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Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

Television

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

Not quite as magical as the first season, but a wonderful and welcome return to form for the series.

Like many of you, I spent most of my rainy Fourth of July watching the third season of Stranger Things. If you read my columns here on AiPT! regularly (HI MOM!), then you already know I consider the first chapter to be my favorite season of television ever. The second one.. not so much.

After my latest Netflix holiday binge, however, I’m extremely happy to report that Stranger Things 3 is a welcome return to form for the series. It’s not perfect, but it does advance both the story and the characters in substantial (and highly entertaining) ways.

Just like last year, I will be reviewing this new season as a whole rather than an episode-by-episode breakdown. Also, there will be numerous spoilers (because no one’s deciding whether or not to watch this based on an online review).

Perfectly Controlled Chaos

I am nowhere near the first reviewer to describe Stranger Things: Season 3 as a “slow burn,” nor am I the first to point out that it plays much better as an 8-hour movie rather than a group of individual episodes.

At first, this binge-adapted format feels like something that works to the series’ detriment. Unlike Season 1, there aren’t any single episodes which stand out or that you immediately want to rewatch. By the time you get to Episode 6, however, everything begins to pay off in magnificent fashion. Despite the main characters’ stories being more fragmented than ever, their narratives push relentlessly toward each other, all without sacrificing any importance to the plot or making you want to skip ahead.

In other words, there are no side trips to Chicago.

Yes, there are some extremely contrived moments that bring everyone back together, but it’s all so much fun that even a cynical nitpicker like me can’t help but still enjoy the heck of it…except for the ending. That was great, too, but I had to pretend I wasn’t crying a couple times so that my dog wouldn’t judge me.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form
Same, Will. Same…

Beneath the main sci-fi story is a narrative about growing up and dealing with change. It’s all very familiar teenage drama stuff — coming of age, loss of innocence, friends growing apart — but done with the perfect balance of heart and humor that we’ve come to expect from this series. Meanwhile, the town of Hawkins is dealing with the fallout of the new Starcourt Mall decimating its small business community, acting as a great adult parallel to the children’s trials. There’s also an even more powerful thread about the positive and negative/hurtful ways that people deal with trauma.

And finally, there’s all that sweet, sweet nostalgia. I understand if it’s not your thing, but as a kid who grew up in the ’80s, I absolutely love the references to that era — and the scene where Dustin finally reconnects with Mike and the gang might be my all time favorite use of Alan Silvestri’s score from Back to the Future outside of the movie itself.

Think Global, Act Local

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

While fighting other dimensional terrors is always scary, the stakes are a lot higher this time around. Instead of the Hawkins Lab/United States government being behind things, it’s the Soviets. This not only provides a perfect 1980s-era Big Bad, but also makes the conflict feel infinitely bigger while still remaining inside the friendly confines of Hawkins, Indiana (and gives us plenty of great Red Dawn references).

The Soviets also provide us with another layer of menacing villainy in the form of Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko). The hulking, near-silent assassin is clearly meant to evoke Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator. From his relentless pursuit of Hopper to his cold efficiency in executing Alexei (who I was really starting to like by that point), Grigori is malice personified. He even appears to be unkillable at one point by virtue of a bulletproof vest (and Hopper not going for the head shot). I assume he’s dead for real now after being pulverized within the workings of the Russian’s dimensional portal gun, but one can never be too sure when dimensional travel tech is involved…

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form
I’ll be back…maybe. Could just be in a flashback.

Having the Soviets behind things also keeps the United States government from reaching Wyland Yuntani Corp levels of idiotic persistence. While I’m sure the U.S. military still has plenty of interest (and research) invested in the Upside Down, they also have two years of crap hitting the fan and severe difficulties keeping their work under wraps — more than enough experience to know that it was time to back off a bit. It makes perfect sense for that void to be filled by the Soviets’ determination to best the United States while also lacking their Cold War adversary’s knowledge of the horrors found on the other side of the dimensional gate.

Speaking of that…

Horror Reborn

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

We all loved the Demogorgon from Season 1, but the brief glimpses we got of the Upside Down’s ecosystem hinted at all types of terrors that might be lying in wait to crawl into our dimension.

So when Season 2 gave us mere Demodogs (i.e. the Demogorgon on four legs instead of two), it was a pretty big letdown. Yes, we also got the Mind Flayer. But aside from a wonderfully horrific confrontation with Will Byers, the creature existed mostly as a shadow in the distance.

This time around, the Mind Flayer enters our world in a physical form that is equal parts awesome and horrifying — a walking Lovecraftian nightmare with multiple ways of torturing and killing its victims. After taking over Billy Hargrove and making him its conduit, the creature slowly builds a zombified army to do its biding before absorbing them all into a grotesque gigantic mass of flesh, teeth, and tentacles.

