It’s no secret that I’m a Stranger Things fan, because I just told you.
My wife and I finished season 3 last night – we’re not really bingers, so it took us some time. And by that I mean my wife isn’t really a binger so I am forced to wait, riddled with tension and nausea, wondering what’s going to HAPPEN TO THE CHARACTERS I LOVE.
This isn’t a review, because I don’t wanna. It’s also going to be filled with spoilers, because I wanna talk about the actual show and I don’t know how to do that without, you know, talking about the show. Consider it part appreciation thread, part writing-dissection, and part diary entry.
Dear diary . . .
BEGIN NEVER-ENDING SPOILERS
Stranger Things Season 3 Was Dope
This season stuffed twelve gallons of thrills and chills in a two-gallon bag (bag?).
They definitely ratcheted up the horror: my wife, no fan of horror herself, had no problems making it through season 1 and 2. Sure, there were spooks aplenty, but only on a kind of Spielbergian axis of relative safety.
Season 3 adds a fresh dose of truly gross body horror, melting people, rat swarms, body snatchers, and enormous Lovecraftian corpse spiders bristling with hentai mouth tentacles.
I also really enjoyed them taking more risks this time around: the introduction of the whole Russian invasion thing could have been extremely dumb, but they pulled it off with style and made it feel right at home in the established universe.
By the time Hopper is mowing down ranks of Russian soldiers with a chopped up AK47, it doesn’t feel as odd as that sentence would have sounded to someone coming fresh off of season 2.
Steve and Robin have tons of great moments in the Russian base, Billy’s entire plotline is riveting, we get to see more sides of Elle, and there’s a dope Russian Terminator who is legitimately fucking terrifying.
All good stuff. But how does the season stack up?
Where Are We Now?
The internet tells me I’m not supposed to like Stranger Things season 2, but I did. Sure, the “poorly disguised spin-off” episode starring the Crust-Punk X-Men was ill-placed in the season, but the episode itself explored Eleven by putting her in a new environment. So I didn’t mind that. I just wish the episode hadn’t occurred right after a cliffhanger where a bajillion demodogs were about to eat all of the main characters.
But I have a whole other rant about cliffhangers that you don’t have time for. I won’t get into it here.
Anyway, to me, that season succeeded primarily through incredible character interaction. Which, unfortunately, is where season 3 definitely wobbled.
The plot of season 3 had the tightest pacing yet, moving at breakneck speed between intrigue and horror and big action setpieces. However, while the plot, pacing, and action ratcheted up, I can’t help but feel that the character interaction and development took a sharp hit. The “Party” barely interacted with each other this whole season, and they’re not given much to do besides argue about girls during an extremely contrived temporary break-up.
Speaking of the characters . . .
Breaking Down the Characters
Okay, this next section is going to sound like I hate the show, and I really don’t. I love it. And I loved this season. However, as a writer, I like talking about writing.
So, consider the following some combination of nitpicking and teachable moments, given with love by a huge fan. It’s also possible I just forgot parts – I’ve only seen the season once.
Joyce and Hopper get plenty of excellent moments as the bickering-yet-oddly-effective duo. Murray steals more screen time, a pleasant surprise, to be sure.
Mike once again gets shifted further and further back, even from his relative scarcity in season 2. Other than “yell about Eleven” and “kiss Eleven,” he doesn’t really have any agency or purpose in the story.
Lucas has slightly more to do as the kind of crackpot relationship sage for Mike, and he gets a couple of action beats with a fire axe, his slingshot, and the fireworks idea that plays out so spectacularly in the finale.
Will is once again little more than set-dressing. While he does have a neat spider-sense for Upside-Downian threats, it’s never really used effectively. Most scenes play out with him looking scared, touching his neck, realizing the monsters are coming, and then everyone else hearing/seeing the monster before he can really warn them. There’s one interesting moment where the show seems to acknowledge the popular fan theory that Will might be gay, but that swerve begins and ends at a single sentence and is never touched on again.
