[Note: the following review contains only mild spoilers of Season 3 of Stranger Things]
Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Steve, Nancy and the rest of the gang in the fictional town of Hawkins (Indiana) are finally back.
Matt and Ross Duffer, the creative minds behind the series, don’t seem to know the meaning of the word disappointment. Though the end-result — even the staunchest of fans would probably agree with this assessment — is far from perfect, the wait was worthwhile.
There are many things to cheer for in season 3, but let’s begin with the low-points.
At times the narrative of these new eight chapters felt unnecessarily sprawling and disconnected (for about five episodes, there are at least five different threads, each with only some of the characters involved: we have to wait for the very last episode to have all of them in one place together, and even then, only for a brief moment).
The overall story, as it is perhaps to be expected when a series loses its novelty factor, is far less mind-blowing than in the previous seasons (though not less entertaining and with even more splatter: exploding rats I am trying not to think of you!).
Without giving away much about the plot, the season is set around July 4, 1985 and involves some otherworldly ‘old enemies’, some new ones coming from the Eastern bloc (after all the Cold War is not over yet), and several interesting twists for some of the characters that appeared in season 2 (especially the mean Billy Hargrove).
The overall tone of this third season and the characterisation of some of its protagonists (especially with the never-changing Sailors outfits of Steve and Robin, and the part of the plot involving Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers) has more cartoonish qualities than before.
It is obviously a deliberate homage to the style of some of the pop-corn action-films and series of the era, such as Indiana Jones and Magnum P.I. (the latter a clear inspiration for Jim Hopper’s fashion choices, whereas his attitude and bickering with Joyce is a reminder, among others, of Indy and Marion in Raiders of the Lost Arc); and though some of the sequences certainly offer moments of welcome lightness (Hopper’s beating of Cary Elwes’s evil Mayor Larry Kline ranks high among these), because of the sprawling narrative, the scenes can feel, at times, jarring and overdone, if not repetitive and boring.
As a consequence of this, the performances of Winona Ryder (Joyce) and David Harbour (Hopper) suffer from gratuitous over-the-top acting which, somewhat, undermines the emotional journey their characters have embarked on.
Speaking of performances, Millie Bobby Brown’s acting is far below the quality showcased in the first two seasons. But it is probably more to do with the writing and directing than the actor’ skills. Her character takes a back seat in this season. Though still key for the story, the multiple plot lines ultimately mean much less screen time for Eleven. And the scenes she is given are either action-drive (showing her powers) or about dealing with her feelings. And in the latter case, we are served with some of her most unconvincing moments.
In one of these, in Chapter 3, she is with Max going on a post-break-up-with-boyfriend shopping-spree — a staple of every 80s teen flicks. She learns to feel empowered, even without Mike around her, but during the classic montage of the two teens fooling around with new styles and pulling faces in front of a camera, it is hard to reconcile that easy-going, happy, cheeky Eleven, with the awkward kid who still doesn’t know yet “how do I know I like”. It felt like the faces belong more to Milly Bob Brown that her character Eleven.
And yet, these minimal flaws notwithstanding, the pleasure of binging on this new season of Stranger Things was never in doubt. If anything, in fact, with each new episode the quality and the pace improved more or less steadily, with the last four propelling the viewers into a vortex of ingenious set-pieces of great action and emotional jolts.
What a ride!
The scene in the Hospital in Chapter 5 with Nancy and Jonathan is certainly one of the high points, a thrilling and a glorious throwback to the best horror flicks of the 80s (Halloween II, The Shining and The Thing, most of all).
The season finale, especially the climax, is a small masterpiece of visual storytelling: intense, breath-taking, scary, moving, and sad.
During the final chapter, the odd juxtaposition between the Never Ending Story theme song and what is happening to the characters on screen is one of the best scenes in the whole series — a stroke of pure cinematic genius.
To say more about what happens would spoil the fun of watching it. But it is safe to say that, as always, binging on Stranger Things is never disappointing. And it always feels a bit like coming home, especially for those of us who grew up during the 80s.
The Easter eggs and pop culture references throughout the eight episodes are abundant and to find all of them can be as good as an excuse to watch the whole season again from start. But it is not just that.
Stranger Things, unlike many movies of the past, is not just a hollow homage to the by-gone era of cheesy pop music, arguable hair styles and terrible fashion choices, it is and it feels throughout as the real thing, as if we were still living through all of it and had no much awareness of how it all sounded and looked (dreadful but charming, some would say). And we loved it, unabashedly (even the Never Ending Story song!).
At one point Steve and fellow ice-scream scooper Robin (new-comer Maya Hawke) end up hiding in a cinema theatre with a crowd of cinema goers watching the hottest movie of the year: Back to the future. Eating pop-corn they discuss the awkwardness of the plot. While watching the scene, it occurred to me that Marty McFly would have felt perfectly at home in that scene, as those of us who were teenagers then.
But if on the one hand the glorifying nostalgia of the 80s is one of the greatest assets of Stranger Things, the other is the Duffer brothers’ ability of injecting that era’s ethos with a bit more depth and sensitivity that most of the popular flicks referred in the series certainly had.
Some of the scenes with Robin and Steve are a case in point.
Their relationship, as Steve’s friendship with Dustin in season 2, is one of the highlights of this season. Maya Hawke is a great addition to an already talented cast and her character gives a more nuanced perspective on what it means to be a teenager, then as now.
Without revealing too much, Steve and Robin heart-to-heart dialogue in the toilet of the cinema in Chapter 7 is probably one of the sweetest, understated moments in the season and one of the best written scenes of the whole series.
Steve’s reaction to Robin’s revelation and his trademark coolness in normalising it and moving on is not only quintessentially Steve “The Hair” Harrington, but it is also a great lesson on how friends can truly be friends regardless of all the differences among them — a recurring theme in Stranger Things since its very inception.
For these reasons, though at times, this new season of Stranger Things may feel flawed and overstretched, it remains, as the previous two seasons, unmissable.
It is fun, it is touching, it sweet, and just plainly entertaining as all fans hoped for while enduring the excruciating wait between the end of season 2 and the release of season 3.
And after binging on it, laughing with it, and crying with it, once again we must wait.
And while we wait, all we can do is to speculate on what will happen next. What will Season 4, supposedly the final of the series, be about?
For my part, I keep going back to those last words read aloud at the end of Chapter 8 and cannot help but wonder whether in there, in those touching words, the Duffer brothers have hidden in plain sight the plot of season four. Possible, but we’ll only know for certain when it comes out. Hopefully the wait won’t be as long as last time.