Every season of a show attempts to be bigger and better than the last. Here are some of the best things Stranger Things Season 3 gave us, and some of the most disappointing.
Stranger Things Season 3 had a lot going on. From a relatively calm start to an earth shattering end, Netflix was looking for ways to take their story in a new direction. The new episodes were darker, grosser, and more terrifying than ever before. We laughed, we cried, and yet…we still have concerns. Pushing the envelope means taking risks, and sometimes they don’t all pay off. So it’s time to celebrate the best things we got out of Stranger Things Season 3, and talk about the ways Netflix might have let us down.
Great New Characters
Season 3 certainly had an expanded cast of characters, some of them brand new while some were familiar faces. We got a deeper look into Lucas’s sister Erica thanks to her “very valuable” contribution to the Scoops Troop. In Season 2, Erica was a scene stealer for all her sass and name calling. This season, we found out that deep down, she’s a certified nerd herself. I loved watching her accept the Dungeons and Dragons book in the final episode, the boys’ way of passing on the torch. Hopefully we get to see Erica embracing her nerdy side in Season 4.
We also got the return of Murray Bauman, infamous reporter and private investigator. While Murray’s role in previous seasons was no way small, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of him in the future. We can always use his sage romantic advice, and I definitely want to know what he knows about Hopper! (If you haven’t already, you should try calling Murray’s phone number as listed in Season 3 Episode 6…)
Some new characters we only met fleetingly. Cary Elwes was spectacularly sleazy as corrupt Mayor Kline, so we don’t mind saying goodbye. We had a whole season of buildup to meeting Dustin’s dream girl Suzie, who swept in at the last moment with a song, a smile, and a way to save the day. Sure, she lives in Salt Lake City, but I’m still hoping we can meet her again. Long distance can work when your girlfriend’s hotter than Phoebe Cates, right?
There are other characters we know won’t return. In Episode 7 we had to say goodbye to Alexei, the Russian scientist who was in over his head. Fans loved Alexei almost as much as Alexei loved cherry slurpees. More than sadness, his death makes me nervous for the future of Stranger Things. Alexei’s whole point as a character was to show childish hope and naivety—that carnival games aren’t rigged, that there’s a future for all of us, that anything is possible. Kill that hope, and it’s a dark future that the show is headed for.
But my favorite character has to be Miss Robin Buckley. And it’s not just because she’s the first canonically LGBTQ+ character on the show. She’s unapologetically sarcastic, genuinely caring, and an absolute genius. I loved watching her banter with Steve, and I loved the way their friendship developed through shared secrets and difficult emotions. Now that they’ve been through the crucible, they’ll probably be inseparable. I can’t wait to see how Robin fits in with the larger party dynamic in the future, and how she and Steve will work through their suffering love lives.
Ah, 1985 was definitely a summer of love for our favorite characters. Stranger Things Season 3 gave us incredible new content for all of our favorite ships. After two seasons of waiting, we finally got to see Mike and Eleven together, young and in love, and all the sweet domesticity of Nancy and Jonathan. Both couples had their quarrels, but they came through even stronger and ready to stand the test of time and distance. As the latter so eloquently put it, “We’ve got shared trauma…so what’s a little more?”
It wasn’t all drama and fights, though. Season 3 also showed us Max and Lucas in their confirmed relationship. While the two of them seem to bicker and tease each other just as much as they did in Season 2, it definitely seems to be a pure, healthy relationship. From Lucas’s confession that Max has dumped him no less than 5 times, all the way to their mocking duet of “Neverending Story” in the finale, Lumax was definitely a source of a lot of laughs this season. I’m anxious to see a more serious side to them in Season 4, with Lucas potentially helping Max adjust to life without her stepbrother. Knowing what Billy’s relationship was like with his father, I doubt life will be easy for her in the seasons to come.
Of course, a good portion of the season was dedicated to everyone’s favorite will-they-won’t-they ship, Jopper. And the answer was a resounding, “Well, they would have, if we hadn’t killed off Hopper instead.” After a season of married-couple bickering, sexual tension, and emotionally stunted confessions, fans aren’t much farther along than they were at the start. However, I refuse to believe that Hopper is dead, so Joyce will just need to take a rain check. How about Enzo’s, seven o’clock, about two years from now?
But it’s important to remember, platonic ships are just as important as the romantic ones! Besides the new power broship between Steve and Robin, this season gave fans another friendship they’d been holding their breath for—Eleven and Max. After being jealous, cold, and bitter with each other at the end of Season 2, Netflix came back to right some wrongs. Eleven was in desperate need of female friendship, and I loved every second of screen time she and Max had together. From shopping to eating ice cream to gushing over celebrities in magazines, it was wholesome content that balanced out the darker, scarier parts of the season.
