One of the final moments in episode 2 of Stranger Things 3 involves a trio of young adults that discovers a link between a mall bound mechanical rocking horse and the specific location of a secret Russian base on American soil. This connection is based on the presence of a generic eight-second loop that accompanies a widely manufactured product that can pick up frequencies hundreds of miles away. The idiocy of this plot device may seem insurmountable, especially when considering its role in developing a story that calls back to dated cold war propaganda. Yet, the slow push-in on Steve Harrington’s (Joe Keery) face during the matter-of-fact, fearful delivery of “It came from here,” the slow rise in high pitched droning synth, and the use of the rocking horse’s momentum to transition into the next subplot make this insipid reveal entirely enrapturing. This scene works as a proxy for the appeal of most of the rest of the season.
Director Steven Spielberg and writer Stephen King’s names have always been evoked when discussing Stranger Things. Surface-level comparisons will uncover similarities between the three (reverence for children on bikes getting into mortal danger, using recognizable pop culture of an era to advance a story, etc.), but the Duffer Brothers’ understanding of the Steves’ philosophies on storytelling has always been more than a mere replication of the most recognizable iconography of the 1980s. Truly, the name of the game is form and presentation above all else.
This is, of course, an oversimplification that could be read as a slur, an implication that each of the previously mentioned artists don’t care about “the important stuff,” like characters and story, just focusing on flashing lights, well-rendered monsters to distract and dazzle. Or even worse, that the wretched pejorative “style over substance” claim is being lobbed, which foolishly assumes that style can’t simultaneously be substantive. This only means they realize that botched plots with insipid stories can be made terrific with true filmic craftsmanship (Spielberg’s Temple of Doom) in the same way that involving, propulsive prose can easily turn a pauper into a page-turner (King’s Night Shift). Like with Spielberg and King, the Duffer Brothers have quickly found their form. Unlike their obvious influences, the Duffers have produced a mixed bag of a product with Stranger Things 3 very early in their career.
In Stranger Things 3, the overview is more generic than ever, as the Mind Flayer, the demonic baddie of the previous season, is back to try to take over Hawkins, Indiana. In order to recreate itself in our dimension, the creature lures citizens and animals via a possessed host to a warehouse, where they will explode into piles of gore, reforming into a titanic spider-like shape literally on the backs and viscera of the small town.
For years, a slew of think piece articles proclaiming the death of originality has overtaken the conversation around Stranger Things – it being a noted 80s throwback capitalizing on nostalgia for a bygone era. This talking point has become a buzzword, a pejorative that is cheekily flaunted to quickly dismiss the show. Some call it pandering, while I call it Tarantino. Like the 90s filmmaker/rockstar, the Duffer Brothers overtly appropriate traits of their influences in order to create something that formally surpasses most of the predecessors. Maybe the interactions between the kids are reminiscent of the expletive heavy dialogue in Stand By Me, but it feels even more real because of the actors and even more amusing because of the banter. The score may be riding the coattails of John Carpenter’s iconic synth, but it’s just as enveloping. Setups for suspense sequences and reveals may be paced in a Spielbergian fashion, but who cares if I’m nearly half as enraptured?
As a creature feature series, Stranger Things excels in its aesthetic and presentation, using its players as the glue to hold its often barebones writing together. While the actors have consistently been as effective as gorilla glue, the characters being portrayed have ranged from Elmer’s quality to aged velcro over the first two seasons; it usually gets the job done effectively, but could easily tear at any minute. The previous seasons intelligently contained the extent of their meaningful characterization to a small group of accessible dramatic types: the lonely sheriff with a tragic backstory involving a dissolved family, a mother grieving over a missing child, and a traumatized child who learns to use their pain to help others. As a somewhat lighthearted throwback monster flick, it would be best to not swing for the fences with every character. The rest are types, and proudly so.
Three seasons in, the shallow nature of these types have been exposed. Each long-awaited relationship is torn down by misunderstandings and rebuilt simply from the terror of being in danger. How does bookish Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) selfishness (a trait she never exhibited before) clash with sullen Jonathan’s (Charlie Heaton) need to earn a living? Well, an abbreviated make-up without any acknowledgment of what should be done to address the conflict moving forward ends the emotional conflict of their subplot. The young love couple of the series, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), and Mike (Finn Wolfhard), break up because Mike cannot muster up the courage to say that Eleven’s father, Hopper (David Harbour), dislikes him, The result is a predictable liar-revealed storyline that circles back to the need to say “I do love you” out loud. The test of relationships in long-form media is how well they hold up after the “will they won’t they” tension has expired. Placing the characters in a cyclical pattern where they return to their emotional starting point not only shows the unimaginative nature of the writer but perhaps the weaknesses of the characters as well.
