July 4th. Just another day in most countries, but here in America that marks Independence Day — celebrated by hot dogs, fireworks, and inter-dimensional monsters. At least, that’s how festivities go down in one small town in the Midwest in one of Netflix’s biggest hit shows. Stranger Things season three brings us back to Hawkins, Indiana for a July 4th celebration gone horribly awry. But even with all the monsters and secret laboratories causing problems, the show still packs a lot of fun in along with the scares.
Season three begins with a group of scientists attempting to reopen the portal to the Upside-Down that Eleven and friends finally closed at the end of last season. You think one day they’d learn. Naturally, something gets out and starts causing havoc in Hawkins. But before our heroes become aware, they have their own issues to deal with. Mike, Will, Max, Lucas, and Eleven notice Billy acting extra strangely. Mike and Eleven are dating, which pisses off Hopper, who meanwhile has a crush on Joyce. Joyce is preoccupied with figuring what keeps demagnetizing all the magnets in town. Nancy and Jonathan try to establish themselves as journalists by cracking a story involving seemingly rabid rats. Dustin builds a long-distance radio in order to speak with his girlfriend from camp, who everyone doubts even exists. Last and seemingly least, Steve works at an ice cream store at the mall.
Needless to say, season three has a lot going on. The Duffer brothers succeed in deftly managing all of the subplots. Many of these small problems eventually tie together to reveal the bigger mysteries at the heart of the show. As for the personal issues, they serve to shed more light on the characters we’ve gotten to know and explore the dynamics between them.
The main cast of kids have grown from children to teenagers, and the show explores what it means for them to navigate the world of relationships and the more mature feelings that come with it. Like previous seasons, the first couple episodes are a bit of a slow burn, but this allows the show to explore these characters’ day-to-day lives before throwing them back into the blender of monsters and conspiracies. Events do escalate quickly at the midpoint of the season, and the later episodes move along fast and fierce. The character development of the first couple episodes paves the way for these later ones to focus more on the action and mystery.
Stranger Things 3 is arguably the funniest and scariest season yet. These qualities seem at odds, but serve as a testament to how the show can leave you laughing one minute and white-knuckling your armrest of choice the next. A new shopping mall in the middle of the 4th of July provides a perfect setting for lighthearted interactions of Max taking Eleven shopping for the first time ever and Steve scooping ice cream for overly demanding children. As for the scares, the previously intangible Mind Flayer now boasts a corporeal form, making it all the more terrifying. Especially since dead flesh from various organisms comprises this new body, which can disassemble and reassemble itself at will. The writhing mass of guts, bones, and teeth would make Cronenberg proud. Or perhaps even give him nightmares.
Almost all of the main cast returns, and as always everyone does a fantastic job. The series asks so much of its actors and has so many emotional scenes that there’s no clear standout. Simply put, everyone plays to the top of their game. Now, what about the new characters? One of Stranger Things’ biggest strengths is being able to take the most seemingly minor characters and expand their roles into star players. Maya Hawke and Alec Utgoff play two newcomers who may very well become fan-favorites, Robin the ice-cream server and Alexei the Russian scientist, respectively. Again, these sound like bit parts, and for the first couple episodes they are, but then they turn up with unexpected skills and ambitions that catapult them out of obscurity and into our hearts. Hawke has a natural knack for dry comedy and brings the energy when things get out of control. Utgoff conveys so much with facial expressions alone, as his character speaks almost entirely in Russian.
While the central characters coming off as so interesting thanks to the strong writing, the villains don’t quite get equal attention. This time around the gang battles the Mind Flayer and the people it’s using as hosts, as well as the Russians who re-opened the gate. Oddly enough, the otherworldly Mind Flayer and its brainwashed minions somehow have more personality that every other human antagonist. It’s a shame that the Russian villains come off as so goofy and one-note. Previous seasons highlighted the human scientist villains as having flaws, but like the most patriotic 1980s Cold War era films, the Russian goons in Stranger Things exist solely to have terrible aim and get duped by a bunch of sneaky children. Most video game henchman have better programming than them.
However, the vast majority of the 1980s tropes and references successfully come across as homages rather than cliches. With the mall front and center, 80s fashion is on full display and the costume department went all out with legwarmers and bright colored shirts. As always, the soundtrack is great, and arguably the best it’s been in the history of the show. Since this season takes place later on in the 80s, it has access to even more tunes from the decade. There is one musical moment towards the end of the season that is simply (insert chef’s kiss noise here). If it doesn’t put a smile on your face your soul may be in the Upside-Down. Seek help.
Just as last season used its Halloween setting to highlight the autumnal mood of the story, this season works the Fourth of July into the very fabric of its being. Like the fireworks that go off, it’s loud and scary. And at the same time, it’s a lot of fun and a great summer treat.
Stranger Things 3 provides a third season outing that balances all the fun and lighthearted comedy of an 1980s summer flick with the mysteries and horror of the best sci-fi programming.