Big changes are always scary, and that’s especially true for Netflix’s Stranger Things. After showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer created an instant hit in 2016 with their focus on the “kids on bikes” aesthetic of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the question was: how long they could sustain the formula before it became stale or transformed into something unrecognizable?
It’s appropriate that the fear of change is the focus of season 3, which was released on July 4th. As the residents of the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, confront a shifting economy, the possibility of new relationships, and the tumults of puberty, the Duffer brothers are showing that they can also build on their past work and continue to expand the show’s mythology, characters, and stakes.
Season 2 was focused on Halloween, and season 3 picks up the following summer, with the show’s central gang of dorky kids struggling to adapt to new dynamics. Sweet hero Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) is spending all of his time making out with psychic government project escapee Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to the point where he’s infuriating all of his friends as well as Eleven’s adoptive father, surly Hawkins chief of police Jim Hopper (David Harbour). It’s a classic mix of rom-com and coming-of-age tropes, with Hopper playing the protective dad. He’s more reasonable about that role than the standard clichés would suggest, but his attempts to get the lovebirds to cool things off creates a rift between them. They seek advice from their friends Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) who have somehow reached the status of senior couple, despite having broken up and gotten back together half a dozen times since October.
While these plot dynamics aren’t especially original, they’re done extremely well because of the twists provided by the show’s supernatural horror. A shopping montage with Max and Eleven, set to Madonna’s “Material Girl,” could easily come off as a sexist cliché. Instead, it’s empowering, as Eleven cultivates a colorful new look and her first female friendship, which is distinct from the succession of men who have dominated her entire life. Meanwhile, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) — who spent most of season 1 trapped in the horrifying shadow realm known as the Upside Down and season 2 being possessed by the villainous Mind Flayer — is desperate to get his friends to stop obsessing over girls and get back to playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement. It’s a stand-in sentiment for audience members who are pining for the purity of the group’s first-season dynamic, but it’s also an emotional lifeline for a deeply traumatized child who’s desperate to return to some sense of normalcy.
But this is Stranger Things, and normal isn’t in the cards. The signs that something supernatural is afoot again in Hawkins emerge slowly: magnets lose power, rats act strangely, unexplained blackouts occur, and extremely plucky nerd Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) intercepts a coded message with the high-power radio he created to communicate with a science camp girlfriend who may or may not exist.
The ways the characters react to these events let the Duffers explore their personalities and ambitions. Will does his best to ignore his feelings of foreboding, while his intractable mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) dives headlong into what she sees as a new conspiracy endangering the town and her family. Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) sees a mystery she can unravel to finally earn the respect of the sexist staff of the newspaper where she’s interning. Dustin and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), who’s fallen from “coolest kid in school” status to “guy slinging ice cream in a sailor suit,” see the chance to earn respect. Series newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) just wants a distraction from her boring job working alongside Steve.
The story’s mix of fear and ambition provides a strong excuse for different groups to form as characters pursue leads that inevitably bring the gang back together. They’re facing a horrifying new threat that pays homage to Dawn of the Dead, Red Dawn, and The Terminator. Stranger Things continues to focus on the terrible combination of evil men playing with powers they don’t understand and the unknowable horrors of the Upside Down. But the latest manifestation gives the show’s literal monster a new voice and a terrible agenda while letting its figurative ones serve as puppets or over-the-top caricatures and comic relief.
The biggest change in season 3, though, comes in the tone. Stranger Things mirrors the shift between Alien and Aliens by moving away from slow-burn suspense to deliver high-stakes action horror. The show delivers some truly grotesque body horror, as first rats and then people are infected by the season’s villain and dissolve into oozing piles of flesh and organs with nightmarish capabilities. There are significantly more fight scenes this season, alternating between special effects-driven spectacles where Eleven shows off her powers, slugfests with Hopper trying to stand his own against a seemingly unbeatable enemy, or the kids just using improvised weapons and gumption to do what damage they can. They never feel unnecessary, though. The fights are just quick bursts of adrenaline that help advance the plot and show off the characters’ relative strengths.
And the accelerated pace isn’t just expressed visually. Once everyone stops denying that there’s a problem, they jump into fighting like the seasoned pros they are, quickly identifying who can help, who’s at risk, and what allies and tactics from previous seasons can be called in. The character and world-building choices of the first two seasons pay off here, as minor characters are called back or given expanded roles. Lucas’ sassy sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) gets to shine in season 3, as she’s roped into Dustin and Steve’s schemes — not through any sense of duty or heroism, but with the promise of free ice cream for life. While Max, who was added to season 2 to bring more gender balance to the show, felt like a forced addition at times because she spent most of her time away from the scary stuff, Robin dives right in and quickly proves she’s an invaluable ally.
Throughout the season, the Duffers make it clear that they aren’t trying to run away from the show’s roots. Instead, they’re expanding on them to be more inclusive to the many different forms of nerds. Max introduces Eleven to Wonder Woman. Robin can talk with Dustin about the technology behind Cyborg. Erica is a math whiz with an uncanny understanding of economics for a 10-year-old. Dustin badgers both Steve and Erica to abandon their pretenses of being cool kids who are above nerdom and says they shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the things and people they enjoy being around. It might as well be a plea to viewers to acknowledge that, while the show might be most meaningful to those with an existing love for its genre tropes and cultural touchstones, it doesn’t need to be limited to a specific audience.
The Duffers have used Dungeons & Dragons as an in-show reflection of the story’s events since season 1, and that’s still true in season 3. Will tries to get his friends’ minds off their relationship woes by running a game involving saving a village from Juju Zombies. (They’re classic monsters that are far more dangerous than regular zombies because they retain all of their mortal knowledge and skills.) That threat, of course, is extremely similar to what’s happening in Hawkins. But the game also provides a frame for the show itself. The boys won’t stay in the basement together forever, but the game will remain core to their friendship, with new campaigns letting them work together and build on their shared knowledge and experience. Characters will sacrifice themselves nobly, monsters will be heroically defeated, and the fantasy and friendships will live on as long as Netflix and viewers maintain their passion.