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Stranger Things season 3 has good ideas but poor execution

The show’s world is expanding, but it’s not getting any deeper. How much should that matter?

The kids of Stranger Things Netflix
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Stranger Things has always worn its heart on its sleeve and flown its nerd flag high. Season three leans into both impulses to deliver a story that’s fun and familiar, one that may seem like a retread of previous seasons. But Stranger Things fans who just want to hang out with their favorite characters from Hawkins, Indiana, are likely to enjoy it nonetheless.

Season three sees the gang mostly split up into smaller subgroups, each doing their own things. But they’re still dealing with the Upside Down, and they each become entangled in different threads of a convoluted web of intrigue regarding yet another attempt by sinister forces to access it.

Naturally, there are more monsters too.

To talk about what season three really gets right and what it doesn’t, we have to spoil some of the plot for you. It’s a bit convoluted, but it’s also pretty fun. If you’d like to get an idea of what to expect without any spoilers at all, check out our spoiler-free review; if you’re comfortable knowing at least the basics, read on.

The plot of Stranger Things 3 is the show’s silliest and most convoluted yet

Evil Russians? In your mall? It’s more likely than you think!

Stranger Things 3 takes place in the summer of 1985. It’s immediately clear that our adorable tweens have sprouted into full-on teens. And between the constant makeout sessions that Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are having and the disinterest that some members of the group are feeling toward Dungeons & Dragons, the gang is starting to grow apart.

But that’s not entirely a bad thing, and Stranger Things capitalizes on the opportunity to try out some new character pairings. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), newly back from summer camp, winds up bonding even more with his old pal Steve (Joe Keery), whose season two role as an accidental babysitter made him a breakout meme star. Steve, in turn, is working at the new Starcourt Mall; he’s serving ice cream in the food court’s Scoops Ahoy, where he’s regularly mocked by his deadpan coworker Robin (Maya Hawke) and strategically undermined by mall patron and ice cream connoisseur Erica (Priah Ferguson). (You may remember Erica from season two; she’s Lucas’s little sister.)

Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and his girlfriend Max (Sadie Sink) are mainly spending their time helping Mike and Eleven avoid breaking up due to pressure from Chief Hopper (David Harbour), who doesn’t seem to know how to handle his adopted daughter having a boyfriend. Hopper turns to Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) for help, but since he isn’t ready to listen to her, his efforts only serve to drive a wedge between El and Mike.

Much to the chagrin of Will (Noah Schnapp), his friends all seem way more interested in having girlfriends than in embarking on new D&D adventures, and as the group’s only late bloomer or asexual and/or queer kid, he’s feeling pretty left out. He’s also distracted by his constant sense that the Mind Flayer — the giant spider-like monster that came from the Upside Down to threaten Hawkins in season two — is still lurking around town, despite the closing of the gate between worlds in the season two finale.

Meanwhile, Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) has started working as an intern at the local newspaper, alongside her boyfriend (and Will’s older brother) Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). But while Jonathan is seen as a star employee, Nancy is constantly belittled and mocked by the paper’s top editors, all of whom are men. She’s eager to find a story that will allow her to prove herself as a reporter, and the one she decides to pursue is grisly — it seems there’s an infestation of diseased rats who are eating fertilizer and other chemical substances all over town. Let’s be clear: Never in a zillion years would a teenage girl decide to start developing her journalistic beat around diseased rats, but sure, Stranger Things, you can have this one.

The rats, as it turns out, are indirectly connected to a major underworld conspiracy — literally. A group of evil Russians have built a covert underground lab beneath the Starcourt Mall food court (stay with me here), and they’re working to secure access to the Upside Down. Why they’re doing this is never explained. But after Dustin intercepts a strange coded message spoken in Russian and transmitted from the mall itself, he — along with Steve and Robin — can’t help but investigate, and the trio’s quest to infiltrate the lab keeps them busy for most of the season (not least because they end up trapped there for a while).

The Russians are presumably why Will keeps sensing that the Mind Flayer is back to wreak havoc on Hawkins; it seems they’ve already opened the gate just enough to let the monster through. Their experiments involve a huge electromagnetic “key” intended to open the gate at will — a detail we ultimately learn because Joyce becomes obsessed with why her refrigerator magnets aren’t working like they should. She ropes Hopper into investigating with her, and he plays along mainly because he wants to spend time with her, in hopes of finding romance. But her instincts that the fridge magnets are symptoms of a bigger problem are correct, and before long, she and Hopper are being pursued by an evil Arnold Schwarzenegger figure who’s attempting to keep them from learning more.

These disparate stories begin to converge as Eleven, Mike, Lucas, Max, and Will realize that something disturbing is happening with Max’s bully of an older brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery). Billy has actually become possessed by the Mind Flayer, and it’s using him as a vehicle to possess more people all over town.

Like the rats Nancy is investigating, the Mind Flayer’s newly possessed victims are voraciously eating fertilizer and other chemical substances. Once they’ve consumed enough, they explode, and their bodies melt into bloody, gelatinous puddles that contain a piece of the Mind Flayer’s sentience. These puddles are capable of merging with each other to form a terrifying monster that resembles something like season one’s Demogorgon combined with the Mind Flayer: It’s got long, spider-like arms and the Demogorgon’s layered, petal-like mouth, as well as the convenient ability to collapse back into a puddle of unkillable goo.

Oh, and as more people become possessed by the Mind Flayer, the new monster simply gets bigger and bigger.