One of the best parts of this season was how fun it was to watch. So let’s take some time to give a round of applause to the editors, the graphics team, the art department, the costumers, and the crew for making such a visually stunning season!
The first thing you might notice about Stranger Things Season 3 is that the special effects are mind blowing. We’ve come a long way from clawing our hands through the CG membrane of the Upside Down. Between the exploding rats, the Flayed Monster, and Eleven’s injured leg, the effects department gave us plenty of cringe-worthy imagery. It was gruesome in the highest quality, and while plenty were nauseated, it just means they’re doing their jobs right!
To balance out the macabre, the normal world of Hawkins got a lot brighter. Moving into the second half of the eighties means fully embracing the vivid, funky colors of the eighties aesthetic. Starcourt Mall may have been built by the Russians, but it was the perfect way to showcase American culture. We got to see older stores like Sam Goody and Radio Shack, iconic eighties fashion, and one brief but hilarious jazzercise class. It made this season the most visually interesting by far.
And of course, another bonus of this season was that it was chock-full of references to other eighties movies. Some of them were obvious, like the actual clips of Back to the Future played in Starcourt Cinema. Some were subtler, like the Russian base with architecture inspired by the Death Star. There were dozens of nods to Fast Times, The Terminator, The Shining and more, making the whole season an Easter egg hunt for movie buffs. It was engaging without being distracting, and a great addition to the season.
Safe Character Groupings
Season 3 gave fans a lot of great content for their favorite pairings. We got a glimpse at relationships that have been brewing for the last two seasons, and some more friendships we happily stumbled upon. Specifically, more Steve and Dustin moments. No one is complaining about the great content we got, but it does come at a cost. The character groups this season were standard and safe. Many fans are ready to shake it up.
Let’s use Steve and Dustin as an example. Season 2 showed us their unlikely bond, and everyone instantly fell in love. So Netflix gave us more of that dynamic in Season 3. But I didn’t need Steve and Dustin to spend the entire season together. I was really excited to see how their friendship would facilitate Steve’s relationship with the rest of the party. I want to see him stumble interacting with Eleven, or verbally sparring with Lucas. I want to explore dynamics that haven’t been seen.
Another good example of this is Nancy and the party. This season the teens and kids began working together a lot sooner. We got four whole episodes of Nancy and Jonathan working together with the kids to solve the mystery of the Flayed and fight the Mind Flayer. But in that time, only has one or two exchanges with Max and Eleven—both of them monster-related. Even though they were all together for half a season, I learned next to nothing about their dynamic or what they think of each other. They’re standing in the same room, but Nancy still talks to Jonathan, and the kids still talk to the other kids.
One of my biggest hopes for Stranger Things Season 4 is to break these walls down. I want to see Joyce and Nancy have a conversation without the world ending. I want to see Jonathan and Eleven interacting as siblings. When we get Hopper back—because we will get him back—I want him to have a scene with Steve. We have great content for the relationships we love already. So let’s branch out and find some new friendships in each other.
Stranger Things Season 3 definitely upped the stakes. Instead of fighting the mistakes of one government lab, our characters are fighting an interdimensional monster with an army of brain-washed zombies, and also dealing with a full-fledged Russian invasion. The problem is that bigger threats take more time to develop. This season had so much ground to cover that a lot of the smaller storylines were dropped along the way. Even then, some of the bigger storylines needed to make big leaps of logic to get where they needed to go.
For example, it’s a stretch to believe that the Scoops Troop went unnoticed in a trained Russian military base for so long, especially when they were dressed in such bright clothing. They walked right through the main hub full of soldiers, fought their way through more, and not one of them got shot or injured until Steve’s interrogation? What’s more, why were the Russians broadcasting that weak code so often anyway? Why could Will sense the Mind Flayer so easily at the beginning of the season but not at the end? Why didn’t anyone guess that it was coming to Hopper’s cabin until it was too late?
Regardless, the fact remains that to establish these large, overarching plotlines, there are smaller moments we lost along the way. The one that irked me the most was Will’s scene where he destroyed Castle Byers. He was so frustrated with his friends, so mad that they were all growing up, that he dismantled the one place he felt safe as himself. It was a beautiful scene, and it never really gets resolved. Caught up in the action, the party deals with the Mind Flayer and reunites with Dustin, and then…Will moves. He seems to be at peace with his friends by the end of the season, but there’s no on screen development to get him there.
Another thing that bugged me was Nancy’s fight with Jonathan. In the car, they finally address a huge problem with their relationship: Jonathan doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a woman, and Nancy doesn’t understand what it’s like to be poor. When they make up later in the elevator, Jonathan apologizes for not supporting her ideas, and Nancy apologizes for telling him he’s like the other men at the Hawkins Post. Which resolves the misogynist side of the argument, but not the classist side. They never circle around to Nancy addressing all the work Jonathan’s had to put in to supporting his family, or how his previous job as a mechanic literally saved their lives this season. Without any verbal acknowledgement to that, it makes it seem like Nancy is still living in the same cul-de-sac bubble.
