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Much like the mind flaying monstrosity that terrorises the residents of Hawkins, Indiana, Netflix’s flagship series, Stranger Things, is a unique beast. It’s a love letter to the horror and sci-fi stories of the past – think Stephen King filtered through the prism of a fledgling Steven Spielberg. It wears these influences on its sleeve, and weaponises them to tell a story that feels somehow both fresh and familiar.
Season three feels like the series evolving into its final form. Season one was great. It was a sweet and gripping story of small-town life, and the meaningful, life-defining friendships we forge as children. It told a great single story arc, full of funny and exciting moments. Season two was solid, though some criticised it’s similarity to season one. At best it felt like a mild escalation of the first. At worst it felt like something of a retread, one in which the references it previously wore so comfortably didn’t fit as well. It was still really good, though.
Season three is the leanest, most exciting to date. The original gang are growing up, and with that come new personal problems. Mike and Lucas are now in relationships with Max and Eleven, while the remaining members of the crew, Dustin and Will, feel left behind. Will, especially, after his traumatic experiences of the first two series, is in a state of arrested development. He wants to sit in the basement all day and play Dungeons and Dragons, while the others are more focused on their new girlfriends. It’s a bittersweet, melancholic subplot that’s rendered all the more resonant by an excellent performance from Noah Schnapp as Will.
Actually, it has to be noted, as with the show’s previous seasons, the performances are once again exemplary. One of Stranger Things’ strengths has always been its great cast of characters. On top of this the show effortlessly adds new people that feel immediately part of the story – with season two’s Max (Sadie Sink), and this season with Steve’s new ice-cream-slinging co-worker, Robin (Maya Hawke). These characters connect so well because the actors, to a person, are all excellent. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has always been the superstar of the show, and this time around is no different. Yet, the whole cast get opportunities to shine.
This season, the usual supernatural threat is joined by an additional supranational threat – nefarious Russians. This new plot-line is decent, though occasionally feels somewhat hokey. It’s strengthened by the characters that are involved with it, however. Without spoiling anything, the little mini-crew that faces the Russian threat have several great, funny moments – so while the primary story with the Mind Flayer is the truly compelling fare, this sub-plot offers a worthy distraction.
Meanwhile, the ever-present threat from the Upside Down finds its best iteration this season. The enemies in Stranger Things – the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer – have always been creepy and distinctive. But these batch of episodes show a new evolution that’s grisly, unsettling and incredibly entertaining. The creatures here are the most horrific and vicious seen in the series to date – and there are several moments that are equal parts gory and visually dazzling.
This new evolution of the supernatural threat means that the show’s hero Eleven is forced to deliver several explosive moments throughout the series. An issue with season two was that Eleven was too over-powered for the plot’s purposes. Who cares about these slimy, slithering nether-realm creatures if we have a psychic super-being who can just mind smash them into oblivion? Season two dealt with this caveat by sending Eleven away, culminating in her standalone episode which received a mixed response from viewers.
Season three addresses this problem in the simplest way possible: it just lets Eleven go wild. There are several standout showdowns this time where she just goes God-mode and supremely bodies the encroaching supernatural threat. It’s a credit to how the season is laid out, however, that this doesn’t diminish or negate the inter-dimensional antagonists. This series has a real sense of stakes and consequences.
One criticism that has been thrown at the series is that it is derivative of stories that have come before. But it’s plain to see that Stranger Things doesn’t aim to steal the influences it draws from. They are merely homages the show adds to give an extra emotional resonance, along with fun easter eggs for us fanboys and fangirls to gurgle at with glee.
This is most evident in one of this season’s recurring antagonists – a Russian enforcer that is pursuing our heroes. What’s notable is that the guy is literally Terminator. He’s got the Arnie crew cut. He’s got the Arnie face. He’s got the Arnie clothes and boots (but no motorcycle). He even has soundtrack cues that are eerily reminiscent of the original film’s score. This feels like an overt attempt by the show’s creators to say they are adopting these references to foster and accentuate the show’s creativity, not to siphon it and present it as their own.
The series also deftly manages to balance the large ensemble cast. It would be so easy to leave characters like Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers, or fan-favourite Steve (Joe Keery) as afterthoughts. But season three juggles each group brilliantly. If you have a favourite character, you won’t be disappointed. More than any of the previous seasons, these eight episodes are dotted with plenty of funny and fist-pumping moments from the whole cast of characters.
While the season has several high-points, the finale is particularly thrilling and emotional. From a visual perspective, it’s a marvel. It has several shots that are simply stunning. The show has always favoured a dark and neon laden visual palette – all deep blues and purples (take a peep at the trailer for an amazing shot of Eleven on a dark beach, with rolling neon storm clouds pulsating on the horizon). The finale contains some of the best images of the series to date. It culminates on a note that’s both sad, and hopeful. It’s the kind of bittersweet finale that Stranger Things excels at. It leaves us with that melancholic feeling of mourning the past, while feeling hopeful about he future.
Many have called this the strongest series of Stranger Things. As with previous seasons it’s loaded with great performances and thrilling, emotional moments. It’s also compulsively watchable. Much has been made about the Netflix binge-watch model, but it’s most apt with Stranger Things. The show is such a confection, such a warm blanket, that you’ll find yourself gliding through each episode in some sort of fever dream or Mind Flayer induced blood trance. Most viewers will likely have the whole eight episodes gobbled up within a long weekend.
Ultimately, this stands alongside season one for the mantle of the show’s strongest offering. While it probably has the most compelling narrative of the three, season one had an emotional resonance that is hard to emulate. Series three comes incredibly close though. Here, Stranger Things has hit a fresh stride, and it’s exciting to see how the show will continue its evolution.