Dustin probably gets hit the worst this season: he spends most of his screen time separated from the party, paired with Lucas’ sister Scrappy-Doo. I mean, “Erica.” She worked fine as a one-dimensional bratty sister who popped up twice a season and said something shitty to Lucas, but as a character who gets more screen time than Mike she’s a total dud.
There’s a goddamn monomolecular line between “precocious” and “fucking irritating” and Erica is so far away from the line that the line is a dot to her. She has one expression of cocky contempt and keeps it on her face the entire time. Every single one of her lines can best be summed up as “Nuh-uh, I’m so saaassssaaaay.” She’s a complete dick to everyone and gets off scot-free with absolutely zero comeuppance, and is then teased in the finale to be a new addition to the Party? No thanks.
Dustin’s only real memorable moment this season is serenading his long-distance girlfriend over the radio while everyone else listens in increasing horror, which to be fair is probably the best scene in the entire show.
Nancy and Jonathan have a lot to do investigation-styles in the first half of the season, but like season 2 they are then pushed into the background when the dominoes start to fall. They try to keep them involved by giving Nancy a gun (which she fails to do anything with) and having Jonathan become Super-Resourceful Guy, but there just isn’t much there.
The Screentime Problem
Here’s the thing: I know exactly what the problem is. And the Duffer Brothers and the whole production team knows, too — I’m not some kind of sage prophet. The problem is there are too many characters, all of whom seem to be of equal importance, and they keep adding more every season without removing any or killing them off.
Sure, some minor antagonists like Billy get killed off, as do sudden likable new additions like Bob Newby and Smirnoff, but none of the main cast has really died or even moved away.
“But Hopper died – ” Lemme stop you there. Hopper didn’t die. I loved that scene, and the emotional aftermath in the epilogue was fucking incredible, but they 100% didn’t kill Hopper. He’s either stuck in the Upside-Down (he was right next to the portal) or he’s jailed in some Russian shithole (“no, not the American”).
So they’ve added Steve, Max, Robin, Erica, and Murray to the cast of main characters and have pushed to give them all storylines and moments, but haven’t increased the runtime of the episodes or the season itself. So, basic math tells us that every character gets less and less screen time as a result. I feel like they’re trying to give everyone’s new favorite character the spotlight, but a stage full of spotlights is just called “light.”
Hell, even relatively minor characters like Ms. Wheeler had their own mini story-arcs.
And expect next season to add Dustin’s girlfriend Suzie to the cast list, Paul Reiser, and likely a new likable schlub that will die, a love interest for Steve that will continue to go nowhere, an adult character for Joyce to talk to, a human antagonist or two, and a wildcard character from nowhere.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, was constantly adding new and exciting characters to the show to meet and love. However, they also removed characters at a commiserate clip – either through death or other separation. Trying to have your cake and eat it too is just going to lead to not enough cake . . . or something.
Of course, the reason why they haven’t done this is because the show walks a thin tightrope between “actual horror show” and “kids adventure show,” so it’s not like they can just have Dustin or Will get their head ripped off by the latest monster. That’s a little too fucking horrifying. So, while the bed they made is filling rapidly with cash, it’s also putting a squeeze on what they can and can’t do with this huge surplus of characters.
Like I said before, it’s a great show and I love it, but they either need to trim the cast or add more episodes to the season. With screen time for each character decreasing dramatically, we’re left with a sea of “C” and “D” plots with no clear character throughline to follow.
Hell, even Elle becomes little more than a bystander during the final confrontation, offering only a nice pep-talk to Billy.
Speaking of which: Billy’s entire story is so goddamn heartbreaking. My wife pointed out that his memory on the beach is probably his LAST happy memory, and considering all that follows, his whole life becomes a tragedy.
All in all, it was a great season that cranked up the threat and the “feels,” as the kids are saying three years ago.
The breakneck pace worked in many ways to create a rollicking adventure, but I’d definitely like to see the characters with a little more downtime next season. It’s the interactions and the small real-life moments that make us care what happens when the monsters get loose.
I give it 9.01 otherworldly horrors out of 10.
But Bobby, you said this wasn’t going to be a review?!