Let’s get this out of the way: I love Stranger Things.
The year season one was released, I went as Joyce Byers for Halloween, and the Squad had an overall favorable opinion of season two when we discussed it on this 2017 othersode. I’m not here to talk about the show’s inherent overall flaws, because plenty of people have done that already — despite being widely beloved, it has also been criticized for the way it leans heavily on nostalgia, for its lack of original ideas, and for stretching too far a plot that was intentionally meant to last eight episodes. All of those things are true, but let’s be real: this show is charming as hell, and I will watch it until it burns itself to the ground and becomes a monster made of its own remains.
That being said, I am having a hard time figuring out how I feel about Stranger Things 3. There are things about it that I loved, and there are things about it that I hated, and I really don’t know where that leaves my overall opinion. So, we’re going to play a game: I’m going to work through some of the different plot lines and themes of the season, decide whether or not each thing worked for me, and see where it leaves me at the end of this post.
(Spoilers ahead, nerds.)
I would argue that “growing up” isn’t just a theme this season, but a major theme of this entire show. When Stranger Things started, our protagonists were kids, and now they’re entering the dangerous realm of teenagerdom — some of them faster than others. Meanwhile, the characters who started out as teenagers are moving quickly towards the brutal reality of adulthood, and the adults? Well, they have no idea what they fuck they’re doing either. And that’s the thing with growing up: it’s a journey we’re on forever, not a destination. The fact that the Duffer Brothers understand that is a huge part of what makes Stranger Things work at all.
This season, Will is dealing with a different sort of arrested development than that of his friends. Between being held in the Upside Down and being possessed by the “Mind Flayer” (when did we start calling it that?), Will basically missed out on a year of adolescence during which his friends were growing and changing without him. It’s particularly painful to watch him trying to convince Lucas and Mike to play D&D with him, and to see the look on his face during the argument that follows when Mike says, “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls.” Sure, the scene where Will destroys his clubhouse while weeping in the rain is a little extra, but so is being a baby teenager, and that moment resonated with me as a person who played with Bratz dolls for way longer than socially acceptable. The group makes up pretty quickly out of necessity, but I’m interested to see how things progress with Will in particular. He is my favorite out of the core group of boys, especially with Mike serving extremely Harry Potter Book Five vibes this season. ANYWAY, I liked this part of the plot, so I’ll add a point to the tally. Yeah, we’re doing a tally, and we’re officially at +1.
Meanwhile, the teenagers are having their own growing pains. Nancy and Jonathan have started an internship at a newspaper where every single adult man is a piece of shit, which checks out, but I have to say that Jonathan has a point when he reminds Nancy that they’re only interns and they shouldn’t really expect anyone to listen to them. Nancy is used to being praised and getting what she wants because, as Jonathan also points out, she’s rich. Still, she’s right about the story they’re trying to investigate, though in the end I’m not sure she is ever vindicated on a journalistic level because she’s too busy pumping a shotgun and trying to save preteens. Despite fitting into the “growing up” theme, this is one of the many plots this season that kind of melts away once the real story gets started, and its lack of resolution is going to bring our tally back down to 0.
We also have Steve and Robin dealing with impending adulthood, having recently graduated and finding themselves working the same dead-end ice cream job at the mall. For these two characters, their growing up is less about figuring out what they’re doing with their lives and more about realizing that the labels that constrained them in high school no longer have to apply to them. I’ll get more into their unlikely friendship later, so I’ll leave the score neutral for now.
Finally: all of the adults on this show are a mess. For proof, look no further than the haircuts of their children. I’ll talk about Joyce and Hopper more later, but for now I want to mention a character who got a little more screen time this season than usual: Mike’s mom, Karen Wheeler. She’s always been more of a character than most of the other parents (apparently Dustin and Lucas have moms, but like, do they actually???), and this season we got to spend a little more time with her outside of her interactions with her kids. On the surface, she is a hot, bored mom, and she wants to fuck Billy. But she doesn’t — and that’s where I think her character is one of the more subtle and surprising heroes of this show. She has urges and desires just like any person does, but she also has responsibilities, a family, and she puts those things first. Still, she is never completely mom-ified the way so many stay-at-home moms on television are, because we see the way she struggles with the traditional role she’s ended up in, and what she’s had to sacrifice for this version of “adulthood” that so many people, especially women, are expected to want. She has a particularly poignant conversation with Nancy about strength that I think is really effective, so I’m going to give her a point and bring us back up to +1.
The Mind Flayer
I honestly have a hard time understanding this monster. I know that it is technically the same monster as it was in season two — just in a different physical form — but I guess I’m confused about its intentions. It wants to destroy El because she is the only one with the power to stop it, but after that… what? It wants to take over the world? Why? I know these are questions we aren’t supposed to ask when dealing with forces of evil, but if we’re to believe this is a sentient presence, I want its motivation to be a little more interesting.
