Stranger Things S3 Review: The best season yet
This change of Stranger Things from big setpieces, genre sustenance, world building, to its laser sharp focus on characters and their growth, however uneven, is not something fans would have expected.
Midway into the finale of season 3 of Stranger Things, when all characters are at the height of tension and fear, two of them break out into a song of Never-Ending Story. The reaction to that moment by every single character is, to put it mildly, priceless. This audacity of sneaking in a musical in the middle of a horror-thriller has what made Stranger Things the show it is and the season finale alone, lasting a little over 75 minutes, has so many such moments it is quite hard to not rank it as one of the best closing episodes to any season in any show. In this day and age when good shows get cancelled, the yardstick of a season finale is that it should, while being satisfactory, also keep enough mystery that a new one can potentially start off right from the end. This delicate balance has been adroitly handled by The Duffer Brothers in Season 3 of Stranger Things.
Cast: David Harbour, Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown
Created by: Duffer Brothers
We start off the story in 1985, one year after the events of Season 2. The biggest change we see is that Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Will, Max and Eleven are into their teens. But where Game of Thrones failed, thanks to it being bound by the written word, which doesn't take into account real-world ageing, Stranger Things has no such limitations. What we get, thanks to this, is a mature teen drama and a coming-of-age story for almost all these characters. The Mike-Eleven romance that blossomed at the end of last season is now into full-blown kissing territory that Hopper (David Harbour), the adoptive father of El, can't handle. He reaches out to Joyce (Winona Ryder), the mother of Mike and Jonathan, for advice, who suggests that he talk to them. Similarly, later on in the season, when Mike and Eleven break up, we see El being a teenager with her girlfriend Max doing things she never had access to thanks to her lost childhood. You can't help but be happy for El when she goes shopping and tries on all different clothes for herself and looks into the mirror and feels happy about it.
However, growing out of childhood comes with its own pains, and the four boys are not together anymore. Will, the strangest of the lot, still wishes to play D&D with his friends who all have romantic pursuits. These pains extend to young adults — Jonathan and Nancy who want to be reporters but are not respected by the elders, and Steve Harrington who wants to go to college, but is instead earning wages at an ice-cream parlour. Nancy especially bears the brunt of a toxic newsroom filled with sexist comments and misogyny for following a story.
What unites all these threads is the horror of small-town Hawkins as the Mind-Flayer, last season's antagonist, returns with a vengeance, thanks to an unforeseen outside intervention, the USSR. Given that the world is still in the throes of Cold War, this unexpected turn by Stranger Things still serves well thanks to the super campy James Bond-esque setpieces this throws at us. And in true Stranger Things style, it isn't the last cinematic reference of the era either. There is George Romero's Dawn of the Living Dead, which if you are a fan of the movie, has been set up as great foreshadowing for the rest of the season. There is also Back to the Future, one of 1985's great summer hits. While it does serve as contextual comedy when it appears, one wonders if it is a tease for seasons going forward.
That begs the question: What will be the path forward? Through this season, the Duffer Brothers had one great theme that they used to great effect — the role of parents. It isn't just about the adults — Joyce, Wheeler, Hopper. It is also about the children themselves, like when, at a pivotal point in the season, Lucas points out that they have to save themselves sans adult intervention. It is about Will growing up enough to trust his D&D set to the series' dynamite of a new entrant, Erica. It is about boys and girls talking about their feelings. It is also about young adults, Jonathan, Steven, and Nancy, adapting to the difficulties of society. To borrow modern-day vocabulary, this is about adulting.
But adulting is hard, especially when you also have to save the world. This change of Stranger Things from big setpieces, genre sustenance, world-building, to its laser-sharp focus on characters and their growth, however uneven, is not something fans would have expected. Yet as the gut-wrenching final scene points out, "That's naive. It's just... not how life works. It's moving. Always moving whether you like it or not. And yeah, sometimes it's painful. Sometimes it's sad and sometimes it's surprising. Happy." And as we bid a tear-filled goodbye to our favourite characters at the end of the season, let us remember Peter Gabriel's parting words filled with hope, "Though nothing will drive them away, We can be heroes just for one day, We can be us just for one day."