But even before the colossal monster makes its first full blown attack at Hopper’s cabin, we see a fantastic demonstration of its powers in the hospital scene during Episodes 5 and 6.

First up, Nancy and Jonathan get chased by their mind flayed former coworkers at the Hawkins Post. While Tom Holloway (Michael Park) lays a beat down on Jonathan, Nancy is hunted Overlook Hotel style by Bruce, portrayed with chilling psychotic malice by Jake Busey.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form
Heeeere’s Johnny! (From The Frighteners)

After Jonathan and Nancy seemingly manage to neutralize them both, they simultaneously liquify into bubbling piles of sentient flesh. As if that weren’t gross enough, the two blobs then crawl towards each other and reform into a smaller (yet somehow just as scary) version of the Mind Flayer, which almost almost kills Nancy before Elle stops it.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

And then you have the creature’s final appearance at Starcourt, which gives us the series’ biggest and most spectacular action set piece thus far. I know a big CGI creature fight in a television series sounds potentially awful, but VFX team absolutely nails it on this one.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

The Mind Flayer wasn’t just a physical threat, though. The creature also wreaked havoc on the minds of Billy and Elle, providing us a chilling reminder that this wasn’t simply a mindless beast, but a sentient creature intent on destroying our world.

And for those of you who like ’80s horror movie references, the Mind Flayer (in both its monster form and via its human conduits) gave us a ton of them — The Thing, Poltergeist, Evil Dead, The Shining, Day of the Dead, and even Invasion of the Body Snatchers if you’re willing to cheat and count the 1978 remake.

Unlike New Coke, this updated version of the Mind Flayer is a remix that far surpasses its predecessor.

Scoops Troops

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) not being with The Party for most of the season. But it wasn’t long before his team up with Steve, Robyn, and Erica had completely won me over.

Dustin is his usual wonderful and goofy self. This time, however, he’s a bit more confident, at times showing an impressive amount of courage that still manages to feel organic to the character we already know and love.

As expected, his rapport with Steve is great, but he also plays incredibly well off of fellow team members Erica and Robin. Add in the moment where he’s required to sing the theme from The Never Ending Story to his girlfriend from summer camp (to get a mathematical equation), and this was by far my favorite season for the character.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and his hair are both on point once again. He continues to shed his douchebag persona into an admirable person while also providing plenty of comic relief.

But it’s Robin (Maya Hawke) — and the chemistry between her and Steve — where this season’s dialogue really shines. Instead of Steve being surrounded by people who are either completely fake or totally revere him, Robin pushes back, hilariously exposing many of his insecurities while also bringing out the best in him.

I was worried that things would fall off after she revealed that she wasn’t interested in Steve due to her being gay. Thankfully, their friendship (and the banter between them) continued to grow even stronger.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form
You could create an entire series of these two
recovering from mind altering drugs in a movie theater bathroom

Robin is also a fantastic character in her own right. She’s funny, incredibly brave, and quite possibly the most clever/smart person out of everyone on the show. Where Max occasionally felt like a wedge, Robin is a welcome jolt of verve and energy. By the final episode, we are just as invested/enamored with her as the rest of the characters that we’ve known for all three seasons.

Plus, Robin is a fellow band geek. That alone is enough to make her her my new favorite character.

And then you have Erica, who was also a very welcome (and unexpected) surprise. When it became clear that Lucas’ sister would have a much larger role this season, I was initially very worried. Even though the show’s main characters are children, adding someone so much younger than them seemed like an inevitable springboard for corny jokes and cringe-worthy precociousness.

Once Erica became a full fledged member of the crew, however, she had me completely wrapped around her finger.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form
“You can’t spell ‘America’ without Erica.”

Even at her young age, actress Priah Ferguson already has near perfect comedic timing. She also gives Erica just right amount of sass so that her one liners and incredulous observations feel like an extension of the audience’s skepticism instead of a wet blanket over things. Her character perfectly toes the line between a child whose imagination is open to the impossible and scary smart kid who recognizes exactly how crazy everything she’s seeing is.

The Party

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

This season was by far the most fractured our original core group has been. Everyone appears to be getting impossibly obsessed with teenage romance at the expense of stuff like Dungeons & Dragons or just hanging out — except for Will Byers, who desperately wants things to be like they always have been (minus being trapped in the Upside Down and possessed by the Mind Flayer).

I love that this season let Will be the lens for this loss of innocence rather than being relegated to a plot device again. Noah Schnapp makes the most of his character being lucid for the all eight episodes, giving a performance that anyone who remembers the hormonal angst of becoming a teenager can relate to.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) relationship with Eleven involves some very standard craziness for a first boyfriend/girlfriend (even without the Russians or the Mind Flayer). He doesn’t want to lose his friends, but he also doesn’t want to spend a minute apart from this person who makes his heart feel something he’s never experienced before. The kid who puts loyalty above everything is now the one who feels the most conflict about breaking it.

