Stranger Things 2 made me hate Stranger Things. Or, rather, it made me realize that I kind of hated it all along. Across three seasons, there has only been one good person in all of Hawkins and they fed him to a pack of Demodogs. But that doesn’t mean that the show wasn’t ever good.
The first season was a shock of nostalgia and charm. It managed to capture just the right amount of what we think we liked about 80s pop culture without flooding the dam. But the second season spun itself in a circle until the final credits rolled and we all just sort of wondered why. This new third season, however, feels like a direct and smart response by the Duffer Brothers to that 2017 stumble.
That, for better and worse, results in a sharper narrative. It’s pointed in a constant and alluring direction as the gang splits into appropriate clumps as they attempt to unravel the new mystery. People are disappearing and reappearing, physics is breaking, and an old foe might be back.
This should sound like a categorical win; after all, a better story in a storytelling medium should just be A Good Thing. But the cost of this is a much lazier, almost performative tableau of the 80s pastiche. The new Starcourt Mall—Hawkin’s fresh, hot social centerpiece—is an incredible fount of all the delectable flavors of the odd, byzantine aesthetic of our neon swizzle generation.
Fashion screams from the heavens down onto these characters. Jim Hopper (David Harbour) wears one of the most iconic shirts to ever exist. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is a veritable revolving showcase of the 80s milieu filtered through a modern lens. The boys look like they were set on tumble dry with a bunch of short shorts, high socks, and ringer tees. But they contribute precisely diddly to the story (unless you count the quintessential shopping montage).
It’s a sharp divide between the superficial and the substantial. This story could be set in just about any other decade and the results would be the same. There is no 80s-based intrigue other than a deep, patriotic disdain of Russians and communism. (And that itself is a completely different set of problems for many different and timely reasons.)
But that’s a minor loss. We probably knew all along that the buzzy, thumping aesthetic from the first season that caught many viewers’ attention could not carry them forward forever. Instead, there’s a lot gained with a more careful structuring of characters and motivations and mysteries.
The smaller teams, for instance, actually work this time around. Eleven and Max (Sadie Sink) dance around both the Big Bad and the boys’ investigation into why their relationships aren’t working and eventually coalesce together as the season reaches its peak. Steve (Joe Keery) teams back up with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) with the added wrinkle of newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke), forging the best friendship the series has ever seen. And then there’s Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), pulling on their own thread as the tension between their ambition and their lowly intern positions at the local paper ratchets up.
They all work to varying degrees that tend toward success, suffering largely under an incredibly lax pacing and truly abysmal editing and luxuriating in fun and effervescent acting, but the one I purposefully left out was Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder) because it warrants special mention for turning lovable but gruff dad Hopper into one of the worst people in existence. Not just on the show but, like, in general. He’s controlling, misogynistic, chauvinistic, and just generally mean. And we just watch him verbally and emotionally abuse and manipulate Joyce for eight entire episodes despite knowing that they are clearly attempting to set them up as a romantic pairing. It is a torturous experience.
There are, however, some missed opportunities that are too obvious to not be detracting. The mall, for example, is wasted outside of one extremely fun sequence towards the end. Malls are basically an excuse to fabricate any interstitial problem and consequential solution and it doesn’t do that at all. Why are we at the mall at all? Then there’s the fact that once again for the third time in a row, the show tries to stick the landing on some thesis about growing in and out of relationships as girls enter the boys’ perspective without doing any requisite work. Repeating the same statement does not increase its meaning.
Then there’s some sort of running gag of a character that’s supposed to be a Schwarzenegger stand-in? Or something? The intent is clear but the effect is absolutely inscrutable. He feels like he’s from a completely different show or movie. Just generally, in fact, the show misses on many of its laughs. You can see the mechanisms turning and whirring but nothing comes out of the machine at the end. You’re just sort of witness to a serial failure.
It also continues the trend of tenderly picking up Will (Noah Schnapp) from his first season’s isolation chamber before promptly throwing him to the wayside. He is somehow more of a plot device than Eleven ever is even though he (and her, actually) are incredibly ripe for exploration. He physically missed an entire year of his childhood. He mentally and emotionally has been out of step since then despite desperately and naively clamoring to return to what he left. But instead, he’s just a divining rod and a punchline for when Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin talk about their romantic interests.
Then there are the women of the show. There’s some nice expansion here with the characters given more agency and import, but there’s also significant failing. Nancy is attacking the systemic sexism of her news gig where the good ol’ boys call her Nancy Drew and shoot down every idea she has, which amounts to little more than lip service, but I suppose any growth is better than none. And Max and Eleven’s friendship shines amidst the town’s turmoil—it’s an unfiltered sort of pairing that’s refreshing and fun—but it highlights how lost the Duffer Brothers are when it comes to their female characters. Put them in a mall and give them a sleepover? Ship it!
Despite all of this, there is meat on those bones. And it might be the best the show has ever been. Sure, it’s damning praise, but it’s praise nonetheless. Many old problems have been resolved while diminishing other ones, and the new problems aren’t nearly as bad as those. But it is also while introducing nothing particularly innovative or interesting to the world.
Final score: 7 out of 10