New season, new nickname (Eleven, center, just goes by El now), and new characters. Photograph from Netflix
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Review: ‘Stranger Things 3’ is sure-footed, streamlined, and still chock-full of 80s nostalgia

The third season of this Netflix original finds The Duffer Brothers more confident in their storytelling abilities.
Andrew Paredes | Jul 06 2019

Created by The Duffer Brothers

Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown

I’ll say this upfront: Stranger Things 3 is much better than the sprawling Stranger Things 2, which fell into the dreaded sophomore slump with pacing issues, redundancy, and unnecessary digressions. (Did we really need to have Eleven run away so she could find supernaturally gifted siblings dressed up as punk rockers?) Though the debut season will forever reign supreme with its baked-in advantages of originality and freshness, Stranger Things 3 comes pretty close to equaling it, primarily because it has the benefit of the the media, the Internet, and all of pop culture serving as the Duffer Brothers’ free-of-charge focus group, whispering in their ear what works and what doesn’t.

Facing the challenges of raging hormones, among other things. From left: Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Sadie Sink, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer and Millie Bobby Brown.

 

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Stranger Things 3 finds the Duffers more confident in their abilities. This time, when they break up their huge cast into smaller factions tugging on their respective threads of the central mystery, it doesn’t feel forced, and as a viewer, you get a sense that all these subplots will converge seamlessly (which they start to do in episode 4 when the season really starts to cook, plot-wise). But before that happens, you get a ton of neat character development. Picking up from their sweet slow dance at the end of season 2, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)—who just goes by “El” now—are officially an item, making out in El’s bedroom in Jim Hopper’s woodside cabin. The kids are facing the challenge of raging hormones, you see, with everyone either falling in love (as is the case with Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin, who has found an offscreen “girlfriend” during his time away at science camp), breaking up (Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas and the new skateboarding girl in town, Sadie Sink’s Max), or trying to delay the inevitable (Noah Schnapp’s Will, who is still dealing with residual PTSD by trying to engage his friends in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that no one else is interested in playing).

Winona Ryder and David Harbour

Oh, and as additional fan service, Lucas’ sassy baby sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) is given a larger role to play in this season’s adventures, and her smart-alecky line readings (“You can’t spell ‘America’ without ‘Erica’.”) largely work too.

The older cast members are now dealing with big-picture issues. Steve (Joe Keery), who got the biggest boost of character evolution last season by graduating from campus douchebag to surprisingly adroit babysitter, is now pondering his future while slinging ice cream at Hawkins’ brand-new mall—more on this later—alongside a welcome addition to the cast: Robin (Maya Hawke, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s daughter, stealing every scene), a snarky ex-schoolmate. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are saddled with the dourest subplot, investigating a rat infestation as the town paper’s summer interns. And chief of police Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is enlisting the help of Will and Jonathan’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder, now in the final stages of a certified comeback) to break up his adopted daughter El and Mike. This motivation is a bit creepy, and is a huge comedown from Hopper’s development as a cop with his own post-traumatic issues from past seasons, although we are soon assured that it’s really just an excuse to explore Jim and Joyce’s latent sexual tension.

Maya Hawke, Joe Keery, and Gaten Matarazzo.

The Duffer Brothers are also flexing their confidence by setting this season during the summer of 1985, ditching the shadows and muted tones of fall for sunshine and full-on Day-Glo neon. Nowhere is this fluorescent color palette more on display than in Hawkins’ spanking-new Starcourt Mall which, apart from being the center of a cockeyed debate between corporate capitalism and the virtues of mom-and-pop businesses, might be a front for a nefarious operation by foreign nationals. (Sorry, I’m still bound by Netflix’s spoiler terms—never mind that the villains are introduced in the first scene of the first episode.)

The great thing about the central mystery of Stranger Things 3 is that, yes, there will be a Lovecraftian monster and a larger phantom organization involved, but those two elements are better meshed this season, ironically because the Duffers aren’t as intent in trying to make them mesh. It’s not about one organization trying to open a portal into the Upside Down and performing experiments on unwitting telekinetics; now, it’s about one bad player and one pissed off monster whose objectives just happen to coincide, and the plotting is all the more streamlined for it.

Sadie Sink and Millie Bobby Brown

Stranger Things 3 still traffics in feverish ‘80s nostalgia—an exotic wonderland for millennials and Gen Z-ers, a vertiginous exercise in time travel for us Gen X-ers who actually lived through the decade. But there are signs that the nostalgia might well be running dry. If your biggest accomplishment in pop culture reference is likening New Coke to John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, you might be scraping the bottom of the reservoir. The season ends on a fairly emotional note, one that promises to open up the scope of the inevitable fourth season, but an end credits coda that introduces us to the next villain made me ask: Is Stranger Things now getting nostalgic for itself?

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Photographs from Netflix