“Stranger Things 3” – Simultaneously the Best and Worst Season of the Series

(Minor Spoilers Here, Major Spoilers at the End)

After nearly two years of waiting, Netflix finally gifted the world with the long anticipated third season of Stranger Things.   Coming off from a brilliant first season, and an okay second, this next chapter had a great deal to live up to, and to carve out for the future of the series.  And to some degree, Season 3 didn’t disappoint.

It raised the stakes, and gave us emotionally compelling moments and character arcs that remind us why we love this series.  But at the same time, it also gave us some of the cheesiest and most cringe-worthy moments we’ve seen to date.  While it may seem paradoxical, Strangers Things Season 3 is both the best and worst season of the series so far!

No Longer Children Anymore
The very first episode of the season is titled “Suzie, Do You Copy?” but perhaps a better title would have been “All the Hormones”.  Eleven is still kept in semi-seclusion, but this doesn’t stop Mike from coming over for regular makeout sessions.  We also see Lucas and Max already bickering like an old, married couple, while Nancy and Jonathan are having regular “sleepovers” and working together at the local newspaper.

Mike and Eleven have saved the world, fought monsters, and dealt with corrupt government agents, but navigating teenage hormones and your first relationship, that’s a challenge!

As we see relationships playing a more important role in their lives, we the fans are forced to realize that the cute kids we knew from Season 1 are growing up.  It’s even a bit jarring to see them grow so tall, and hear deeper voices from Mike, Will, and Lucas.  After all the turmoil they’ve been through, it’s refreshing and entertaining to see them act like normal teenagers.

We see Mike and Lucas invoking the anger of their girlfriends by being typical dumb teenage boys.  We see Eleven and Max form a really great friendship, which includes using her superpowers for fun, something she never had the luxury of before.  But the best character dynamic (among the kids at least) has to be Dustin and Steve, who are now like brothers.  Besides the main group of kids, Steve has probably grown and changed the most in this time.

After all Eleven dealt with before, it’s really sweet to get to see her just be a regular teenage girl, hanging out with Max.

The series doesn’t shy away from the conflicts this can create either.  Through Will’s perspective, we see the very real dilemma of different people “growing up” at different rates.  Mike, Lucas, and Dustin all have girlfriends, while Will is the only one who still wants to play D&D like they did the old days.  It’s also hinted at that he’s struggling with his own orientation (something hinted at back in Season 1).

There’s a particularly tragic scene where he destroys his beloved “Castle Byers” fort, in a rage as he feels that he must abandon such childhood exploits.  Between him being missing for Season 1, and being possessed in 2, this is the first time we really get to delve deeply into Will’s character, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Adults Acting Like Children Again
While the kids are all growing up and dealing with more mature issues, the adults (particularly Hopper and Joyce), are displaying their more immature sides.  While it’s fun to see Hopper in full dad mode (even enforcing a three inch open door minimum), this is not the Hopper we once knew.  Surely, becoming a father again would have changed him, but he almost turns into a caricature of himself.

We see this with his over the top antics with trying keep Mike from seeing Eleven every day.  Then when Joyce fails to show up at a dinner “date”, he throws a fit like an emotional teenager.  She even gives him a pretty good excuse that had to do with strange occurrences, but he simply whines and whines about it instead.  One would think that after everything he’s been through with the Upside Down, he wouldn’t discount such evidence so easily.

He and Joyce go on their own side quest together, complete with an incredibly annoying bickering and will they/won’t they dynamic.  They had a great chemistry back in Season 1 that seemed natural.  But now that the writers are specifically trying to set up a love/hate relationship with them, it just feels forced.

They went from an unstoppable team to bickering like a married couple on a sitcom, and not a funny one.

(Major Spoilers Ahead)

Red Dawn Meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Okay, we need to talk about Russia.  We can overlook the not so subtle reference to an American politician basically being a Russian agent subplot with the mayor of Hawkins.  Cary Elwes played the slimy, corrupt mayor quite well and the issue with this Russia plot wasn’t his involvement, so much as it was the subplot’s entire existence.