In general, the monster plot this season was confusing to me, partially because I initially got the impression that we were dealing with doppelgängers from the Upside Down who were literally switching place with the citizens of Hawkins — like Billy — but later it seemed like the evil version and regular version were contained within the same body, as we saw during Billy’s final moments.
Whether I had a hard time understanding because the show didn’t explain it or because I wasn’t paying close enough attention, one thing is certain: everything about this particular iteration of the Mind Flayer is fucking disgusting, and not in a fun way like the Demogorgon. At the beginning of the season, we had to watch multiple rats being tormented as their bodies imploded (and then exploded), and I am NOT HERE to watch animals suffer. It wasn’t scary — it just made me feel uncomfortable and a little bit ill. Beyond that, once all the rats and people were goop and formed the monster itself, all I could think about was the fatbergs lurking in our sewer systems. Again: not scary or even interesting, just gross. At least the shadow monster of season two was visually interesting.
I am subtracting a point because this monster was dumb and boring, so we’re back at 0.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I do not give a single fuck about the Cold War. I think it’s boring. That’s why I’m watching a show about supernatural happenings in a tiny town in Indiana rather than, I don’t know, The Americans.
This goes back to my issue with the show’s other villain, the Mind Flayer. I don’t think ‘Evil Russians’ make for particularly compelling villains, especially when they’re presented as one-dimensionally as they are here. The show actually enters pretty interesting territory with the character of Alexei, the Russian scientist Joyce and Hopper kidnap in order to get more information about the gate and its location — and I did find his death to be fairly emotionally affecting — but any work the show does to give the villains complexity via Alexei is immediately undermined minutes later when Hopper shows up at the lab and guns down a bunch of Russians without a second thought.
Ultimately, I was bummed that so much of this season was taken up by this, and even more bummed when that mid-credits sequence promised EVEN MORE RUSSIANS for Season 4. So yeah, I’m subtracting a point, and now we’re officially below zero at -1.
Billy is a huge disappointment of a character for me, and a huge missed opportunity. Since he was introduced in season two as Max’s abusive dick of an older brother, I figured his being possessed this season would lead to some kind of interesting redemptive arc that might continue over the course of the show— much like Will’s experiences in season one have led to an exploration of his trauma in seasons two and three. We learn a little bit more about Billy’s past as an abused child, and his separation from his mother, but only through El’s exploration of Billy’s memories and not through Billy reckoning with these things himself.
In fact, for most of the season, Billy reckons with nothing, and instead stomps around town as little more than a vessel for the Mind Flayer, turning other people evil and looking real sweaty while he does it. As the season draws to a close and Billy comes head-to-head with the monster he’s helped to create, he finally experiences a moment of reckoning and defends El against the beast… and then promptly dies.
What I find particularly infuriating about this is that Billy didn’t even HAVE TO DIE. Five seconds later, Joyce closes the gate and the monster is destroyed anyway. Are we actually expected to sympathize with Billy and consider it redemption that for the last fifteen seconds of his life he wasn’t a complete asshole? Wouldn’t it have been way more interesting had he survived this and had to live with the consequences moving forward? This was an opportunity to give Billy some actual depth, but now he’s just a useless casualty who no one is really going to miss because he was, overall, a terrible person. I will say that Max’s reaction to Billy’s death was emotional, but it’s not enough to save our tally from dropping to -2.
Max & El
I know the score is looking pretty grim at this point, but never fear, for it’s time to talk about the best part of this season: the friendship between Max and Eleven.
I think a lot of people were concerned last season by the jealousy and girl vs. girl nature of the relationship (or non-relationship) between Max and El. I’m not sure if the Duffer Brothers listened to the fans or if this was the plan the whole time, but they corrected what could have been a huge bummer and instead created an absolutely wonderful friendship between these two girls which stands out to me as the most important accomplishment of this season. That might sound dramatic, but think about it: even with several main female characters, the last time we saw any kind of real friendship between two girls on Stranger Things was the friendship of Nancy and Barb, which was cut brutally short during season one. Before Max, our three main female characters (Joyce, Nancy, and El) were each in different age groups, and thus there wasn’t much opportunity for genuine friendship between them. As much as this show has been about the importance of adolescent friendship, it has always been missing the distinctive sort of friendship that exists between girls, without boys, and this season we finally got that.
There are plenty of moments throughout the season that exemplify Max and El’s friendship, from the shopping mall montage to their conversations about how much more there is to life than boys, but the scene that stands out to me as the most powerful is actually the moment of Billy’s death. The writers easily could have chosen Lucas as the one to comfort Max in her grief, but instead, Max turns to Eleven. Their embrace is a display of pure love and care between two female friends that works beautifully, and I’m so glad the show turned away from the obvious trope of competition between young women and instead leaned into its overarching theme of friendship. We’re back at a neutral 0, folks!
