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I think I liked this season of Stranger Things, but it also left me feeling just a bit underwhelmed. In some ways it’s an improvement on the last season, but in others I feel like it doesn’t try as hard. I don't really have a hot take or anything, but once I got started I realized I had a lot to say, so here we go. Oh yeah, spoilers.
So there’s this thing they do with Stranger Things, where the first scene always reveals what the plot will be about. They talk about this in Beyond Stranger Things, but the first season the kids are playing D&D and Will gets taken by the Demogorgon, and then Will gets taken by the Demogorgon. In season 2 the kids go to the arcade and play DigDug because tunnels. And also they play Dragon’s Lair to show that Dustin and Lucas will be fighting over a girl this season. So, when this season starts with the kids sneaking into Day of the Dead, a zombie movie primarily set in an underground bunker, I thought, "oh, so we’re probably gonna get a bunker or some kind of zombies." And bingo. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually clever writing, it’s just that when you use the same story conventions three seasons in a row, it starts to feel a little formulaic. The question is, how does this season compare to the last?
My main problems with the second season was a lack of focus, and that most of the conflict seemed to come from the characters making bad decisions. The characters are also split up for way too long, and it’s not until the end that they start to work together. This season is more focused, and the characters actually do smart things, they are just up against more challenging threats this time. They also begin to work together much earlier, and even try multiple times to contact the other characters that are on separate adventures. There just happen to be actual obstacles splitting them up this time. It’s also not as complicated. Initially, there are four core groups of characters: The kids, Nancy/Jonathon, Dustin/Steve + Ice Cream, and Hopper/Joyce. But as soon as Nancy finds out that what she is investigating is in fact a Stranger Thing, she goes to meet up with the other kids. Dustin and Steve are in an underground Russian base, and Hopper and Joyce are in Illinois, so yeah, not so easy for everyone to reunite. There are also only really two different plots going on once they figure out what’s happening. The Russians are trying to reopen the gate to the upside down, and The Mind Flayer is turning people into the show’s version of zombies, which is an improvement over the last season, since these plots are connected. (From what I could tell, the Russians opening the gate caused the Mind Flayer to come back.) But we really don’t find that out until almost the very end of the season, so these plots feel like they are completely separate. And in a way they kind of are. We never really find out why the Russians are trying to get into the upside down, and the fact that it brings back the Mind Flayer is basically a coincidence. Like yeah, it’s probably bad that there are Russians under the city, and blowing up their machine does thwart whatever it is they were trying to do, but it feels sort of coincidental that everything works out that way. What is weird is that there is one other idea that connects these two plots and that is the whole Cold War era, Red Scare theme.
This is probably my favourite idea in the season, though unfortunately it’s not fleshed out that well. So during the Cold War, there was this cultural fear of Communists taking over in America. Even your neighbours could be Communists! They may look normal on the outside, but underneath they are the greatest threat to American individualism! In Stranger Things 3, we get both a literal and metaphorical depiction of this fear. The literal being the secret Russians living beneath the town, and the metaphorical being the Mind Flayer taking over people and turning them into one collective. There were lots of stories with these themes during this period such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the Russians are such a classic 80's villain that I think this is a really fun idea. But this really only becomes a prevalent theme in one sequence when Max and Eleven go to look for the missing lifeguard and find Billy in this like suspiciously perfect nuclear family dinner. But after this sequence they don’t do much with the idea. I also think it’s a bit weird that there is both the Flayer, a metaphorical Russian invasion, and an actual Russian invasion, happening at the same time. Since these two plots are so loosely connected it feels like there is a piece missing. But the concept is really fun and really 80's.
I think my biggest gripe with this season is that there are too many characters, leading to not enough character development.
So this season keeps all of the original characters: Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, Eleven, Nancy, Jonathon, Hopper, Joyce, and Steve Harrington. Plus all the additional characters from season 2 that didn’t die or that no one but me liked (the lost sister): Billy, Max, and the conspiracy guy. On top of all that this season introduces new characters Robin and Lucas’s sister, (who had shown up before but this is the first time she’s been a real character) and recurring characters Mayor Wesley and the Russian scientist Alexi. That’s 15-17 characters to balance, which is a lot. With this many characters it feels like there’s not really enough time spent with each of them, or at least not enough time spent developing them. Even in season 2, that was fairly cluttered, they still managed to give a lot of development to Will, Eleven, Nancy and Jonathon’s relationship, and especially Steve Harrington. But there are only a few characters that really get much development in season 3. The first is Robin, and that’s really only because she’s a new character. I did like the twist with her character for at least the fact that it wasn’t what I expected. They do try to give Will some stuff about how he is scared that the group is growing up too fast and eventually they will forget about him, but they kinda drop it after the first few episodes, and it doesn’t come back until the end of the season. They also give some good development to Billy, which is really cool, but every other character feels like they don’t grow very much this season.
