While the previous season of Stranger Things was decidedly autumnal (blighted pumpkin patches; Will’s Halloween-night glimpse of the Mind Flayer), Season 3 shifts the seasonal scene to the heart of summer. The time of year proves integral to the plot, from the strategic use of a sauna at the community pool to a stunning fireworks shoot-off that serves as much more than a holiday ritual. Apropos of the season it is set in, Stranger Things 3 also has all the feel of a summer blockbuster movie. There’s more action and suspense (seemingly nonstop after the build-up of the first few episodes), more romance, more gore than ever before. The creature effects are nothing short of amazing, as the show demonstrates that scenes of giant monsters running amok (we get to see the Mind Flayer in all its grotesque glory) are not the sole province of Godzilla this summer.
More characters are also incorporated into the story this time around. Lucas’s younger sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) deservedly gets a much bigger role, and seizes the opportunity to flash sass and sarcasm. I was delighted that Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) figures more prominently this season; the character consistently delivers the show’s best, and laugh-out-loud-funny, lines. The real scene-stealer here, though, is a new character, the adorable Robin (Maya Hawke, lookalike daughter of Uma Thurman), whose relationship with co-worker Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) takes several surprising turns.
The bad guys this season prove comparatively flatter. We get stereotypes like the sleazy politician (Cary Elwes as Mayor Kline) and the chauvinistic jerk in the workplace (Jake Busey as Bruce). The assassin Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko) is limited by the deliberate molding of his character as a walking, stalking, Schwarzeneggerian Terminator. Perhaps all of these shortcomings, though, are made up for by the development of Max’s stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), a pivotal player whose character arc constitutes one of the strongest elements of Season 3.
Several paragraphs in, and I haven’t even mentioned most of the series’ young heroes. They are all back doing what they do best; we not only get to watch many of the same aspects of their characters, but also new facets as the kids have gotten more mature (and hormone-driven) since last seen. As always, the standouts are Gaten Matarazzo as the endearingly nerdy and dentally challenged Dustin, and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, who charms with her forays into typical teen activity and thrills with her bouts of monster-battling badassery.
Stranger Things 3 is amazingly entertaining, yet not a flawless effort. I felt the writers overutilized scenes of a blindfolded Eleven engaging in remote viewing. The season-long bickering between Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) quickly got tedious. A viewer’s suspension of disbelief is also sorely tested. I am almost willing to grant the notion of a foreign government setting up secret shop in a small, mid-American town, but the fact that nobody (other than our heroes) seems to notice that there is a supersized beast stomping through Hawkins is hard to fathom. Finally, that bound-to-be-infamous rendition (by Dustin and his long-distance girlfriend Suzy) of “Never Ending Story” forms an ill-timed, and ill-conceived, piece of comic relief.
Overall, the inclusion of Eighties music is spot on (there’s also terrific use of Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”). Tears for Fears would have made for an appropriate choice, considering that Season 3 seems determined to wring both from the audience. The horror elements are ratcheted up (this is by far the most frightening installment of the series), and the story builds to a heartbreaking climax and absolute tearjerker of a conclusion. So keep those tissues handy; it’s not just Eleven’s trademark bloody nose that’ll need wiping.
Stranger Things 3 is the quintessence of a binge watch, filled with sublime sights and captivating action. The show goes so big this summer that it is hard to imagine it ever being topped (there seems nowhere else to take things now except outside the confines of Hawkins, and perhaps deeper into the Upside Down). But wherever the road in Season 4 might lead, the Duffer Brothers no doubt will draw a richly-detailed map, and I can’t wait to take that next trip.