❉ A return to form or part of the inevitable slide towards cancellation via diminished returns?
We may have cheered when Eleven rocked that new badass punk look, melted as Dustin and Steve formed an unlikely, but utterly watchable bond, and shed buckets after Bob (Sean Astin) was so brutally killed, but in truth, season two of Stranger Things didn’t quite grip us as tightly as the first. Sure, we were introduced to some promising new recurring characters in Max and her brother Billy, and the Chicago crew of misfits offered an interesting avenue for widening the scope of the threat to beyond Hawkins, but it all felt rather flat.
The lukewarm reception was a sure-fire sign that the audience were still not quite sure what the show was meant to be. After season one had aired, social media was awash with reference-spotting articles, pulling us deep into the rabbit hole of 1980s nostalgia. It was such a heady celebration of the likes of Spielberg, Hughes and King, that one could be forgiven for thinking that the point of Stranger Things was to reawaken our love for its creators’ heroes.
Season two had just as many nods to 1980s popular culture, but our attention had shifted from looking for movie quotes and product placements to looking out for Joyce, Hopper, Nancy, Jonathan, Max, Steve, Dustin, Lucas, Will, Mike and Eleven. We discovered that we had become invested not in the recreated 1980s, but in the characters, who thanks largely to the brilliance of the cast mattered more. The message of Stranger Things one and two has always been a timeless one about friendships and the need to belong. The 80s was nothing but a fun, and sometimes disturbing, backdrop to scenarios that could be repeated here and now, or tomorrow and then.
Season two loses points because some of the new characters were not particularly well-served and because second-time around the audience wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about looking for parallels and shout-outs.
All eyes then on season three – would it be a return to form or part of the inevitable slide towards cancellation via diminished returns? The producers must have been aware there was a danger the audience might have outgrown the kids before they had even come of age.
Wisely, for the third season the Duffers decided to be even more obvious in their nostalgic call backs. We don’t need to adopt detective mode to make the connections. There is no attempt to hide the fact that Grigori (Andrei Ivchenko) is a super soldier, modelled on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and the cinema setting at the mall allows other movies to be directly quoted, such as Back to the Future. Instead of playing spot the reference, we can let the story and the characters shape our experiences in a far more immediate and emotive way than was possible in either of the first two seasons, but especially the second. This time, every laugh, every tear, every groan and every scream hits us without the distraction of a where-did-that-bit-come from in the back of our minds.
Season three boasts some of Stranger Things’ most effective CGI scenes to date, with the Lovecraftian creatures from the Upside Down no longer kept in the shadows for most of the season, ready to be unleashed only in a grand climatic moment or two. The hunt is on and the Mind Flayer is not in the mood to take his time or wait for a victim to accidentally stumble across him. There are some truly jaw-dropping moments as a result. The infected victims of the Mind Flayer melting into living blobs of pure monster sludge and then merging to form a bigger creature, and the firework-filled set pieces of The Battle of Star Court certainly live up to the Duffers cinematic ambitions.
But the stand-out scenes are the often quieter, character-driven moments of which there are so many, it’s hard to choose between them. Without doubt, however, new character Robin’s coming-out scene is a real highlight. Played by Maya Hawke, looking eerily (but not surprisingly) like her mother Uma Thurman, Robin is Steve’s co-worker at Scoops Ahoy, the Ice Cream parlour next to the cinema at Star Court. Unlike Max and Billy who didn’t truly come into their own in their first season, and despite initially appearing to only be in the show to mock Steve’s hapless attempts at finding a girlfriend, Robin takes centre stage as an independent character in her own right. At first we are led to believe that in High School she fancied Steve even though he never noticed her, but when Steve finally asks her out (having repeatedly brushed off Dustin’s suggestion they would make a great couple) she reveals that it was Tammy Thompson who was the true object of her desires. She was jealous of Steve since Tammy fancied him. She’d only studied his every move at High School because she wanted to know what he had that she didn’t.
The couple have just escaped an interrogation by the Russians, they are coming down from a truth serum, and they have just spewed out their guts in adjacent toilet cubicles, but the reveal is incredibly moving and brilliantly scripted. It is these interludes to the main drama that set Stranger Things apart from most other fantasy series.
Also of note is the interplay between the original four members of the Dungeons and Dragons party, as the four are inevitably pulled in different directions.
Dustin’s opening scene sees him coming back from holiday, worried that his old friends might have moved on without him. At first, it seems that his fears were mistaken when they throw a surprise welcome party, but he is soon literally left on his own. Unsure where his place is, his attention falls on Susie, a girl he met while away, as he tries in vain to make contact with her through his radio transmitter. After unexpectedly being paired with Steve Harrington in season two, and with the incredible chemistry between Gatan Matarazzo and Joe Keery it is no surprise that Dustin is paired up with Steve for much of season three, out of reach from his old pals. In the end, Dustin finds his happiness – back with the gang, and back in touch with Susie.
