[Editor’s note: Minor spoilers alert!]
Season 3 of Stranger Things ends with an apology for itself. The closing soliloquy on change, growing up and moving on doubles as a self-conscious excuse for the show’s decline.
This latest season, released on July 4th on Netflix, zipped along with some fun moments, but it lacked the emotional heft of the stories told in the first two seasons. The tensions that moved the first two seasons were largely resolved, and nothing of equal power replaced them.
The debut season was driven by the love Will’s mother and his friends had for him, which fueled their desperate efforts to find him. Stranger Things 2 kept some of that, as Will was again in danger, but it added the pathos of the separation between Eleven and Mike, and the drama of her contentious relationship with Hopper.
In contrast, the new season is driven by lots of action and 80s nostalgia, along with the audience investment in the characters that the previous seasons had established. Stranger Things 3 has nothing to match the frenzy and anguish of Joyce searching for Will in the first season, or the misery of Mike and Eleven’s separation in the second season. There were opportunities, with plenty of new monsters, mysteries, and enemies that could have been deployed to create the sort of tension that made the show a hit, but the creators shied away from it. Relational conflicts and tensions, such as that between Will and the other boys as they leave him behind with their games, are shown and then set aside, rather than being used to drive the action.
Sequels are hard, and difficulties were inevitable as the showrunners tried to follow up on their initial brilliant effort, which had been planned as a single-season show. To their credit, they did not attempt to repeat the same formula, but tried new things, though not always successfully. For instance, they shifted the show’s style from suspense and horror to action; there is a lot more punching, shooting and running down corridors than in previous seasons. Some viewers may enjoy the change, while others will miss the old atmosphere.
The monsters from the Upside Down have adapted and are coming after the heroes in new ways. Also, there really are Russians in Hawkins, though it becomes difficult to take them very seriously. The show’s world has expanded, but this places more of a burden on the world-building, which means that the cracks are beginning to show. Hawkins’ economy makes no sense, in large part because its size seems to vacillate from small town to regional hub. One advantage of the original season’s child-eye view of the world is that it limited the writers’ need to craft a consistent adult world. As the cast grows up, that advantage disappears.
There were other predictable problems. Some of the side-quests seemed contrived to give returning characters something to do (here’s looking at you, Nancy and Jonathan), and the writers have changed some characters in ways that feel lazy (e.g. making Hopper a sitcom dad for the opening episodes and then an action hero for the rest of the show). In short, by avoiding the Stranger Things formula, the showrunners fell into a bunch of tropes from standard formulas, and seemingly endless 80s callbacks were not enough to redeem them.
Despite the flaws, this season has not ruined Stranger Things. It was not even bad, except in comparison to what came before. It felt like watching Doctor Who—fine in its way, but not a television masterpiece. There were moments of real fun, from the gang welcoming Dustin back from camp to Eleven and Max going shopping. And there were small moments that tugged at the heart, like seeing Mr. Wheeler and Holly asleep on the recliner.
Thus, there is still reason to hope that the show will finish strong with Season 4, which is expected to be the last. But to do so the creators will need to rediscover the emotional power that made their show into a hit in the first place. In Season 3, they seemed afraid of being earnest, especially as characters who we met as children are growing up.
What charmed viewers in the first season was not the prominence of children in the story so much as the license to be authentic they gave the show. A mother’s love for her child is allowed to be unabashedly fierce. Children are permitted to be earnest in their friendships and loves, as well as their hatreds. Much of the greatness of the original Stranger Things was due to its unabashed portrayal of love and the pain and vulnerability it entails.
But in this season, the characters are unsure what to do with their feelings, and so is the show. Both the adolescents and the adults work to build layers of irony and detachment, fearing that they will be seen as ridiculous if they reveal their thoughts and feelings. And the show has likewise become unwilling to dwell on the tensions, yearnings, and losses of love and friendship—at least until the final episode, which contains a real gut punch, though (spoiler alert) a scene that plays midway through the credits suggests that it might be undone.
There are still moments of pathos sprinkled throughout the episodes, but the show turns away from them, rather than allowing them to bear the weight of the story. Like our culture, Stranger Things 3 struggles to combine maturity with emotional authenticity. Spectacle was substituted for suspense, and bickering for the tensions and vulnerabilities of relationships and love. Consequently, there was little catharsis to be had at the end.
Nor did the show induce the sense of loss it seemed to be aiming for. Rather, the ending felt like a cliffhanger in an old television serial, which would be the worst fate that could befall the show—to be endlessly strung out as Netflix battles to maintain its streaming empire against its competitors. But let us hope for better, and stranger, things.