It is almost universally acknowledged that Stranger Things Season 3 is better than Season 2, and marks a return to form.
Yes, I am here to contradict that narrative.
As a story Stranger Things 3 is pretty enjoyable. It has great character moments, a lot of fun nostalgia and some killer special effects. But – and this is a big caveat – as a sequel to the previous seasons it falls very short. Yes, even as a sequel to Season 2. I’m going to assume you’ve watched the franchise and just hit the points that don’t add up to me or we’ll be here all day. Maybe someday someone will write a book breaking down the franchise, along with its plots, characters and themes. Today isn’t that day (although I may be that person). For now, let’s look at the massive holes ST3 has left in the fabric of the narrative and ask ourselves… can we really call this an improvement?
Start with the most important plot element in Season 3 – Starcourt Mall. This mall is built, is open for business and is reshaping the local economy within a year of the events of Season 2. How?
Furthermore, Russians (!) have tunneled out miles – yes miles – of underground pathways, along with a control bunker, storage rooms and living spaces for who knows how many of their personnel, and done something with all of that dirt, and they’ve done it without anyone in Hawkins noticing. The huge influx of staff is mysterious as well – I’d estimate the Russians have at least thirty, maybe as many as fifty people down in that complex. How were they smuggled into the country? Sure, they could have gotten to Hawkins as part of a work crew building the mall they’re hiding under but… seriously, it wasn’t that easy to get a Russian national into the country undetected during the Cold War.
And speaking of Russian nationals, what is with the Russian knockoff of the Terminator? I understand the joke – he’s not-Ahnold – but we watch him get hit, kicked and shot without showing any sign of pain or weakness. How is that possible?
Look, I get it. Stranger Things is a franchise about monsters from a parallel dimension. Why should I care?
I care because the entire cool factor of the franchise came from the fact that those monsters were invading a world exactly like ours. Arguably down to the U.S. government researching and producing people with psychic powers.
In ST1 and ST2 the world was painstakingly realistic, barring a few anachronisms that might annoy some 80s purists (I was very young then so I haven’t noticed any of these myself.) This enhanced the fantasy of watching people who were very much like us, as kids then and adults now, take on a creature beyond our wildest imaginations. (Well, maybe not if you’re H.R. Geiger). But adding all these questions about the Russians superhuman building, smuggling and bullet taking capacities ruins this illusion. Hawkins no longer exists in a world like ours except with monsters from the Upside Down, now it exists in a world with cartoony evil lairs under small Midwestern towns and humans who are almost as monstrous as the Demigorgon from Season 1.
It ruins so much of the show’s charm.
Worse, the franchise’s coolest concept in name, visual presentation and general execution was always the Upside Down and it’s entirely gone from this season. No one goes there save a few clairvoyance sequences with Eleven, we don’t learn any more about it and we don’t get new monsters. The Mind Flayer shows some new powers but remains basically the same as it was last season. We’re no closer to understanding why everyone is so obsessed with the Upside Down. We don’t even get any new people with psychic powers. I wasn’t a fan of Eleven’s side trip in Season 2 but at least it opened a door to new characters and powers. Too bad they’re not going to do anything with it.
The Upside Down and El’s psychic abilities is an incredibly intriguing mystery and it would have been nice to keep developing it but instead it felt like that entire part of the plot was in stasis for six hours while the cast obsessed about Russians. The Cold War is over, there’s not tension there, please put that story line to rest. The only interesting part about it was Alexei, the defector, and he’s dead.
There were other problems. The series on the whole felt less dark and oppressive, in spite of being more gory over all. We’ve already seen the Mind Flayer and, while it’s flesh shaping ways are new, in total the bodysnatcher routine was easy to spot. The people who were taken over by the Mind Flayer (other than Billy) turned into such laughable caricatures of their previous selves that I couldn’t take them seriously. And I struggled to take many of them seriously beforehand. It was very hard for the Flayer to present itself as a threat. The only time I felt legitimate tension in the story and feared for the cast was during the Sauna test. That’s about 10 minutes out of the total run time. Not really living up to the feel of the first two seasons.
Many of the characters – Hopper, Judy, Joyce and Mike are the biggest offenders – came off as more obnoxiously high strung than they have in the past. I was having a hard time mustering sympathy for their situations. And the “death” of Jim Hopper feels like a very transparent play on our emotions. I wasn’t born yesterday – I know he’s coming back next season and so do you. This was clearly just a way to encourage the cast to wander off to the four winds and make it easier to introduce new elements and drag the Russians back in next season. Because more Russians is exactly what I want from Stranger Things 4.
No, Stranger Things 3 is not a great return to the ways of the first season. It’s a decent shot at a different kind of a story in the franchise. But it’s undercut a lot of what made the show enjoyable at first and I’m not sure it brought enough to the table to counterbalance that. Will Seaons 4 fix that? Only time will tell.