Stranger Things season 3 review: The Duffer brothers break brilliant and terrifying new ground

This season returns us once more to Hawkins, Indiana, where preparations are underway for the town’s Fourth of July celebrations

Al Horner
Thursday 04 July 2019 07:31
Stranger Things Final Trailer

For a show so in thrall to the past, the latest serving of Stranger Things feels surprisingly current. In the third outing of the Netflix show, Russian forces hell-bent on bringing down America unleash a monster right beneath citizens’ noses. Ring any bells?

In a time of ongoing allegations of collusion and election interference, it makes for creator duo the Duffer brothers’ boldest season of television yet: a perilous and hilarious Cronenberg-ian horror-adventure that shoves an Eggo in the face of all those who wrote off Stranger Things as Eighties nostalgia fodder. The show may still pull heavily from cinematic delights of that decade – John Carpenter’s The Thing and Back to the Future feature heavily here – but in the subtly, strangely political Stranger Things 3, the show proves to be a beast of its own.

This season returns us once more to Hawkins, Indiana, where preparations are under way for the town’s Fourth of July celebrations (a backdrop that sharpens the sense that this season has something to say about America). The Goonies-ish gang that saved the town in seasons one and two are back, but not exactly as we remember them: a combination of growing up and girlfriends has changed the dynamic, and when they’re not battling sinister Soviets or running away from otherworldly entities, they’re reckoning with the ways their relationships are changing. Will, played by Noah Schnapp, wants to cling onto the way things were, but Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) all have budding romances to tend to – the latter with superpowered telekinetic Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown.

In their orbit are returning characters Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), now working at a local newspaper where sexism is rampant and Nancy’s bright ideas are dismissed. Steve (Joe Keery) is now an ice cream store employee having failed to get into college, and spends his days trying and failing to woo female customers, to the amusement of sarcastic new character Robin (Maya Hawke). Then there’s Joyce (Winona Ryder) and chief of police Jim Hopper, played by season standout David Harbour. The will-they-won’t-they relationship the show has hinted at in previous seasons come to the fore in Stranger Things 3 as Hopper balances his hopes of romance with parenting struggles and the pressures of dealing with a slimy mayor.

Characters and story threads introduced in season two develop and come to violent heads in this new instalment. Stranger Things 2 additions Max (Sadie Sink) and Billy (Dacre Montgomery) are back, each with more to do this time around – especially Billy, the pretty boy bully with a wild mane of hair and even wilder temper. All of this season’s callbacks and character evolutions, picking up where the previous series left off, give the sense that the Duffer brothers have a master plan for their show, which is expected to run for six seasons. This wasn’t particularly evident in the second season, which was criticised by some for retreading the first.

The same can’t be said for Stranger Things 3. The scope is broadened, the stakes are higher, and unabashedly weird turns are taken – there’s a drunk detour in one episode that’s tonally bizarre but hugely endearing, and one of the series’ tensest moments to date is interrupted with a singalong musical number (yes, really).

New questions are asked of the show’s universe, mythology and characters: what if Hawkins isn’t the only place where experiments are being conducted into the Upside Down? Is evil always obvious, or does it sometimes manifest and spread in a slow, quiet creep of corruption?

The series bows out in a moving speech that is the show’s most emotionally devastating moment so far, discussing the need to sometimes move on and let go of the past. Stranger Things 3 practices what it preaches: instead of the pure nostalgia of previous seasons, the Duffer brothers break brilliant, terrifying new ground here. Bring on Stranger Things 4.

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