All of this is highly silly, especially given some of the odd writing choices in play. For example, Stranger Things is at pains to explain how electromagnetic fields work, but it makes no attempt to clarify how eating fertilizer transforms possessed humans into a sentient, scalable goo-monster. Nor does it give a reason for why evil Russians showed up in Indiana to try to reopen the gate to the Upside Down. I guess “because they’re evil Russians” and “because it’s the Upside Down” are expected to serve as satisfying answers, but make no mistake: Season three is more or less an eight-episode romp whose sense of urgency is often undermined by its patently ridiculous plot.

And for the most part, that’s perfectly fine. It stands to reason that fans who are showing up for Stranger Things 3 are doing so primarily for their favorite characters, for the charming dynamics between those characters, and for the ’80s nostalgia that Stranger Things delivers in spades. The season offers plenty of all those things, wrapped around a plot that never takes itself too seriously. Which makes sense, given that it’s set in (and underneath) a mall.

Stranger Things has learned a lot since season two — but still hasn’t mastered its storytelling craft

Hey, remember this relationship? Apparently it’s still kinda happening!
Courtesy of Netflix

The thing about Stranger Things — and I think this is especially true in season three — is that the show has an endless supply of charm and an endless supply of love for its characters, ’80s tropes, and weird monsters.

The problem is that the show never really presents stories that are as sophisticated as they are well-meaning. More specifically, series creators the Duffer brothers (who share writing credit on four of season three’s eight episodes) seem to care a lot about their characters, but not enough to give them meaningful relationships and backstories that don’t feel a bit pasted-on and rote. For instance, the choice to keep Eleven and Hopper apart for most of season three is a strange one that results in their entire relationship being narrated in an awkward voiceover during the last 20 minutes of the finale. Why doesn’t Stranger Things just show us the two of them bonding, instead of telling us it happened?

The same goes for much of the season’s other substantive character-building elements. One focal character, Billy, is a nominally queer-coded bully whose father is abusive; his little sister Max is still growing up in their father’s home. Instead of really delving into their family dynamic — something that also got short shrift in season two — season three instead tries to redeem Billy through a series of Inception-y childhood flashbacks during which Eleven, who’s psychically connected to him, decides that he’s still a good person. These scenes are frankly kinda boring, and given that in season two, we saw Billy brutally beat up Steve, make implied racist threats toward Lucas, and exhibit terrifying and controlling behavior over his sister, they aren’t very convincing.

It’s more neglect of a lot of backstory that’s been teased but never fully explored. But this is generally how Stranger Things operates. For instance, three seasons in, we still know barely anything about the Upside Down, including what, if anything, lives inside of it apart from evil monsters, let alone why those evil monsters are so eager to cross over to Earth and kill everyone. At this point, it’s functioning as a generic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style Hellmouth, which is disappointing given its Lovecraftian potential to reveal a totally new, horrifying world.

In many instances, Stranger Things’ writing stops just short of meaningful follow-through. For example, many critics, including those at Vox, have bemoaned the lack of narrative agency given to women in previous seasons. Stranger Things has clearly heard those criticisms, and season three answers them by letting women drive much of its plot; indeed, they frequently lead their male counterparts by the nose, and it’s mildly wonderful to watch.

But in the end, a lot of these character dynamics and subplots just don’t matter. We never get to see how Nancy’s Working Girl subplot resolves because her antagonists, uh, become possessed monsters and explode. Fair enough! What journalist hasn’t seen an abusive editor suddenly turn into a predatory gelatinous mass? But the show kind of forgets about her career in the home stretch.

It also seems to forget that Max still has to return to her violent home life, now with an even more complex family dynamic. And it seems to forget about Nancy’s mom, Mrs. Wheeler, completely, after making a halfhearted effort to develop her into a three-dimensional character earlier in the season.

Additionally, I have a lot of feelings about season three’s odd directorial choices, particularly regarding its choppy, confusing editing and the pacing and story turns of its final episode. “The Battle of Starcourt” is so sluggish — and so sloppily, anticlimactically staged — that it’s hard to believe it was directed by the same team who helmed season two’s stellar finale. And while we’re clearly not supposed to believe that the finale’s most shocking moment is more than a giant fake-out, the scene in which it happens is so poorly executed that I and my editor both almost missed what was happening.

Do any of these concerns ultimately matter? Probably not! Bring on season four!

All for one and one for all!

The ultimate question is how much season three’s imperfections should matter to Stranger Things fans, if at all. When the show is focused on letting its characters enjoy their wacky shenanigans, there’s very little it can do wrong. I’m rooting for Nancy to be the next Lois Lane! I could watch Dustin and Steve bicker over a ham radio for eight more seasons! I will passionately follow Will Byers into every Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and I don’t even like Dungeons & Dragons!

The show clearly knows this, and it knows exactly what people are watching for, which is why the climactic moment of the season arguably has nothing to do with the plot, and everything to do with finding out that Dustin’s girlfriend Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo) not only exists but can sing a mean rendition of that classic 1984 nerd hit “The Neverending Story” — the theme to the children’s fantasy film of the same name. This scene, in which Dustin and Suzie sing the duet together, is a literal love song to everything Stranger Things represents to its fans: a love of the 1980s, of geek culture and fantasy, of childhood whimsy, and above all, of friendships.

That’s also perhaps why the final moments of the season, in which we see some of the characters depart for places unknown — and receive a huge hint that one character is now in Siberia — don’t feel as weighty as they otherwise might. We’re onto Stranger Things. It’s not going to split up this gang forever; it loves them all too much.

Stranger Things deserves all due credit for not only creating a deeply lovable ensemble of characters but continuing to write them in ways that foreground their charm, sense of humor, and love for each other. Even if the show falters on every other level, as long as it keeps letting its cast of friends stay friends while fighting monsters, it will still be the show that many fans want it to be.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly credited the writers of Stranger Things season three.