Be aware there are full spoilers for Season 3 in the post below and podcast above.
Netflix horror sensation Stranger Things returned over the 4th of July weekend, reportedly bigger than ever, with eight new episodes that take audiences back to Hawkins, Indiana for the most emotional and sometimes shockingly brutal season yet. Set about a half a year after the events of the second season, the new installment picks up with the Hawkins gang in the heat of summer, when hormones are raging (teens and adults included,) the pool is packed, and the Mind Flayer emerges from the Upside Down with a gruesome new form that threatens to tear it all apart.
Netflix and the Duffer Brothers made a clever play when they decided to make their series fully embrace seasonal ambiance, most prominently with Season 2’s Halloween spirit and again in Season 3, which is practically dripping with sweat and sunscreen for all its peak summer energy. That decision (along with the ever-progressing timeline through the 80s) allows the series to shake up its style with each new batch of episodes and lean into different subgenres with all those pop culture references.
In Season 3, Stranger Things is brighter and more pop-cinema than ever, embracing the neon and fluorescence of the mega-mall era, and dropping intertextual references to everything from Back to the Future and The Neverending Story to The Terminator, Rambo, and The Thing. (Dave’s put together a handy guide to all the Season 3 movie references here.) While the first pair keeps the tender-hearted adventure alive, those last three influences make for some of the most violent and shocking moments on the show so far, including some downright gnarly body horror — especially that bit with Eleven telekinetically prying a Mind Flayer slug monster out of her own leg (gag).
On the lighter side of things, the Scoops Troop stole the season, reuniting scene-stealers Joe Keery and Gaten Matarazzo‘s Steve Harrington and Dustin Henderson for a new chapter in their delightful friendship. Their adventure teams them with fellow standouts Priah Ferguson as Lucas’ sass goddess little sister Erica — who shines in her upgraded role, especially as she comes to terms with the fact that she, too, might just be a no-good nerrrrrrrd — and newcomer Maya Hawke as Steve’s Scoops Ahoy co-worker Robin, who brings book smarts, razor-sharp wit and quick thinking (Big Ravenclaw Energy, basically) to the operation. While they’re the joyful standout of the season, their arc also gets surprisingly dark when Steve’s tortured by the Russians and more emotionally complex and rewarding than expected during Robin’s beautiful coming out scene, and Steve’s beautiful reaction to her truth. It’s easily a best-of moment for the series.
Other highlights include the consistently wonderful Millie Bobbie Brown as Eleven, who finally has some room to start discovering herself beyond the psychic weapon she was lab-raised to become. He bond with Max (Sadie Sink) offers an overdue and extremely welcome look at female friendship, and fortunately, they have effervescent chemistry, lighting up the screen whenever they lean into their dynamic. Max’s strange relationship with her brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) also got an upgrade this season, offering a glimpse into their troubled family through the lens of Billy’s tragic turn from the bullish local dickhead to the walking embodiment of other-worldly evil with no will of his own. Winona Ryder remains a zany treat as Joyce Byers, whose wild theories are always right on the money.
On the flip side, some characters didn’t work as well this time around. Top of the list are the Byer brothers, neither of whom are given much to do, but especially Jonathan (Charlie Heaton,) whose sole function this season seems to be doubting, scolding, or holding Nancy back. To a lesser extent, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) is also a bit harder to take this time around, fully in the throes of teenage entitlement, and it’s hard to imagine the way he talks to adults being tolerated in the, uh, let’s say “less soft” world of 80s parenting.
Finally, there’s fan-favorite Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose brute instincts are unleashed full-force this season in an unfulfilling arc that has become quite the conversation point. Violent, rageful, jealous, and occasionally borderline unhinged, Hopper flirts with moments of villainy this season — from his insistence that he’s all-powerful as the Chief of Police to the full-on mob boss move when he threatens to cut off the mayor’s finger. It’s a peculiar direction for the character, especially considering it’s never addressed. Instead, he goes out in a blaze — or lightning storm — of glory, fighting to save the world. Whether or not Hopper is really dead (or perhaps more accurately, gone for good,) has become another conversational hot topic as we all settle in for the long wait for Season 4.
We dig into all that and more on this week’s episode of the Collider horror podcast, The Witching Hour. So if you want to hear an even longer, more in-depth spoiler review conversation, watch or listen in the video or podcast players above.
During the chat, we give a full break down of our thoughts on the highs and lows of the new season, including our favorite returning characters and how they fared the new season, the newcomers who made an impression, how we felt about Billy’s turn as the big bad, the relationships we loved (and the ones that didn’t quite work,) why Dr. Alexei deserved better, Hopper’s characterization in Season 3, the emotional impact of the finale, what we make of that ending, and a whole lot more.
For more on Stranger Things, be sure to check out the links below:
- ‘Stranger Things 4’ Would “Feel Very Different” & Answer Those Cliffhangers, Say the Duffer Brothers
- ‘Stranger Things 3’ Wisely Improves on What Worked in Season 2 & Jettisons What Didn’t
- ‘Stranger Things 3′: Is [SPOILER] Really Gone?