One of the things that bothered me most about Stranger Things Season 3 was the forgiveness it handed out at random to male characters. More than once, childish and abusive behavior is excused just because it was either “funny” or because the character was “good at heart.” I’m talking most notably, of course, about Jim Hopper.
Hopper has been one of my favorite characters since season one, which makes it difficult for me to criticize him sometimes. But there’s no question that his actions this season, and even last season, are harmful. He’s so controlling of Eleven, so incapable of expressing his emotions, that he deliberately sabotages her relationship rather than set boundaries. His willful ignorance is played for laughs as Joyce literally writes his speech for him, because apparently he cannot even conceptualize what a “heart-to-heart” is. And while we get to hear Jim’s own speech in the last episode, it doesn’t change the fact that he never gave that speech, and chose to terrorize Mike instead.
Again, as we get caught up in the action, it’s easy for some people to forgive and forget about it. But Max spends all of Season 3 criticizing Mike for being controlling, while no one does the same to Hopper. Eleven actually verbalizes that Hopper was right to break her and Mike up, which is wrong on so many levels. And while Hopper’s shown to accept that his little girl is growing up by the end, he’s let off the hook without so much as one apology.
To make matters worse, Hopper also pesters Joyce for the entire season. He repeatedly brings up the fact that she stood him up, claims that she’s inventing catastrophes to push him away, and blames her for refusing to move on. He never takes the time to be concerned that she can’t move on. It’s only been six months since she watched the last man she was in a relationship with get eaten alive, so maybe her hesitation to get into another romantic entanglement is understandable. Hopper chooses instead to focus on how this inconveniences him, and how Joyce must not appreciate the horrors he’s gone through too.
There’s a lot I love about Jopper as a ship: their shared trauma, and their bickering, and the tension between them. But the characterization this season made it tough to love at times. Jim has swallowed whatever feelings he’s had in the last two seasons to be the supportive friend Joyce needed. In Season 3, he’s entitled and whiny, and wants her to take care of everything emotional for him. Because Jim’s now “dead,” I fear Netflix is going to let him off the hook for all this behavior. Hopefully, when he returns, this can still be addressed and amends will be made.
Billy Hargrove and Redemption
Another character that Stranger Things tried to forgive this season was Billy Hargrove. Every attempt was made to make him a dynamic, sympathetic character whose sacrifice would leave an impact at the end of the season. Unfortunately, those attempts didn’t go according to plan.
One of the major problems is that almost all of Billy’s humanization is done retroactively. There is nothing in Season 2 that suggests he’s redeemable. He’s abusive, he’s racist, and he’s heartless. We do see that he is himself abused, but that in and of itself is just a factor. Billy doesn’t show concern for anyone but himself, and no one seems to be all that attached to him either.
So how can you garner sympathy for a terrible character before you kill them off? One way would have been to show Billy caring about something—even the slightest concern for his sister, or a friend. But the only person shows any interest in during Season 3 is Karen Wheeler, and that’s on a purely physical level. Shortly after that, he’s possessed by the Mind Flayer, leaving him incapable for showing any humanity for himself. The only way to humanize him at that point is through Max’s emotional labor.
Max’s complicated love for her brother is a new development in the show. Yet somehow, it’s not treated that way. Max shows nothing but disdain and fear of Billy in Season 2, but in Season 3, she’s overcome with worry that something could be wrong with him. Sibling relationships are complex of course, but it’s jarring to see the concern come out of left field. Without anything to relate it to in Season 2, it seems almost out of place.
What’s more, Max’s love for her step-brother doesn’t amount to anything on the show. She pleads with Billy to recognize her, tries to break through his brainwashing by reminding him that she’s his sister. But Billy has never seen her that way. (If you’ll recall Season 2, he adamantly refuses to call Max his sister, and snaps at anyone who does.) Eleven has to appeal to the memory of his mother to bring the “real” Billy back, who immediately sacrifices himself to save her. As the first and only act of kindness Billy’s shown, it’s jarring to say the least.
That’s why I hesitate to call Billy’s death a redemption arc. It wasn’t an arc or a developed story, so much as it was the only good thing there was left for him to do. I did get a little teary-eyed at Billy’s death, but not out of any sympathy for him. All of my emotions were for Max. Max, who had to watch her step-brother die, and now has to go home and face an abusive step-father on her own. That is my biggest fear going into Stranger Things Season 4.
What did you think of Stranger Things Season 3? What where your favorite parts? Your biggest concerns? Let us know in the comments and be sure to share your thoughts with us on Twitter!
All three seasons of Stranger Things are streaming on Netflix.