No one can deny that Stranger Things solidified Netflix as a force to reckon with for binge-worthy television. It’s a massive hit, but there’s always a chance new seasons bring lower standards. Thankfully, the Duffer brothers are on hand to keep the characters and world building consistent.
Season 3 has a lot to offer. Building on characterization and relationships means we’re way more invested in their fates than we might have been for season 1. Old favorites like Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Jim Hopper (David Harbour) are back, as are the full cast of kids: Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max (Sadie Sink), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Steve (Joe Keery), and even Max’s creepy brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). New additions add extra spice, like lifeguard Heather (Francesca Reale), Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes), and ice cream store worker Robin (Maya Hawke). There are more well-loved characters I missed here, but that just shows what a rich, detailed world the Duffer brothers have built. And of course, growing up means new challenges. Nancy faces full-on 80s sexism at work, Dustin deals with the consequences of spending a month out-of-the-loop at camp, and Eleven and Mike struggle to find a balance between friendships and their raging hormones much to Hopper’s dismay. Add monsters and Russian spies into the mix and the story gets even more interesting. It’s a solid third act in a cohesive story, and it’s almost impossible not to binge it all in one sitting.
For starters, it’s set at the perfect time. Moving away from Halloween to the 4th of July makes it more accessible in the USA since most Americans have the day off. The setting, summertime with all that entails, works delightfully as a combination monster horror red scare thriller. The whole cast is back, and new settings mean new character developments. New additions to the cast also bring life to the series.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
This season has Easter eggs galore, and they’re particularly relevant for those of us who lived through some or all of the 80s. From the clothes to the uber cheesy mall culture, this season ups the nostalgia factor. But for those who didn’t live through the 80s, some of the references might fly over their head. For instance, the following.
- The Griswold Family refers to the National Lampoon Vacation movie series of wacky, failed family adventures. It’s a back-handed comment about how dysfunctional the group is, yet how they can come together when they must.
- John Carpenter’s movie The Thing (1982) took a 1950s film and revamped it for 1980s sensibilities by increasing the shades of distrust — the creature could take anyone’s shape, so everyone is a potential enemy. This was a strong commentary about the state of the Cold War and the resulting paranoia that kept everyone toeing the line of mainstream ideals.
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is the original science fiction horror that dealt with losing one’s identity and individuality in service to some unknown otherworldly entity. Filled with sexual innuendo, it was later remade in 1978 to further dialogue on the ongoing threat of the Cold War once again and the toll conformity took on the populace.
When it comes to a horror franchise, the danger and chance of death for our protagonists increase tenfold with each sequel or new season. From a flesh monster that liquifies and absorbs victims to a deadly Terminator-style Russian agent, our favorite characters face death at every turn, and not all of them make it out alive. As Jonathan tells Nancy, they have shared trauma that pulls them together. But there’s an honest question of whether that’s healthy.
There are a ton of Easter eggs for horror fans, as usual with Stranger Things, and this season has more overt 80s references than before. There’s the prevailing fear of communism and the Russians underlying the material excess of the flashy new mall: literally, the Russians built the mall as cover for their world-ending plan, using American consumerism as a means of masking their illegal activities. El and Max have a full 80s-style shopping montage, unaware that their exploration of the mall will come in handy later. Meanwhile, the guys use the back entrances to slip between shops and into the movie theater to watch Day of the Dead (1985), famously featuring both zombies and a secret military bunker.
Speaking of zombies, there are definitely zombie vibes in this film as Billy is overtaken by a mysterious creature hiding in an old ironworks. He’s compelled to follow its orders, kidnapping people to sacrifice to the thing, which grows more powerful as it overtakes more hosts. As hosts lose their usefulness, they melt into a gelatinous mass that returns to the core creature and are absorbed. It’s a tactic horror fans will recognize as the one used by the creature in The Thing (1982) as it devoured dogs to replicate and, later, did the same with people. It’s gruesome, gory goodness that makes for some good old-fashioned paranoia scares and monster reveals in the style of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
Is it free of missteps? I’d argue no. There’s a promising plot point about mind control that could have done with much more development. The giant monster tactic is a bit boring compared to the existential threat of your friends not being who they claim, and there’s something of a cop out by making bad guy Billy the vessel of evil. But it’s a fun ride despite a HUGE shocking upset at the end and a questionable backtrack I the mid-credits scene. Time will tell if it holds up once we see how that big final plot point holds up in season 4.
Seriously, go watch it.
My rating: 5/5
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