eleven leaving Hawkins.
I am curious to see where the show goes next or if they will end taking bigger risks next season. The hint that they have a Demogorgon in Russia seeks to expand the narrative outside of Hawkins which could help with the redundancy faced this season. I want to see the writers be a little more ambitious in their decisions of storytelling next season as they have proved that they risks they take with their characters always seems to pan out for great entertainment. Eleven losing her powers too will be an exciting development and maybe lead to somewhere new down the road. Hopefully the next season will be out soon, but for now this is a fun ride back to Hawkins that should definitely check out.