Similarly, Mike Wheeler’s (Finn Wolfhard) story goes full circle. He starts the season as Eleven’s ever present boyfriend, only to find himself being pushed away, first by her over-protective father Hopper, then by Eleven herself with encouragement from her new bestie Max. In the end the pair are back on, even if they are left facing a long distance relationship.
Things are not quite so straightforward for Will Byers, who after being the focus of the first two seasons, plays far less a role in season three. Even his mother has moved on from her understandable concern for his wellbeing, troubled instead by falling magnets from the fridge. Will is desperate to keep the party together and with Lucas and Mike distracted by the girls, he is made to feel unwanted. The magic of their Dungeons and Dragons gaming has gone, and even donning his full wizard costume cannot bring it back for the others. His angry destruction of Castle Byers feels like a hugely significant moment, but yet it somehow lacks a sense of resolution.
Will’s sexuality is still unconfirmed, perhaps even to him, and the insensitive comment from Lucas that Will doesn’t understand him and Mike because he isn’t into girls is left hanging in a quite unsatisfactory manner. In previous seasons we learnt more about Will through his scenes with Jonathan, but this angle is sadly lacking in this year’s story. The Duffers will need to work hard on ensuring that Will’s character is allowed to shine in season four because of his sexuality, and not despite of it, however it is defined.
One other character who gets a bit of a raw deal in season three is Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Great play is made of her investigating and being teased for being like Nancy Drew, but Riverdale does this much better with Lili Reinhart’s Betty Cooper, a series which, indeed, is generally far better in its portrayal of strong female characters. Nancy is a victim of misogynistic treatment by the staff at the local paper, and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is unforgivably slow to come to her defence. It was an odd oversight that in the final episode when the events that took place in the summer of 1985 are recalled in a series of newspaper cuttings, she wasn’t named as the journalist writing the headlines.
Elsewhere, however, the characterisations are spot on. Max works much better, now she has found her place as Eleven’s friend and confidant, and Billy’s possession by the Mind Flayer allows Dacre Montgomery to show the full range of his acting talents, rather than being the pin-up model of season two. His backstory, uncovered by Eleven in one of her remote viewing journeys, leads to an incredibly moving death scene.
The biggest rival to Eleven as the most iconic character in the series is surely David Harbour’s Chief Hopper. Not surprisingly, his character development has divided the fan community. For much of season three he is totally unlikeable. His treatment of Mike Wheeler is extreme to the point of almost maniacal and his determination to move on from the events of the previous two seasons makes him sound equally harsh towards Joyce. It’s made clear that much of his frustration is towards himself as he struggles to be a father to Eleven, but the extreme drink-fuelled behaviour is edging him towards a madness of Sam Torrance proportions (The Shining). He only just gets away with being a loveable rogue, but the fat Rambo and Magnum jokes are a poor substitute for a character whose rough edges are a long way from being smoothed off.
Despite the ending, which milked Hopper’s death with the sentimental and predictable narration of the parenting advice note that Joyce finds in his belongings and passes on to Eleven, it’s hard to feel Eleven’s grief given the likelihood that he is still alive. There’s a sense here that the Duffers are hedging their bets in case the series does not get renewed. The passing on of the boys Dungeon and Dragons set to Lucas’s sister, confirmed geek and My Little Pony fan, Erica (brilliantly played by Priah Ferguson) would have also been a fitting end to the entire series.
Which brings us on to the mid credits teaser for a possible fourth series. The Demogorgon is back, this one in a secret facility in Russia where they are keeping prisoners. In one cell is ‘the American’. Let the speculation begin. My money is on it being Brenner rather than the obvious Hopper. Eleven has lost her powers, so who better than Papa to help her restore them. She’s going to need them if she is to rescue Hopper from the Upside Down, for if Hopper isn’t in that cell, you can bet your bottom dollar that’s where he is. Of course, ‘the American’ could also be conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) whose obsession with the Russians turned out to be not so offbeat, Doctor Owens (Paul Reiser), broken-nosed mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes) or… well, just about any character if not someone completely new.
Stranger Things 3 is a return to form, that while lacking the subtlety and mystery of the first season, has successfully made the audience fall in love with the characters all over again. Whether the series will carry the same charm if it returns, will depend on whether the move away from Hawkins works much better than it did in season two.
❉ For more from Paul Driscoll on Stranger Things, check out his book on season one, published by Obverse Books. https://obversebooks.co.uk/product/04-stranger-one/