4YE Reviews: Stranger Things 3 Introduces Some Needed Character Development But Falls Short

Credit: Netflix

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. By now the people in Hawkins, Indiana should know or at least suspect when things are out of the ordinary. Also, you’d think Will Beyers would know to trust his instinct when he has a strange feeling at the back of his neck. Or, at least, you’d think he’d say something. That is not the case as we kick off another season of Stranger Things.
The first episode establishes where our favorite (and not so favorite) characters are in the summer of 1985. Mike and El are enjoying a summer of young love and annoying Jim by all the kissing they’re doing. Will is all alone. Lucas and Max are still together, and Steve is dishing out ice cream at the new Starcourt Mall. Nancy and Jonathan are interning at the Hawkins Post. Jonathan is excelling while poor Nancy delivers sandwiches to the men of the post. Dustin returns from camp with a girlfriend. Meanwhile, as we all know, Billy is the resident bad boy but is on a collision course with things beyond his control.
The second episode sees Billy struggling against the malevolent force that possessed him. That’s right, everyone. The Mind Flayer has returned, and he has a few tricks up his sleeves. He’s building up an army with rats and chemicals and humans and that’s the gory truth. All the while, things in Hawkins continue to be normal, save for Joyce. She discovers the electromagnetic field around Hawkins has weakened.
Bless Hopper’s heart. In the third episode, he tries to navigate the ins and outs of raising a teenage girl. He also finds himself attempting to grow closer to Joyce. But she keeps him at arm’s length because she is still reeling with the death of Bob from season two.
Max and Eleven’s friendship grows. But when they spend time together, Eleven sees Billy with a captive lifeguard and the Mind Flayer sees Eleven’s presence. Hopper and Joyce check out the old Hawkins lab. Will feels like he’s losing his friends to girls and growing older. Dustin and Steve become a trio when Steven’s co-worker, Robin, cracks a mysterious Russian code. The new Starcourt mall is they key to everything.
If I go any further, I’ll spoil more episodes and we all know no one would want that. Once again, the Duffer Brothers weave many strands of the same story which come together in the fourth and fifth episodes. But the strength of this season is girl power. Girl power and what the Bros give us in anticipation of season four.
I’ll admit that, after bingeing the season and sleeping on it, I am disappointed in the tone of the show and how forced it all seemed.
In a world of instant gratification, the Duffer Brothers have taken the “Netflix algorithm” and created a season of Stranger Things. It appeals to everyone’s criticisms and tries to appease them. It works, but with varying results. This season felt off-kilter. Not only in tone but also in characterization.
The biggest issue I had with this season was the product placement. There’s product placement then there’s PRODUCT PLACEMENT™. I did not grow up in the 80s. But I do understand that the 80s was a time of rampant consumerism and intense stagflation and a horrible economics plan that left the country in debt. Perhaps that’s what The Duffer Bros were trying to do by shoving 7/11 stores, Slurpees, and Burger King in our face. I could’ve done without.
I also could have done without the whole Back to the Future allusion that felt like tacked on fodder. Back to the Future was played for laughs, but I wasn’t laughing. In fact, I didn’t laugh any of the times I was supposed to. Why? Because this isn’t a funny show and laughs shouldn’t be shoehorned in to make the series more appealing. Many of the season’s humorous scenes were played far too long and many of them could have been cut to save on run time.
That’s another issue I had with this season. It dragged. Eight episodes could have easily been six and been far more effective. Dustin and Suzie’s rendition of “The Never Ending Story” by Limahl was a welcomed break in the season finale. But I felt it could have been cut to keep the momentum going and to keep the intensity and anticipation growing. That’s another reason I disliked the comedy this season, it made the season feel far longer than it should have. Again, I understand that the Duffer Bros were attempting to imitate the funny box office hits of the 80s. But remember, horror flourished in the 80s too and they should have kept that trope going instead.
Characterization was a bit of a double-sided coin for me as well. On the one hand, Max, Eleven, Joyce, and newcomer Robin flourished. On the other, Hopper, the rest of the boys, Steve, and Murray all remained stagnant or even regressed as characters. The biggest disappointment was Hopper.
I’ll be honest and say that the reason I loved seasons one and two so much was because of Jim Hopper. He is my spirit animal. I don’t care that he’s a dude and I’m a woman. He is what made the series so balanced. He is the perfect foil for the precocious and fantastical kids. Where they are imaginative and full of life and everything kids should be, Hopper is the logic of the show. In this season? His characterization was anything but logical.
Hopper was a sad caricature of what made him so special in the first and second seasons. Not only did he and Eleven only shared a handful of poignant scenes in the series finale (and no other time, really. He did a complete 180 and became the type of masculinity that is toxic and limiting. Yes, Hopper has always been a tiny bit toxic, especially when it came to El, but this time, his characterization went a bit too far. It felt far too left-of-center to be the Hopper I know and love.
(Also, I’m not saying that I didn’t appreciate Hopper’s dad-bod on full display more than once this season. The entertainment world needs more dad-bods and less chiseled mega hunks, but even that seemed off-character for Hopper. Especially since he has a teenager at home now and that’s awkward.)
On another note, Steve was another disappointment for this season. Here he is, out of high school. He spent two seasons fighting demogorgons and being a nanny to Dustin. But he felt the same to me and his act is getting a bit tired. We get it. He’s supposed to be hot and the object of teen girl’s desire and the young adult female gaze, but he can stop it now. He’s so much better than that and even Robin couldn’t help him out of that rut.
But I will say that the girl power this season was not only amazing and welcomed, but it was also sorely needed. Max and Eleven as friends are goals. Absolute goals. The shopping montage in episode 3 with “Material Girl” playing in the background was everything. Max introducing Eleven to Wonder Woman and female empowerment was brilliant. Eleven needed that. This is the first season that Eleven has came into her own and her freshly solidified characterization is a brilliant treat going into season 4. Also, Max has always been my favorite of the kids. I’m glad the Duffers brought her in. Millie Bobby Brown and Sadie Sink have great chemistry together. Brown and Sink have more chemistry together than they have with the rest of the boys.
Last but not least, Joyce Byers. Girl has gone from neurotic mother to a strong and capable woman. She is the source of some of the humor in this season. While I have lamented the humor, hers is a welcomed dose because it felt the most natural and the least forced. Also, Robin. Robin is the second-best newcomer to grace Stranger Things. I’m glad Maya Hawke got to be a part of this season and will be a part of the fourth season. Both Joyce and Robin are the epitome of excellence and they felt the most natural this year.
Overall, season three wasn’t the best. While the show didn’t hit the sophomore slump in the second season, it did this season. I don’t like being bored watching TV shows, but here we were. There was so much potential to this season and the trailer made me so excited, but I ended up disappointed.
I will say that I am interested to see how season four will develop. The Russians were an interesting addition to the series. I’ve read a rumor somewhere that said that Chernobyl would fit into season four. It makes sense since the next time jump will put them into 1986, since the Duffers brought in the Russians in the first place. How it’ll all tie together is another story. I have no idea. No one does, but hopefully, season four will turn out far better than this tonally weird mishmash.
Shelby Arnold
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