This trend extends to most of the rest of the cast, most particularly with those previously mentioned accessible dramatic types. Hopper’s arc of learning to let his daughter become more independent sings a similar tune to his arc from the season prior. The added twist this season is to incorporate a “will they won’t they” dynamic with Joyce (Winona Ryder), the grieving mother from season 1 turned emotionally hollow sidekick, providing dozens of opportunities for loud bickerings about admitting true feelings. Hopper ends up as the stand out point of irritation because of his turn from a once reserved cop towards an uncharacteristically hyper-masculine personality. His insistence on starting verbal fights with friends (“Why did you phrase it like that?”/“Could you do it a little faster?”) and unnecessary physical fights with the rest becomes as endearing as one would think for fifteen minutes an episode. He rarely comes across as tough, but merely pathetic as his drinking and gut seem to have expanded in-between seasons. By the season’s supposedly emotional ending, the chief of police felt like he was merely a quarter of a way through his arc, potentially leaving a feeble door open for a groan-inducing continuation in season 4.
Eleven, who learned the importance of taking complete control over her personality and powers, has regressed into letting other people tell her what to do. Her friendship with Max (Sadie Sink), the new female character introduced in season 2, certainly has charming interactions, but it again provides Eleven with a problematic role model. Instead of an overtly violent thug, we are given someone who assumes Eleven’s path towards actualization is through shopping and leaving loving relationships over minor misunderstandings. Unlike the prior season, Stranger Things 3 does not portray this conforming to the surrounding norms as an issue, but instead as a new friendship that has blossomed. Apparently, part of a woman’s maturation is not pursuing the things that have made her feel happy but instead learning that shopping is fun.
Only Steve Harrington, the jock-turned-hero that completed his journey by the end of “Stranger Things 2,” has progressed past his emotional starting point. Instead of allowing the character to continue to view himself as a savior who has moved beyond his problematic past, Steve is saddled with Robin (newcomer Maya Hawke), a previous classmate who he once wronged in school. The Duffer Brothers refuse to let Steve remain complacent, as he is frequently by circumstance forced to admit how prickish he once was; his rude behavior, arrogance, and violent tendencies are all appropriately accounted for. By the season’s conclusion, Steve may not reach a new level of benevolence, but he does prove a new level of self-awareness.
Like many other subplots set up in the first half of the season, Eleven’s supposed individuality is discarded halfway through the season once the monster attacks increase in episode 3. Unfinished storylines like Will’s (Noah Schnapp) ostracism from his friends, Lucas’ (Caleb McLaughlin) flailing relationship with Max, and Mrs. Wheeler’s familial troubles pale in comparison to sequences about testing someone for possession and running away from spooky stuff. Progression seems to no longer be of any interest to Stranger Things, as each subplot is predicated on finding a clue that will lead to the next stage of solving the mystery instead of revealing something new about the characters. Subplots seem to be more about advancing the unraveling conspiracy instead of focusing on the characters.
Hopper and Joyce’s interactions are repetitive as they fight for their lives and Nancy and Jonathan barely speak to each other. As a result, Steve’s “Scoop Troop” saga with nerdy Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), sarcastic Robin, and abrasive pre-teen Erica (Priah Ferguson) sneaking into a Russian base holds as the most engaging subplot, not because of its profundity, but because of its ability to have character interactions be endearing and eventually lead to something.
My own preference would be to focus on the formal and genre preoccupations the Duffers are more invested in, which is what takes up most of the series; go with what’s good, right? Here, horror is made accessible by making it a part of a likable little throwback series without having any of its violence or impact sacrificed. Instead of monsters loudly jumping from out of frame, Lovecraftian imagery of literal looming giants of darkness is the focus of the terror more often than not. As a result, there is more of a variety to the creatures in Stranger Things 3 (possessed townsfolk, melted piles of sentient flesh, spider creatures the size of a four-story building), and a more boldly violent sense about their attacks; adults are turned into hamburger meat and children are beaten so senselessly that their mortality becomes of real concern, despite being the main characters.
As long as the load-barring structures of witty interactions, fun reveals, superb performances and genre filmmaking mastery keep some engagement, “Stranger Things 4” is not in danger of losing its base appeal, but the series is already in danger of losing its well-earned pop culture edge. The previously cited examples of King and Speilberg may perfectly apply on a rhetorical level, but both artists’ hay days lasted longer than roughly three years. The Duffers have always been easy to root for, but not as easy to believe in and Stranger Things 3 has only exacerbated all previous concerns.