Initially, the opening scene with the Russian lab was interesting, and explored a fascinating idea that the Americans weren’t the only ones messing around with opening portals to the Upside Down.  But where Stranger Things finally jumps the shark is having an entire Russian military lab built underneath a mall as they do experiments to try and open the portal to the Upside Down.  In previous seasons, all the subplots that converged were all connected somehow.

But here the Russians and the Mind Flayer (which we’ll to get to very soon) are two plots that just happen to be coinciding next to each other.  It would be one thing if the Russians opened the portal somehow back in Russia, which led to it being reopened everywhere.

Or if the Russians were the only antagonists (which still would have been cheesy).  But it’s revealed that Eleven never fully closed the gate, as part of the Mind Flayer was always still around, so what was the point of whole Red Dawn ripoff?  The series even references that film, but doing so doesn’t exonerate a cheap imitation.

It’s a shame because the dynamic between Dustin, Steve, and Robin (and Erica later) was really fun to watch.  Malls played such an important role in the 80’s, and seeing one in full swing hit all the nostalgic markers the series of known for.  But once they cracked the code and went down the Russian lab (which had a set design that looked like something out of Power Rangers, or one of the cheesier Doctor Who seasons), the series stopped taking itself seriously.

Robin and Erica are great characters, but they get wasted on this really cheesy subplot (along with Dustin and Steve too)!

We got all the same clichés of the scary Russian commander who feels like he walked out of a cartoon, to children somehow outsmarting and out-maneuvering trained soldiers (which Eleven did before, but with the help of her powers).  Even once everything is solved, the series ignores the very real implications that such an act by the Soviet Union would most certainly spark nuclear war.

Essentially, the series could have dropped the entire Russia plot, and had been better off.  The Mind Flayer taking control of Billy, and spreading to others was legitimately creepy.  The monster here is much larger and more frightening that the Demogorgon ever was, and it’s a shame that more time wasn’t devoted to this.

Perfect Finale (Except It’s Not)
For all the season’s faults and inconsistencies with quality, the final episode is truly spectacular.  The battle in the mall is epic on a scale this series hasn’t seen before.  After being “possessed” by the Mind Flayer all season, we finally get a glimpse into his past via Eleven’s abilities, and we see that the absolute jerk we saw in Season 2 was made that way by years of abuse from his father.

One of the best aspects of the finale is watching Eleven go up against the Mind Flayer, who tests and challenges her abilities in ways no one has before.

It makes it all the more tragic when Billy gives his life in battle with the Mind Flayer to save his sister Max, along with everyone else.  One of the series’ greatest strengths has always been demonstrating that people are not one dimensional, and they can evolve. We saw this from Steve’s transformation from popular jock bully in Season 1, to being Dustin’s mentor/big brother in Season 3.  And we saw the same from Billy.

Of course, the most poignant and tragic moment of perhaps the entire series was watching Joyce have to close the gate, knowing that Hopper would be disintegrated in the process.  Despite his character getting a bit cartoonish in this season, he was still beloved by fans, and will truly be missed.  On the subject of watching characters grow, we saw him go from an alcoholic who didn’t care about anyone (including himself) due to the death of his daughter, to opening his heart to becoming a father to Eleven.

There was not a single dry eye among viewers as Eleven read Hopper’s letter in the final scenes.  It summed up perfectly not only his own progression as a character and a father, but circled us back to the primary theme of the entire series.  While on the surface, Stranger Things is about science fiction, and monsters, and corrupt governments, it’s always really been about growing up, and the anxieties and fears that come with that.

This all would have served as the perfect ending to the series itself.  Hopper’s death, and the Byers family (now joined by Eleven) moving away from Hawkins create a great deal of finality to this episode.  But the series had to go full MCU, and include a post credit scene with a Russian soldier being fed to a Demogorgon, so we know it will be back, for better or worse.  Hopefully it doesn’t delve deeper into the cheesy Russian plot, but given that post-credit scene, it probably will.

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