Stranger Things Season Three has finally arrived in all of its summery mall-rat glory. But beneath the glittering 80s pop fun of Hawkins, Indiana is, of course, a much darker truth. Like Hawkins and the Upside Down, Stranger Things Season Three has moments of greatness and moments of weakness, leading to an uneven run of episodes: charming but overlong, fun but shallow, great characters but not enough for them to do. Below are some of the new season’s best and worst moments that sum it all up. If you haven’t finished Season Three, then come back later—spoilers abound!
Joe Keery continues to be a standout in the series, elevating a character that didn’t have much to him into one of the show’s most beloved creations. He has also helped shape Steve’s journey from brash jock to humbled purveyor of ice cream at Scoops Ahoy, no longer the high school stud able to shake his hair and have the ladies all faint at his feet. Steve’s friendship with Dustin as well as Robin really helped make their time in the (otherwise not great) Russian bunker storyline worthwhile, and the heart-to-heart he shared with Robin in the bathroom after the truth serum made them both hilariously high was surprisingly poignant. Ultimately, Steve is still a dude’s-dude, with his love of Fast Times and Animal House, but he also has a huge heart. And we definitely heart Steve.
I’m still unsure what the strategy was behind making Hopper such a colossal asshole just to kill him off. Hopper was a series favorite from the start, with David Harbour’s dad bod becoming a thing. And while Season Three started off with some tropey “dad feeling uncomfortable about daughter dating young punk” stuff (even though that young punk was just Mike), the series doubled-down on it so much that it was creepy rather than cute or sweet. The same was true for Hopper essentially bullying Joyce about a date. While things could have easily turned around, having Hopper continue to be a complete asshat when it came to calling Alexei “Smirnoff” constantly, among other borish traits, made his final sacrifice almost feel like a relief. His character had been assassinated much earlier in the season than that (although whether Hopper is really gone remains to be seen).
I mean, of course—this is what Stranger Things trades in. From the glorious Starcourt Mall (well, aside from the Russian bunker and the eventual destruction by the mini-Mind Flayer) to that Eleven and Max shopping spree, the 80s fashion and references to Jazzercise and other touchstones were all impeccable. Even Steve and Robin stumbling into Back to the Future, Dustin and Suzie’s rendition of The Neverending Story theme, as well as passing references to Animal House, Fast Times and Red Dawn, Stranger Things always gets its nostalgia stuff right. For those who grew up at a time of mall rats and summers spent at the community pool without smart phones and social media, the new season delivered.
The Byers family has always been the emotional core of Stranger Things. And yet, in Season Three, they could not catch a decent storyline for love nor money. Sure, it was nice that Will got to have some reprieve from the Upside Down possessing him, but there was so much to explore in his relationship with Mike and feeling left out because he didn’t have a girlfriend. There was also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Will “not liking girls.” Was that a casual outing? Is Will gay, or asexual, or…? Not that he needs to be defined, but it felt like a moment, one that deserved more than it got. (And the show is capable of doing it, like when Robin revealed her truth to Steve.)
Meanwhile, Joyce sadly had one train of thought the entire season: magnets. The magnets falling off her fridge. That’s literally it. There could have been something interesting about her developing a new bond with Hopper (or with her own kids!), but the show turning him into a massive jerk stopped that from happening. Maybe the Duffers didn’t want to repeat Joyce losing another love interest to the Upside Down, but also maybe give her something else to do besides talk about magnets …?
Still, Joyce got more of a story than poor Jonathan, the forgotten son. Joyce doesn’t seem to care that Nancy is sleeping over, that Jonathan is ok (or not ok) once the monster appears, and doesn’t even look for him in the chaos of the mall being attacked. Jonathan and Nancy had their own newspaper adventure but it was small potatoes (and very, very boring) compared to what the other groups got up to. The Byers moving was, ultimately best for them in a town and a writing staff that seems to have largely forgotten they exist.
The best for them, anyway. Because thank you, finally, someone was wise enough to leave this hellmouth. Granted, the other adults in Hawkins aren’t as aware of its horrors as Joyce Byers, and there’s no way that Will, Joyce, Jonathan, and now Eleven won’t return to the city next season to help their friends out. But given what Will and Eleven have been through in particular (and in the loss Joyce has suffered in terms of those she holds dear), it was definitely time and totally plausible that they would strike out for some new opportunities. As a cap to the season, the moving scene was also literally moving. It was one of the best character moments of Season Three, as the kids said goodbye and very realistically faced this huge change. It was sweet, sad and emotional, using the camaraderie among the cast to really augment the storytelling here. Best of luck, Byers family.
