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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Three

In Stranger Things season three, we rejoin the kids (and a few heroic adults) of Hawkins, IL in the summer of 1985.  The kids are enjoying summer and the brand new Starcourt Mall that’s been built in their town.  Mike and Eleven are a couple and are inseparable (to the frustration of El’s adopted father Hopper).  Steve is working at the mall’s ice cream shop.  Nancy and Jonathan are working as interns at the Hawkins Post, but Nancy’s desires to be involved in real news reporting are constantly thwarted by the condescending men who work there.  Dustin has just returned from a science camp, and detects a strange Russian transmission on the radio he sets up.  Will is frustrated that the gang seems to be drifting apart, and is alarmed when he begins to feel hints that the Mind Ripper has returned.

Season three of Stranger Things is, overall, a terrific new installment of this loving pastiche of the 1980’s films of Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, the stories of Stephen King, the films of John Carpenter, and more.  (Click here for my review of season one and here for my review of season two.)  These eight new episodes are fun and exciting.  The story moves along at a rapid clip.  (We don’t get any episode-long digressions in the manner of season two’s much-criticized Eleven adventure “The Lost Sister”.)  I’m pleased to see the story and the characters moving forward.

My main complaint is that I wanted more!  We had to wait over a year between seasons one and two (from July 2016 to October 2017) and almost two whole years between seasons two and three (October 2017 to July 2019).  After so long a wait, I watched these eight new episodes in about a week.  It’s all over and done far too soon to suit me!  I know this is the model these days… and I prefer eight tight episodes to a longer season that drags in the middle.  But it seems to me that, despite how ambitious this show is, they should be able to get us eight new episodes annually.  After waiting almost TWO years for this new batch, it wound up feeling a little anticlimactic to me after so much anticipation.  I hope the Duffer Brothers and Netflix are able to bring us season four on a shorter timetable.

I also have to point out that the show is running into trouble because the show’s narrative timeline is unfolding far more slowly than the production schedule of actually making the show.  Season one took place in November 1983, season two took place in October 1984, and season three is only 9 months later, in the summer of 1985.  So while less than two years has elapsed in the show’s story, over four years has elapsed in real-time.  The result is that the kids are starting to look a LOT older than they should be, and this problem is only going to get worse as the series continues.  I do hope the show-runners are wise enough to see and adapt to this issue.  I think they either need to start speeding up production or give us a longer time jump in the story between seasons… or both!

OK, let’s dig into season three.  The best part of the show is this cast.  I love how well they’ve developed this group of kids, along with heroic adults Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder).  It’s fun watching this group of child actors grow up, and continue to develop these characters.  I was pleased that season three gave the whole ensemble some good stuff to do.  (Well, except for Lucas, who got a bit of the short shrift this year.)  I like spending time with these characters even more than I’m interested in the plot mechanics of the monsters and the Upside Down and the other villains.  That’s exactly as it should be.

It was fun to see Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) as a couple.  I enjoyed seeing them together and happy, and of course it was also fun to see them both struggle with some speedbumps in their young love.  I enjoyed seeing Eleven’s growing friendship with Max (Sadie Sink).  (Max was introduced in season two, and I was glad this season gave her more to do.)  It was fun seeing the times when Eleven and Max could hang out and have fun as “normal” girls.  I also enjoyed seeing Lucas and Max’s relationship, though I wish we’d gotten to spend more time with them, and with Lucas in specific.

One of the major discoveries of season two was the funny dynamic between Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).  Season three dug into that BIG TIME, paring off Dustin and Steve in their own story for much of the season, as they investigated the possible Russian threat in Hawkins.  This duo continued to be comedic gold.  Added to the mix this year was new character Robin (Maya Hawke), Joe’s fellow ice-cream store employee.  I loved Robin and thought she was a great addition to the show; a smart, brave foil for Steve.  When she came out to Steve as a lesbian (in the season’s penultimate episode, “The Bite”), I loved her even more!!  It’s great to see a homosexual character on the show.  I also enjoyed seeing Lucas’ younger sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) get involved in the adventure this season — this willful, stubborn kid is a hoot!!

It was interesting to see Max’s adoptive older brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), positioned as the main villain this year, after he got possessed by the Mind Flayer.  I wish Billy had been better developed as a two-dimensional character.  He’s pretty much been a one-dimensional jerk since we first met him at the start of season two, though I thought he was much more interesting this year as a true, supernaturally-powered villain, than he was last year as just a bully.  (And I did enjoy the glimpses we saw, along with Eleven, of Billy’s mind and his past with his dead mother and abusive father.  That did bring me a little sympathy for this character.)

