If you did what I did this holiday weekend, you watched the latest installment of “Stranger Things” on Netflix. The story of Eleven, Mike, Will, Hopper, and the the ever-growing gang is full of ’80s nostalgia, wonderful writing, and some of the best characters on television today. There were so many things to love about this latest season of Netflix’s premier show, but these were the eight things that made season three the best yet.
1. More Than a TV Series
“Stranger Things 3” wasn’t a TV series, it was an eight-hour ’80s thriller. Last season felt like a disjointed TV series at times, but this season didn’t feel like TV at all. It was simply an eight-hour movie, cut up into downloadable segments.
Each episode ended on a cliffhanger, which made you immediately click over to watch the next one. It was more addictive than the cocaine from “Narcos.” The Duffer brothers concocted a story you couldn’t take a break from at any point. It wasn’t bloated with storylines that didn’t need to be there, it was a brisk adventure, more akin to some of the ’80s blockbusters it referenced than the typical TV show. That’s what made it so great.
2. The Characters Are Growing Up
The kids are growing up, and that makes for some great depth of story this year. There’s teenage love, summer jobs, fitting in when you’re the one not dating someone, and the scary realization that your friends aren’t always going to do the same thing all the time.
I remember the days my best friend and I had giant G.I. Joe and Star Wars battles in his room. The day we realized we were moving past that was sad, and tough to deal with. That age you find the opposite sex more interesting than the childhood toys you’ve been so attached to (in “Stranger Things’s” case that’s Will the wise’s obsession with Dungeons and Dragons), it’s a tough thing to accept.
The writers, directors, and actors illustrated that so well this season. We saw Will alone amongst the couples, a place we’ve all been before, and it made for great entertainment.
3. Hopper’s Relatable Dad Struggles
Hopper’s struggles as a dad are some of the best and (for me) most relatable moments of the season. Chief Hopper started season one as the gruff chief of police rocked with guilt and struggling to accept what was happening in his town. Now he’s the father of an adopted teenager, defending Hawkins, Indiana, from a corrupt mayor, as well as the ultimate ’80s evil: The Russians.
As a father of a daughter myself, his struggles with Eleven really hit home. Sure he overreacted a few times, but what father hasn’t? It’s hard raising girls! The moment Hopper is triumphant after talking to Mike and is singing “Don’t Mess Around with Jim” in his truck is one of the best scenes of the season.
4. Best Music Ever
That brings up another point—the music this year was the best yet. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein are great as ever with their original score. It’s spooky when it needs to be, in exactly the right way to make the hair on the back of your neck raise, just like Will’s when the Mindflayer arrives.
They also perfectly incorporated some of the best hits from the ’80s (and late ’70s), into the show. The creme de la creme, though, was the “Neverending Story” sing-along with Dustin and Suzy in the closing hour of the season. I simultaneously loved and hated that movie as a kid. It was a truly fantastic story, with a villain that haunted my nightmares.
The series is full of gifted musicians. Both Finn Wolfhard and Joe Keery tour with real bands, and it seems the actors who play Dustin, Suzy, and then later Max and Lucas also have pipes. I hope they work more musical numbers into next year.
5. The Perfect Monster
Major spoilers ahead.
The monster this year was perfect: scary, real-world, and able to spread his terror by biting people. “Stranger Things” has a history of getting inspiration for their monsters from the classic roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons. This season, the Mindflayer from last season made a real-world appearance.
He took form by possessing first rats, then people, turning them into a blob-like goo and absorbing them into himself. This was the perfect kind of evil for this show. It made Billy, Max’s elder brother who was kind of a throwaway character from last season, the ideal vehicle for the monster. By possessing him early on then using him to recruit more victims to turn into goo and grow the monster, the Duffer brothers took an unlikeable character and gave us all a reason to really hate him.
Of course, Eleven was able to get Billy to redeem himself in the end, but throughout most of the eight hours of the season, he was a public face for a growing but confined threat. The scene in the hospital when two pieces of the monster formed an evil sub-monster that terrorized our heroes was incredibly scary, as it showed its ability to deform to move through small spaces (a vent in a hospital door), then re-form once inside the room to nearly kill Nancy.
6. Best Team Combos
The teams that developed in this season were the best yet. Much like “Empire Strikes Back,” our heroes where not all together on this season. Teams formed to tackle the various threats facing poor Hawkins, and they weren’t all together until the final chapter unfolded.
First, we had Joyce and Hopper, who were eventually joined by Murray and Alexi, the captured Russian scientist. The sexual tension between Joyce and Hopper was palpable. Even Murray noticed and goaded them about it. Hopper desperately wanted to take Joyce on a date, but unfortunately never got his chance.
Then there was the Scoop Troop of Dustin, Steve, Robin (the season’s breakout star), and Erica. This was the band of misfits stationed at the mall trying to crack the Russian code, then break into their secret underground facility. They provided some of the best moments of the entire season, “You can’t spell ‘America’ without Erica,” among them.
Finally, there was the main gang, or “Griswold Family,” made up of Eleven, Max, Will, Lucas, Mike, Nancy, and Jonathan, whose main mission this season was stopping Billy and the Mindflayer. The separate stories that each of these teams had were incredibly entertaining, and could have made a great series in and of themselves, but they each represented a piece of a much thicker story that finally came together in the closing chapter of the season.
7. Killer Nostalgia
This year’s nostalgia was expertly worked into the story. It wasn’t too much, and sometimes it even had a direct value to driving the story forward. Whether it was “The Terminator” reference of the evil Arnold-like villain constantly pursuing Hopper and his gang, or the “Die Hard”-like duct crawling of the Scoop Troop, or even the shopping montage at an all ’80s Gap of Eleven and Max as they broke away from the boys for a day, all of it was incredibly well done.
As a child of the ’80s myself, I felt transported back to my favorite decade watching this show. Even the whole debate about New Coke vs. Coca-Cola Classic was well done, and that was straight-up product placement. You can even get New Coke again (considered by many to be the greatest product failure of the 20th century) for a limited time, thanks to the show.
8. Emotional Ending
The ending of “Stranger Things 3” was the most emotional of the series, and left us begging for season four to arrive as soon as possible. At the conclusion of the battle at Starcourt Mall, Joyce has to close the opening to the Upside Down that the Russians have reopened in Hawkins. In the process, she appears to kill Hopper.
Eleven, rocked by the loss of her adoptive father, later reads a heart-to-heart speech he meant to give her, but never did. This takes place against the backdrop of Joyce moving the entire Byers family and Eleven out of Hawkins.
In the post-credit scene (because nearly all blockbuster movie series have post-credit scenes now), we see Russians at a secret facility on the Kamchatka Peninsula refer to “The American” being held in captivity. Although we never see his face, that is what the Russians have called Hopper all season long, and since we never saw Hopper’s body after the explosion Joyce initiated to close the gate, “The American” has to be Hopper.
Eleven can’t search for him telepathically like she’s used to because the battle with the monster this season has drained her powers (almost certainly on a temporary basis.) This leaves the audience on the edge of our seats waiting for the next trip to Hawkins, which according to dialogue clues in the final moments of this season, may take place around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If Netflix were smart, they would rush season four into development to have it premiere this Christmas, the first holiday season they’ll have to deal with Disney Plus eating into their bottom line. What better way to stay relevant after you lose some of your biggest movies and TV shows, than by having a surprise season of “Stranger Things” to ease the blow?