As Stranger Things seems to have expanded the boundaries of Hawkins into a bustling metropolis with a huge, sparkling mall, so too has its (already large) cast continued to grow. For the most part that’s been a good thing, especially with the introduction of Robin (Maya Hawke). Robin was integral to the season’s plot, decoding the Russian message as she did, but she also was an important (age-appropriate) friend of Steve to have, and a juxtaposition to Nancy. Her conversation with Steve in the bathroom of the movie theater about her sexuality was poignantly done, but she was also just a hilariously sarcastic and plain-spoken addition to team.
The same was true with Erica, Lucas’ brilliant little sister who was introduced briefly last season (and has way more personality than he does). Even though she was given much more to do this season, the show didn’t overplay its hand with her. Erica’s sass augmented the story, but she never became cartoonish. Also, her bonding time with Dustin over her secretly being a nerd was very cute.
Finally, we pour one out to Alexei, a character who also didn’t need to die. He made for a traditionally funny “Soviet in the west” type who had to pantomime with Joyce to be understood. But even when Murray showed up and translated, the humor then just turned to Alexei’s sarcasm and love of slushies (mostly strawberry). Dosvedanya, comrade.
It was an interesting idea to have Stranger Things make Billy, one of its thinnest Season Two characters, into the primary vessel for the mini-Mind Flayer in Season Three. But there was really only one scene, towards the very end of the series, where we got to see the true pain underneath Billy’s bluster. Starting the season out with him immediately and very boldly propositioning Mrs. Wheeler was also a weird thing to do, and his possession ultimately didn’t reveal anything interesting about him (and his relationships with the people of Hawkins) beyond those flashbacks—which had more to do with Eleven than Billy himself. Like with Hopper, Billy’s final sacrifice was heroic but also felt unearned. He never got to even have a real conversation with Max at any point in the entire season, and Max had no time in the finale to even react to his death beyond the initial shock. There was a missed opportunity to explore and redeem Billy as a character that didn’t have to result in his death.
On the one hand, Nancy’s rude, randy co-workers at the newspaper ultimately becoming possessed and turning into goo was fine because, well, they were awful. But the utterly two-dimensional take felt like one of the show’s weakest throwbacks, a kind of half-assed “Me Too” statement that ultimately didn’t go anywhere for Nancy. And that’s really all that can be said about it!
The Suzie saga had one of Stranger Things Season Three’s best conclusions, as Dustin’s girlfriend not only turned out to be real and in possession of Planck’s Constant to help the group defeat the Russians, but she also does a mean harmony for The Neverending Story’s theme song. Most of our protagonists were boo’d up this season, and Dustin was no exception… even though no one believed the improbably wonderful Suzie was real. But the reveal happening alongside a key plot moment, wrapped in a blanket of fantasy nostalgia, was perfectly sweet and an example of the series at its best.
The monsters of Stranger Things can be fun and freaky, but what makes the show great are the interactions among its core cast. One of the major issues with this third season, though, is that we barely got a sense of them outside of the threat of the mini-Mind Flayer. Some of the surprising pairings of Season Two were repeated, but they didn’t work as well because they never grew or changed. Or, the in case of Karen and Billy, they got really problematic really fast. Lucas/Max, Nancy/Jonathan, Steve/Dustin were all great, but we didn’t get any new pairs (for friendship or romance) to really develop and root for (the aforementioned Dustin/Suzie scene was great but … it was one scene). Hopper was a jerk, alienating both Joyce and Eleven (and killing the dad dynamic that was just starting to develop in Season Two), and Will’s connection to the Upside Down was also mostly severed. Robin and Steve are great, but that’s because storylines with Steve are always great. As for the rest, it made it feel like almost nothing changed from last year.
Season Three started out with an interesting conceit that played on Invasion of the Body Snatchers themes. By turning the denizens of Hawkins into pod people, more or less, there was an opportunity to lean into the character work that the show is (occasionally) so great with. Instead, the bodies of locals just turned into goo at a time to be determined by the mini-Mind Flayer. And yes, it was suitably gross and some of it was icky fun, but we’d also seen it all before. The monster that was conjured is the same one the kids have fought for the last two seasons. We still don’t know any more about the Upside Down or why the Mind Flayer wants to take over this world. And that might not have mattered if they show didn’t keep bringing it back again and again but … it does.
With as much time as the series devoted to its final battle, there certainly could have been some consideration given to the fact that people in town were disappearing en masse to be turned into goo. The finale’s coda didn’t really address the aftermath of that (the deaths of untold towns people) beyond a quick shot of a TV news magazine doing a special on the dark underbelly of Hawkins, but what were the reactions of the other adults in the show? Do they find this totally normal and ok?
As I wrote in my review of the season, Stranger Things could be so much stronger and deeper if the monster stood for something beyond just a scary bit of ooze, or if the Upside Down had implications regarding the psyches of our leads. If the monsters stood in for the frights of growing up, moving away, or depression or doubt or hurt from a breakup, that would resonate far more than just “the Mind Flayer, again!”
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV