Stranger Things season 3 review: The limits of nostalgia

Stranger Things season 3 is a pretty-looking midsummer event that mixtapes Reagan-era pop culture. There’s a shopping montage set to “Material Girl” and a subplot paying homage to Magnum, P.I. I’m going to spoil everything, but you know early on that the bad guys are Russians, sniveling Soviet siblings to the invaders who conquered Colorado in 1984’s Red Dawn. Your mileage may vary. Near the end of Stranger Things 3, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and his cross-country girlfriend sing the NeverEnding Story theme song. “This is great!” I told my wife, who had some other thoughts.

John Carpenter’s The Thing and George Romero’s Day of the Dead are invoked — the former in a speech about New Coke, which is the single worst scene on any TV show you’ll watch this year, unless you’re nihilistic enough to praise product placement for narrative integration. This season can never come close to the transgressive thrill of the retro-pop it’s imitating. And you miss the kid-vengeance appeal of the debut season, when Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and her shaved head exuded righteous youthful anger.

A shame, because this third adventure kicks off with rebooting promise. The children are teenagers now. “They’re not little kids anymore,” says Joyce (Winona Ryder). Eleven and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are smooching in the bedroom. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are perpetually broken up. Poor Will (Noah Schnapp) still wants to play Dungeons & Dragons, and his friends only have girls on the mind. “We’re not kids anymore,” Mike insists, so are you catching the theme?

A lot can happen in a year. Steve (Joe Keery) was the most popular boy in high school, and now he’s slinging ice cream at the Starcourt Mall. “I make three bucks an hour and I have no future,” he moans. That mall immediately gives Stranger Things 3 a new look, cherry red and sprinkler blue. It’s early July, and everyone who’s not at the mall hangs out poolside. See the local moms rocking bright blue eyeshadow, lashes shining iridescent toward the lifeguard man-candy.

Something’s nightmarish in this summer daydream, though. The mall is “changing the fabric of our town!” says Nancy (Natalie Dyer), sounding the alarm to the misogynist chainsmokers who run the Hawkins Post. To its credit, Stranger Things 3 approaches mall culture from a cockeyed perspective. Starcourt is a lush, kid-friendly hangout — and an invasive commie plot. Funny enough, though you feel creators Matt and Ross Duffer could’ve made sharper points. The Soviets didn’t kill the mom-and-pops. It was the corporations, man! (Presumably Nike wouldn’t integrate that narrative.)

I might be doomed to overthink Stranger Things, a show that only wants to conjure happy feels of a lost synth-stroked era. This season improves on the somewhat dire Stranger Things 2. Joyce and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) dig into local corruption. Nancy and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) track a vermin infestation. Eleven and Max have a chill bonding session over their lame boyfriends, and then worry that Max’s step-brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), has gotten possessed by some Upside Down thing or other.

The interaction between the kids is endearing. Meanwhile, Hopper now comes off like a violent loon. “I can do anything I want,” he says, “I’m the chief of police.” He’s joking, kinda, but you miss his ragged charm. Hopper in Stranger Things 3 accurately captures the vibe of, like, Sylvester Stallone’s characters in any of his ’80s sequels, the feeling that you’re watching a regular dude transform into a violent cartoon.

The best bits are ice-cream-adjacent. Steve and Dustin track down some Russian tomfoolery, with help from Robin (Maya Hawke), Steve’s co-worker and and former classmate. Matarazzo and Keery are a fun comedy duo, and Hawke turns out to be great, sparking with the other actors and laughing toward oblivion. The trio joins up with Erica (Priah Ferguson), Lucas’ confident little sister, who’s way too precocious but makes a fun enough Ringo for this mallrat quartet.

The early fun dwindles. This is another Very Long Movie, full of delayed plot points. Around the midpoint, the kids face off with Billy — and then, like, they just let him run off into the night. The Mind Flayer returns, bodysnatching the citizens of Hawkins into a bio-organic mulchasaur. I don’t know. One confusing problem with Stranger Things is how blandly digital the creatures always look. A cool idea, to build a monster of human spare parts, but by the time the Mind Flayer crashes into Starcourt, it looks like any other toothy videogame weirdling.

A word about the ending. We notably do not see Hopper explode into organic mulch when Joyce destroys the Russian reality laser he’s standing next to. The other characters mourn him — and move on. The Byers family leaves Hawkins, bringing Eleven with them. She’s lost her superpowers, for now. Everything’s changing — and she finds a paternal speech the late (?) Hopper was working on with words to that effect. “I don’t want things to change,” he narrates, before noting how ridiculous that is. He can’t turn back the clock. “Keep on growing up, kid,” he says from beyond. “Don’t let me stop you.”

And then, in the post-credits scene, a murder of Soviets are holding some unseen American hostage. Possible, I guess, that Hopper’s not the American. (Though, if he’s actually dead, then we have to reclassify the editing around the climactic explosion from “obviously obfuscatory” to “terrible.”) More notable to note how this little teaser wraps up: Witness the return of the Demogorgon, with its rose-petal skull flaps. It only took three seasons for Stranger Things to get nostalgic for Stranger Things.

Can I offer a different suggestion for your holiday viewing? Over on Amazon Prime, two seasons of the outrageously entertaining Patriot await your eyeballs. It’s a modern American tale, full of stranger things. Not too many people have seen it yet, but Carpenter’s The Thing was a cult oddity, too, before enough people loved it for Coke to notice. B-

Related content:

  • Meet Maya Hawke, the breakout star of Stranger Things 3
  • A Stranger Things first: Make sure you watch past the season 3 final credits
  • How that surprise cameo in the first episode of Stranger Things 3 came together

Stranger Things

  • TV Show
  • 3
  • 25
  • Drama,
  • Horror,
  • Thriller
  • 07/15/16
  • Matt Duffer,
  • Ross Duffer
  • Winona Ryder,
  • David Harbour,
  • Millie Bobby Brown,
  • Finn Wolfhard,
  • Noah Schnapp,
  • Caleb McLaughlin,
  • Gaten Matarazzo
  • Netflix
Complete Coverage
  • Stranger Things
Available For Streaming On

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