Given what a surprise phenomenon Stranger Things was in its first season, Season 2 was bound to be something of a let down. While the show improved its existing characters and added a few endearing new ones (aw, Sean Astin), there was frustration with its meandering plot, the aggressive game of '80s references, and whatever it was that led Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to join a gang of runaway street teens.
Perhaps as a result, it seems people don't quite know how to feel about Season 3. Will series creators Ross and Matt Duffer be able to fix those creaky floorboards and get the series on solid ground again? Or is there only so much juice to be squeezed out of the idea of a ragtag band of friends teaming up to defeat supernatural evil?
Here's the good news: Stranger Things 3 is really good! The lowered expectations help a lot, as rather than having to live up to the idea of being some kind of paradigm shift in genre fiction, the series now gets to be a fun show about fun friends who every once in a while battle back against giant Lovecraftian creatures and a military-industrial complex that is not to be trusted. Yes, the '80s nostalgia continues to be applied with all the subtlety of a shotgun, but over three seasons these characters have become such an endearing quasi-family that it's easy and great fun to just spend time with them.
So what works best (and worst) about the new season? Here's a preview:
For whatever reason, the Duffer Brothers thought it best to keep Eleven separated from the four main boys for the bulk of the second season, before showing up to save the day in a moment that was cool... but maybe not cool enough to justify isolating your signature character on a show with a central ensemble. The benefit was an enhancement of the father-daughter bond between Hopper (David Harbour) and El, but it came at the expense of her relationships with pretty much anyone else. The way Season 3 starts, you start to worry it's all going to happen again, as Hopper's overzealous parenting ends up separating El and boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard) for dubious reasons.
Thank God, then, that Max (Sadie Sink) shows up at El's house and practically drags her out to the mall. Not only does this lead to Mike, Will, Lucas, Max, and El working together for the bulk of the season, but it lets El and Max develop a close friendship that was sorely lacking the the first two seasons. Their mall montage set to Madonna's "Material Girl" may be the most joyous part of Season 3.
Easily one of the best parts of the uneven Season 2 was the thrown-together tandem of Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve (Joe Keery). Steve spent the first season being the perfectly coiffed antagonist boyfriend to Nancy, who bullied Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), but ultimately lost his girl as all '80s bully boyfriends must. Turning Steve around has been the best thing Stranger Things has put into the universe outside of Winona Ryder's reactions during that SAG Award win. Capitalizing on Keery's gift for comedy and steering into the skid of his good looks, Steve became the hero we all needed, with Dustin his oddly-matched sidekick.
That Steve and Dustin return in Season 3 still weirdly bonded to one another is great enough. What's even better is that Steve has taken a summer job at Scoops Ahoy, an ice cream shop in the mall that requires him to wear a sweet little sailor uniform. Steve is joined at his job by Robin (Maya Hawke), who spends most of the season snarking in Steve's direction but ultimately becomes a key and crucial part of the team. Long live the Scoops Troop!
It was hard to love Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) last season, as he was such an abusive bully to his little sister Max, and also violent to Steve, who as we have already established, is a fave. But damned if it wasn't nice to look at Billy anyway, in all his infuriating, wispy-mustached glory. Nobody's proud of the fact that they're deeply into Billy, and yet here we are. That attitude gets incorporated into season 3, as Billy takes a summer job as a lifeguard at the community pool. While the single women and unhappy housewives — including Mike and Nancy's mom, Karen (Cara Buono) — eagerly anticipate the shift change that'll bring Billy to the pool, the Stranger Things audience also leaned forward when Billy's already iconic entrance to the season was released online back in May.
After spending the entirety of Season 1 as a wild-eyed, tunnel-visioned, obsessed mom trying to first rescue and then save her son, it's a relief to find Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) much calmer in Season 3. Relatively speaking, of course. And while the hope that young Will (Noah Schnapp) stays out of danger all season is a naive one, he's not the same kind of victim he was in the first two seasons. And since he and the rest of the Goonies are tracking down the monsters, Joyce gets to join Hopper on an investigation that will ultimately lead them to the corridors of a conspiracy to re-open the gate that Eleven closed last season. There's a screwball rom-com energy to Joyce and Hopper together that is sometimes a bit much, but the upshot is that Joyce gets to join the adventuring this season and not fret quite so much.
I'm just going to put this here and let it marinate, but at one point early in the season, a fissure develops between Will and his pals. Mike is obsessed with his girlfriend, Eleven; Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is busy advising Mike in his capacity as expert since he's been dating Max since last year. Heck, even Dustin has some off-screen girlfriend he keeps talking about (plus he's hanging with the Scoop Troop this season). Poor Will just wants to play D&D with his friends and not have anything change. At one point, Mike snaps at him that it's not his fault that Will "doesn't like girls." This doesn directly herald a coming-out story for Will (although another character does come out this season in a very satisfying way). He might be. He might not be. He's mostly just on the lonely side of the adolescent divide at the moment, and it's achingly real.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK
In many ways, Stranger Things has been telling the same story for three seasons, with generally the same enemy. After the Demagorgon of Season 1 set the template, the Mind Flayer from last season is back, roughly operating the same bodily possession on Billy that it tried on Will last year. The beauty of '80s adventure fiction was that the good guys had a variety of monsters and villains to chase and foil. Sure, these monsters look scary as hell. But there are only so many ways that a climactic battle can come down to Mind Flayer versus Eleven's superpowers before you start asking for more.
Stranger Things' grip on '80s nostalgia is unquestioned. But the kind of nostalgia it presents matters. And while I'm all in for the sugar rush of mall signage and New Coke and Stephen King, there is a wave of nostalgia in Season 3 for movies like Commando and Predator and The Terminator. There's even a Dolph Lundgren type doing his best impression of a Terminator, stalking Hopper and Joyce. Those scenes tend to rely on the nostalgia of '80s style gun violence, where Rambo could mow down a dozen bad guys with his one-armed machine-gun spree. It stands out on this show, and not in a good way. Fetishizing branding logos might be problematic in its own way, but as far as I'm concerned, fetishizing gun violence grinds Stranger Things to a halt.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.