He also gets to learn the hard way that being dishonest with your girlfriend — especially when she can listen in on your private conversations — is a big time no-no. Thankfully, he does what many guys (myself included) often fail to do and sincerely apologizes. This allows them to reconcile in a way that is genuinely sweet and powerful while still feeling believable for a couple of 14-year-olds.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

And then you have Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink), which is where things start to unravel for me a bit. I love Lucas on his own. He continues to be the group’s resident skeptic/contrarian, but won’t hesitate to bravely go into battle for his friends when the time comes.

Max, on the other hand, was kind of hit or miss for me. On one hand, I loved watching her friendship with Elle develop. The two make for a comically enjoyable pair and it was great seeing her basically mentor Elle on how to enjoy life like a regular girl.

On the other hand, her relationship with Lucas felt nonexistent except for them constantly bickering and putting each other down. I’m obviously not saying that teenage couples don’t fight. But considering how much Lucas was over the moon about her last season, it would have been nice to see them at least appear to be romantically interested in each other at some point. I’m not saying they needed to make out nonstop like Mike and Elle, but they could have at least held hands or had some playful banter instead of all the constant sniping and wary looks.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

The closest we ever got a a moment of warmth between the two was when they were making fun of Dustin for singing with his girlfriend…which was hilarious, but didn’t do much to show that Lucas and Max were into each other.

Jonathan and Nancy

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

I once described Nancy (Natalia Dyer) as my ’80s dream girl. That designation got kicked up to eleven this season (no pun intended).

At first it was difficult watching her endure being belittled by her male coworkers at the Hawkins Post. But once she began investigating the crazy rat case on her own, she proved once again why Nancy Wheeler is not to be doubted or messed with.

Gone is any trace of the timid girl she’s been evolving from since the first season. This is a woman who will get shouted down on a story/lead by everyone (including her boyfriend) and continue digging because she knows she’s right — or who will stare down a possessed maniac in a car speeding towards her and continue firing her gun until the last possible second.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

I mean, just look at that picture up there. Can you imagine the girl we first met in Season 1 being such a stone cold badass? Nancy is the type of woman who could get dropped onto LV-426 with a bunch of marines and still keep her cool when the crap hits the fan.

Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is one lucky man. He’s also significantly less creepy and more sociable than before. Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say for his character this time around…although much like the Harambe jokes from a few years ago, the gag with Nancy constantly opening the door on him in the dark room evolved from annoying to being pretty funny.

Eleven/Elle

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

In addition to the aforementioned character development we saw with Mike and Max, Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) felt much less alien than the previous seasons. She may still have some trouble understanding things other kids assume everyone knows, but her personality finally began to assert itself in ways beyond rebellion and resentment.

Unlike Season 2, which primarily leaned on angst as Elle’s default emotion, Season 3 gives us a character who is beginning to understand how to navigate the world she was denied being part of for so long — and how to enjoy it.

She also gets a chance to go full on superhero a couple of times against the Mind Flayer, which is all types of fun to watch.

If there was one place the character felt underserved, it her father-daughter relationship with Hopper. This was one of the very few things that Season 2 might have done better. In Season 3, however, Hopper mostly plays the role of comically overprotective sitcom dad until the very end. Speaking of him…

Hateful Hopper

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

Before you @ me, please know that I love Jim Hopper (David Harbour) just as much as anyone. I also think that the note he wrote Elle was maybe the most beautiful moment of the entire series.

But up until that point, this season felt like a complete regression of his character. While everyone else appeared to be working towards overcoming their respective traumas, Hopper stewed in it. Even Joyce — who lost what may have been the love of her life — seemed to be in a better emotional state than him. Hopper’s gruffness often made him feel even more cold and distant than when we first met him in Season 1.

All that being said, I was still crushed when he “died” in the last episode (the mid-credits scene makes me think he’s coming back next season). It was a noble sacrifice to be sure, but I wanted to see the version of the character we were starting to get in Season 3 — not for him to go out like this. His note to Elle was a beautiful balm for my disappointment, but his exit still stung in a way felt more akin to disappointed than sadness.

Also, I have a feeling spending a year in Russian black site’s jail isn’t going to do much for Hopper’s interpersonal skills going forward.

Joyce Byers

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

As I mentioned before, Joyce is keeping it together incredibly well for someone who’s had to endure all the awful things she’s experienced. While we see the effects of her losing Bob, she continues to be present for her sons and her job (despite the near certainty it won’t exist soon).

The chemistry between her and Hopper felt a little forced, although it does produce a few good moments. But my favorite part about watching Joyce this season was how much more grounded she seemed. Yes, she did get in a few trademark crazy mom rants (including an epic one to a government agent), but it’s clear that this is a woman whose spirit has been through the fire and come out the other side as solid steel.