The Scoops Troop
I already talked about my feelings re: Evil Russians, so I don’t need to get into that here. What I want to talk about is the dynamic of the Scoops Troop as a team. I imagine the impetus for this group was the positive reaction to Dustin and Steve as buddies during season two, and their dynamic remains very charming. Steve is a fucking treasure, and he is a character who got the sort of redemptive arc Billy so sorely lacked. As fellow squad member Emily put it when we were texting about Steve, “He’s had a reverse trajectory where suddenly I’m like, I would die for him.”
That’s nothing new, but a few things here are — most notably the introduction of Robin, Steve’s new partner-in-crime. It’s a bold move to bring in a brand new core character for a show’s third season, and I’ll admit that I was a little worried, but Maya Hawke brings Robin to life as a charming and goofy former band geek who finds herself forging an accidental bond with the guy she hated in high school. And yes, the show had me in its clutches, rooting for Robin and Steve to get together — but then, in another bold move, it flips the script and reveals that Robin has actually been interested in women all along. The moment when she admits this to Steve is one of my favorite scenes in the whole season, not only because of its honesty and awkwardness but also because it just solidifies what a gem Steve is. Instead of becoming angry or jealous, he laughs it off and teases Robin, shit-talking her crush the way buddies do to boost each other’s confidence in the wake of rejection. The way they laugh when Dustin and Erica show up, falling over onto each other, is the perfect image of their friendship.
Speaking of Erica, I think we were all thrilled to see her return with a larger part this season. Priah Ferguson’s impeccably bratty performance is truly one for the books, and the mom-and-dad dynamic that she and Dustin develop when Steve and Robin are drugged out of their minds is yet another example of a unique and specific kind of friendship that this show has done so well to establish this season.
Despite their involvement in the Russian plot line, the Scoops Troop returns us to +1. Way to go, kids.
Hopper & Joyce
Hopper and Joyce are a pair whose romance has been simmering since season one, and I was really excited to see them team up this season so that they could finally bone. Unfortunately, they did not bone, and to my own surprise, by the second or third episode I didn’t even want them to anymore.
There have been a lot of complaints about Hopper’s trajectory this season, so I know I’m just adding my voice to the choir, but really: what the fuck? I mean, he’s never been a perfect person, and he certainly has a temperamental personality and some aggressive tendencies, but his behavior for this majority of this season was that of a toxically masculine man-baby boyfriend who has not a single sensible bone in his body. This was a huge bummer, because last season did so much work to establish him as a tender and well-meaning father figure for Eleven. His flaws were on display, but it was always very clear that he was a good man. This season, Hopper is written as a cartoonish brute, yelling and punching things and generally acting like a person that any one of us would tell our BFF Joyce not to date.
Admittedly, Joyce acts childish too, but there’s a difference between flirtatious bickering and posing an actual physical threat to another person, and Stranger Things failed hard at its attempt to sustain the will-they-won’t-they energy of this couple and instead created something toxic and unappealing to even the biggest JoycexHop shippers (see: me). Back to 0, you fools.
With everything I just said about Hopper, I cannot deny the fact that I spent the last 10 minutes of this finale weeping. I’m not even joking when I tell you that after the credits rolled, I got up and went to the bathroom and realized I’d gotten my period. THIS ENDING GAVE ME MY PERIOD.
Normally, I am not into being tricked, but I was so relieved at the reference to “the American” in that credits sequence that I completely forgave the show for playing with my emotions like that. It still packs the intended emotional punch, especially because the other characters do believe that they’ve lost Hopper, and their grief is resonant even if, as viewers, we pretty much know he’ll be back.
What really makes this work is the letter Joyce finds in Hopper’s pocket. If Hopper had “died” at the end of this season and we heard nothing else from him, I would have been really disappointed for all the reasons I already stated. I loved this character, and I feel like this season they turned him into something ugly. But those final moments with him penning that letter, reading it aloud to himself — both the writing and Harbour’s delicate performance brought back to life the character I’d been missing so badly all season, the Hopper we fell in love with and have been rooting for since the very first episode of this show. So, with the letter as its saving grace, Hopper’s “ending” puts us at +1.
I could keep going, you know. I could talk about how fucking boring Nancy and Jonathan are as a couple (-1) or how hard I laughed at the pure absurdity of the Neverending Story sequence (+1) or go on, in-depth, about the truly pitiful bowl haircuts this season (-1 each for Will, Mike, and Jonathan), but this post is already really long and was probably an exercise in futility because in all honesty, I still don’t have the certainty I was looking for. Technically, we came out positive, so I will go with that: I think I liked this season more than I disliked it.
I will obviously watch Stranger Things 4, and 5, and however many more they decide to make, because I’m a completist, and because I need my Joe Keery fix. Still, I hope it is less than 50% about Evil Russians.