Stranger Things has always worn its ‘80s influences on its sleeve, so what better way to scale up the action than to throw in one of the staples of any other respectable ‘80s action sequel: evil Russians! Move aside Ivan Drago, we’ve got a new Russian threat in town. And with this third season released on 4th July on Netflix and being set only days before the Independence Day of ‘85, unsurprisingly the season features more all-American themes than you can, well, wave a flag at. Dustin and Steve talk about what it takes to be ‘true American heroes’, much of the plot is centred around a conspiracy at the Starcourt Mall, featuring heavy product placement from the likes of the Gap, New Coke and JCPenney.
But thankfully the Duffer Brothers decided to have fun playing with this imagery, not for patriotism’s sake, but in order to tease out some of the darker aspects of the American psyche: the fear of home invasion, both in a micro and macro sense; conspiracy; infiltration from duplicitous foreign powers; “horror in the heartland”. All these themes are exploited to serve the purpose of heightening the sense of small-town horror and tension. And so, in a sense it feels right that the new enemies of the season tend, more often than not, to have human faces. There’s barely a Demogorgon to be seen in the first few episodes; not even a Demodog! And they are missed – in many ways they provided some of the easiest scenes of fun and horror we’ve come to love to see in Stranger Things. But stepping back from this approach in order to elevate the story and make things feel fresh makes sense – and works, mostly…
From the very beginning of the season we barely have time to settle in before threads in the plot begin to unravel and the adventures begin. Episode one features minor tensions and rifts in the gang that end up having major implications, as they splinter off into smaller groups that don’t converge again until much later. The guys don’t believe Dustin, just back from a month at summer camp, when he claims to have met a girl who’s ‘hotter than Phoebe Cates’ (of Gremlins fame). Eleven and Mike, now a couple, are spending all their time together, much to the annoyance of a slightly unhinged Hopper, who skulks off to Joyce to brood about it. Nancy and Jonathan, both having secured summer internships at the local Hawkins paper, are at odds as to how to deal with the old-school misogyny Nancy must deal with in the face of her journalistic ambition.
Having so many storylines to follow, the constantly-moving nature of the plot is welcomed. The 8-episode (or 8-chapter) structure gives the story a much-appreciated focus – even if things still manage to sag and bloat a little in the middle and some scenes are given ever so slightly too much screen time. Pacing, for the most part, is spot on, and the tension is carefully ramped up bit by bit as the story hurtles toward a satisfying confluence of characters and stories, and a giddily thrilling finale. Stranger Things has always been best when all the gang are in a room together, trying to figure out what to do when faced with an impossible situation. It’s in these moments that the show becomes an ensemble piece, where each character is impressively fully rendered and put to good use.
All in all, after an uneven second season it’s fair to say that Stranger Things is back to its best. It’s not quite been three years since the show first exploded into pop culture prominence, and yet the gang, along with the show, seem to have grown significantly in such little time. In a way, season 3 feels like the Aliens to Season 1’s Alien, with the Duffer Brothers finding ways to scale up and progress the story, and also learning from the missteps of season 2 to provide viewers with the things that made the show so popular in the first place: a healthy and potent concoction of nostalgia, horror, conspiracy and perhaps most important of all – fun.