I don’t blame Joyce for wanting to leave Hawkins, either. Considering all the trauma she’s experienced in that place, I don’t know how anyone could continue being strong while living where all that pain and loss originated.

Billy Hargrove

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

In Billy (Dacre Montgomery), the Mind Flayer found a perfect host to gather its army. The kid was already a sadistic assh*le even before getting possessed.

Montgomery does a wonderful job turning Billy’s bully persona into something much more terrifying and sinister. It’s enough to make you almost feel sorry for him until you remember the clear-headed version of him is still an extremely bad person.

But then we get a peek into the childhood trauma that helped mold Billy into the callous and abusive man he is today. That doesn’t excuse any of his previous actions/behaviors, but it does help explain them (along with eliciting a surprising amount of sympathy).

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

It does feel a little contrived when he suddenly turns “good” again, though. I wish we’d seen him have more of an internal struggle with the Mind Flayer instead of completely giving into it like he did after a couple episodes.

Still, his sacrifice ended up being an impactful moment, especially when you factor in Max’s reaction to watching her brother’s apology — not just for his time being possessed by the Mind Flayer, but also for being such a horrible brother.

Eagle Bros

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

Just like last season, Murray Bauman (Brett Gelmen) is a ball of nervous energy, conspiracy theories, and inappropriate sexual advice. Thankfully, the latter gets doled out to Hopper and Joyce instead of two teenagers, which is both hilariously awkward and significantly less skeezy.

But it’s his bromance with Alexei (Alec Utgoff) that really makes this season’s version of the character easy to like. Despite being on opposite ends of Cold War paranoia, the two find common ground in having minds that never seem to stop spinning. By the time they’re enjoying the Hawkins Fourth of July Fair, a true friendship has been forged…

…only to get brutally snapped away when Grigori/The Russian Terminator ruthlessly executes the captured scientist in the moments after he’d enjoyed a taste of sweet carnival game victory.

R.I.P., you Looney Tunes-loving enemy of the state.

Mayor Kline

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

What a turd.

I mean that in the best way possible. Cary Elwes does a masterful job portraying Kline as the worst kind of slimy, self interested/absorbed politician.

I know I said I wasn’t a huge fan of Gruff Hopper this season, but watching him beat the crap out of Kline was pretty fun.

Karen Wheeler

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form

While I appreciate that Karen (Cara Buono) ended up not following through on having on a sexual encounter with Billy (and cheating on her husband), it still felt gross.

Yes, Billy is an adult. And yes, Karen’s husband is all types of dull and inattentive. But the fact that she came so close to betraying her family and sleeping with an abusive sociopath (who was young enough to be her son) still made it hard for me to like her — even after the really nice moment she had with Nancy about not giving up the fight.

None of that is Buono’s fault, though. When it was time for Karen to be a source of parental strength or comfort, she nailed it…and when it was time for Karen to smolder, she knocked it out of the park, as well. Get it together, Mr. Wheeler.

One thing I did appreciate was the way show attempted to have Karen explain how the kids are able to run around and be gone for days at a time without all the parents going crazy…but it unfortunately still fell flat.

I realize that ’80s parents were generally a lot less hyper-vigilant than the parents of today. But even taking that into account, there’s no way they wouldn’t notice their children all being gone for so long — especially considering the craziness and death that has happened in Hawkins the last couple years. Erica may have a friend covering for her (which is a stretch), but poor Dustin’s mom must really not give a crap about where he is.

The Final Verdict

Much like any first experience we have in our younger years, the subsequent iterations of it don’t have quite the same shine as before. For rabid Stranger Things fans like myself, there may never be a season of television as magical as the first one.

That being said, Stranger Things 3 is all types of good — certainly good enough that it’s hard to imagine any fan of the show not enjoying it. From a technical standpoint, the writing, cinematography, and visual effects are all top notch. The acting is great all around — even for the characters whose arcs felt a little off.

In addition to the aforementioned character issues, there are A LOT of contrived moments to get the everyone where they need to be. Charming and exhilarating, but contrived.

But none of that does anything to keep this season of Stranger Things from being a return to form for what is once again my favorite show. One summer might not be able to change everything, but it certainly changed my opinion about the potential for this series to last another season.

Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form
Stranger Things 3 review: A return to monstrous form
Stranger Things 3
Is it good?
Not quite as magical as the first season, but a wonderful and welcome return to form for the series.
The writing, cinematography, and visual effects are all top notch.
The fractured groups end up allowing us even more great character moments.
Horror that's actually scary, comedy that's actually funny, and a wide screen high stakes story that is all types of entertaining.
There are quite a few contrived (yet charming/fun) moments to get all the characters together.
Lucas and Max have the oddest/coldest "relationship" between two teenagers that I've ever seen.
Hopper might have the season's best moment, but his character generally feels like a regression from the one we knew.
9
Great

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