Steve and Dustin are great together, but Steve got all his character development last season. So he doesn’t really grow much despite still being one of the most charismatic characters in the show. Nancy and Jonathon aren’t as interesting as when they were “will they/won’t they,” and now that they are a “will they,” they're kind of boring. Joyce and Hopper are fine. They meet up with the conspiracy guy from season 2, who I guess is just in the show to tell characters that have sexual tension that they should bang. Either way, I feel like there is an urgency and a realness to their characters from previous seasons that was missing here. Joyce doesn’t even smoke, and I feel like they kept forgetting that they both have kids. The main kids are good as always. There’s a lot of, "oh man girls are so confusing," but mostly I just wish there was more time spent with them.
They do this thing where they make Eleven and Max friends so that they can actually have the girl characters hang out and be kids. Which is a good idea but I think the problem lies in the execution. Anytime the boys are hanging out it feels really genuine and organic, probably because they are based on the Duffer brothers' actual experiences growing up in the 80's. But Max and Eleven hanging out just feels really stereotypical, like what boys imagine girls do for fun. They go shopping, have a sleepover, and talk about boys. Like, I was never a teenage girl so I don’t know, but is this really what girls do? I just find it kind of cliched.
The scoop troop’s underground Russian base adventure is probably my favourite storyline since it most resembles sneaking around the Death Star in Star Wars. It's really fun, but again not a whole lot of character development. There is a really great sequence at the end where the Byers and Eleven are leaving Hawkins, and we get some great heartfelt character moments between the whole cast. I guess I just wish there was more of this stuff throughout the season. They figure out that Stranger Things are happening much earlier than usual, which is good, but sometimes it feels like all they have time for is plot stuff and I’m missing just some good old fashioned character moments and growth. Like, name one distinct arc for any character this season.
Ok, a couple other things.
There's a Die Hard reference in one scene. They do the "You won't hurt me, you're a policeman, there are rules for policemen," moment. Now the show has been no Stranger to 80's references before, but this one felt particularly Stranger too me. It's a straight up quote, like word for word. And it's not like one of the kids is quoting Die Hard, the show is. I don't know, sometimes I like this stuff, sometimes I'm like, "just make your own iconic moments."
I really liked how this season wrapped up, until the end credit scene which I think is what initiated my doubts. It looks like they’re going to bring Hopper back, so that’s a second character sacrifice that is apparently meaningless. And also the Russians have a demogorgon, which would be cool if we hadn’t already been dealing with the upside down creatures for 3 seasons now.
There's also a Russians controlling the government subplot because art reflects life and life is terrible.
Overall I think I liked the season. The monster is much scarier than the demidogs of last season, both conceptually, and in physical presence. The threat actually feels bigger and more challenging this time around. And the Russian plot is really fun.
Season 2 was a bit messy, but it did take risks and try new things, while still developing the characters, especially Steve Harrington, who somehow became the best character in the show. I dunno, the first season of Stranger Things was such lightning in a bottle, the perfect blend of old and new, that I feel like since then the show’s just been trying to recapture that magic. I know the Duffers don’t plan on doing the show forever, so in a way I’m kind of more interested to see what they decided to do after the show is finished. Maybe we’ll get another new thing. Stranger Things was cool because it was fresh and new, not because it was the same thing again every season. I definitely enjoyed this season, but I think I just missed the structural simplicity, and emotional complexity of the first season. Like I watched it all, and was entertained for 8 hours, but then it ended, and so did my enjoyment. I want that feeling of "Wow! That was really amazing! That's going to stick with me." But I just, don't really feel that way. I'm rewatching the first season at the moment, and it's just as compelling as the first time around. I can't really imagine myself feeling that way about season 3.
So what's this season about anyway? Like thematically? What's it trying to say?
I guess it's about the fear of change, growing up, or the fear of losing yourself. One day you wake up and everything is different. Your friends are too busy to hang out with you, maybe they've moved away, gone to a different college. People change, they grow up, one day you barely recognize them. You think you know somebody but you don't.
It's actually really good stuff. And even fits in with the communist themes. But this idea feels like it should come with some sense of finality, and knowing that there is at least one more season kind of makes this whole thematic core fall flat to me. The goodbye between Eleven and Mike isn't as powerful as it could be because I know they'll see each other again. Hopper's sacrifice isn't as powerful because I know he'll be back next season. I feel like this problem happens a lot with series that don't plan on having more than one season, where they don't exactly know where to go.
I don't know, maybe I'm just harder on this show because I know it can be great.
That's it. That's enough rambling. What did you think of Thinger Strangs 3? Yell at me @duff_danny on the bird one.