I liked that Nancy and Jonathan were still a couple, and I liked the show giving a little time to show how little respect a young woman would have gotten in the mostly-male newspaper business in the eighties.  I enjoyed seeing Nancy’s “Nancy Drew”-like tenacity and investigative skills.

Of course, David Harbour’s Hopper continues to be one of my very favorite aspects of the show.  I just love this big heroic doofus.  He and Winona Ryder have fantastic chemistry.  Speaking of Ms. Ryder, she continues to be fantastic as this tough-as-nails mom who just wants some peace for her and her family.  Like most fans of the show, I’ve been rooting for these two to get a happy ending together, and so of course the show continues to throw one roadblock after another between the two.  (The scene in which Hopper, all decked out in his festive shirt, realizes that he’s been stood up at dinner was so sad!)  I’m glad that Joyce (and the show) hasn’t just forgotten about poor dead Bob Newby (Sean Astin), and it makes perfect sense that someone like Joyce would begin to question why the heck she was staying in Hawkins, where so many terrible things had happened.

Mike and Nancy’s mom Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) has been in the show since the beginning, but I appreciated her getting some more attention this season, beginning with seeing her as one of the moms by the pool flirting with Billy.  It was interesting to see her wrestle with infidelity, and I particularly enjoyed her pep talk scene in the kitchen with Nancy late in the season.

Brett Gelman was funny as always as the paranoid Murray.  I liked seeing him and David Harbour’s Hopper butt heads.

I enjoyed the story-development of the Russians getting involved with investigating the Upside-Down.  Though I don’t really understand what their plan was.  Every attempt to access the Upside Down has led to tragedy and death… so what did the Russians think they were doing differently?  Still, having the Russians as heavy felt perfect for this eighties-set show, and was a nice change of pace from the Americans in lab coats who had mostly been the villains for the first two years.  (However, the whole business with the Russian scientist that Hopper, Joyce, and Murray kidnapped and befriended didn’t quite work for me.  We’re supposed to see the scientist as a nice nude who we’re sad gets killed.  But wasn’t he complicit in all the terrible things the Russian group was up to?)  Speaking of the Russians, I loved the very Terminator-like throbbing on the show’s soundtrack whenever Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko) was on screen.  That was funny!

Carey Elwes was a fantastic addition to the cast as the smug mayor of Hawkins, Larry Kline.  I loved seeing him spar with David Harbour’s Hopper.  I hope Mr. Elwes returns in season four!

The season finale, “The Battle of Starcourt,” was terrific.  It was great seeing all of the characters brought back together.  (I think the show is at its best when the main characters are together as a group.  I understand that to create drama the writers feel they have to separate the main group… but I find it frustrating when they’re kept apart for too long.)  The finale was emotionally rich, with some terrific visual effects as the huge Mind-Ripper creature tore apart the mall.  I liked the twist that Eleven lost her powers.  I hope they’re restored next season, but for now, I was glad that they couldn’t rely on Eleven’s powers to save the day, as had happened in the finales of season one and two.  It’s interesting to see the Byers family move away at the end.  It makes sense that these people wouldn’t all stay in Hawkins forever.  Will the next season take place across multiple locales?  Or will Joyce & co. wind up back in Hawkins an episode or two in?

I loved the resolution to the running mystery of whether Dustin’s science camp girlfriend was actually real.  Hearing the two of them duet to the NeverEnding Story theme was magnificent.  (I hope Dustin’s girlfriend is involved in season four!)

The only misstep, for me, was the “death” of Hopper at the end.  As much as I love Hopper, I can understand the narrative reason for wanting the kids to have to stand on their own as the show enters its later seasons.  But if they were going to kill off Hopper, I wish they’d have done it without any ambiguity.  They tried to have the drama of Hopper’s death, and then immediately take it back by 1) not showing us his body and 2) showing us a mysteriously imprisoned “American” in the Russian base at the end.  So I assume that Hopper is still alive, which makes this cliffhanger the type of “fake” drama I dislike.  (And if I’m wrong and Hopper IS really dead for good, then I’ll also be let down because his death here didn’t have the impact such a huge moment in the series should have had.)

I have some other plot questions, as I usually do with this show.  That Dustin, Joe, etc. could make it in and out of the secret Russian base without getting killed stretched my credulity to the near breaking point.  And the news-reports at the end didn’t satisfactorily explain for me why it wasn’t a more enormous news story that hundreds of people were now missing and presumed dead.  We saw scenes of these people walking away from their friends and families like zombies.  So wouldn’t some of the MANY people who’d seen that happen have questions about that??

But that’s OK, I can live with some questions like that.  Over-all, I thoroughly enjoyed season three of Stranger Things.  I am curious to see where the show goes from here.  I can’t wait to return to these characters; I hope we don’t have to wait too long for season four.

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