For decades, summers have been a refuge for teenagers in America. This time allows young adults to develop as people and learn their place in the world. For many, the mall became a symbol of that freedom and progress, especially in Raegan’s America. Of course, it was only a matter of time before “Stranger Things” came to this quintessential ’80s atmosphere. The summers of the 1980s are iconic for their fashion, absurdity, and excess. “Stranger Things” draws from summer iconography featured in films of the era and spins these locales into intimate set pieces. As a result, the Duffer Brothers craft emotional touchstones for these young misfits.
“Stranger Things” picks up in 1985 with fans’ favorite group of kids. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) explore their burgeoning romance in her room, while Hopper (David Harbour) has grown frustrated with their codependence and seeks help from Joyce (Winona Ryder) to understand how to parent a teen. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns from science camp with a “real” girlfriend when his friends surprise him, revealing Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are together (in a volatile relationship). Will (Noah Schnapp) voices his concerns about his place in the group and summer jobs pull Nancy (Natalie Dryer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to the local newspaper. Finally, Steve (Joe Keery) and newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) serve up ice cream at Scoops Ahoy, where they do battle with Lucas’ little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) on a daily basis.
With a new mall, the encroaching Fourth of July, and mysterious forces clawing back into Hawkins, the residents find themselves at the center of several conspiracies. But what makes the Duffer Brothers show so successful is the confidence they’ve gained. While some saw the second season as a letdown, it elevated danger in the town. In many ways, the darker steps the previous season took push Season 3 to new heights. Rather than grow bogged down by the Upside Down, “Stranger Things 3” embraces the flamboyant nature of the mid-1980s.
The Duffers allow the ensemble to breathe this time around, even as it lets the characters move in separate directions. Through the use of dramatic irony, the characters move down separate story threads that ultimately connect back to each other. While no one understands the importance of their individual mission, there is no wasted time spent on any thread, allowing for a far more cohesive season than “Stranger Things 2” was given. The Duffers capitalize on moments of genuine character development, and characters accept circumstances have long been gestating in the subtext of the story. By letting these feelings come out, audiences get real emotional showdowns that reinforce the bonds between the unlikely heroes.
This time out, the Duffers work from a slightly larger palette than the Amblin features and Stephen King stories that defined the first two seasons. This season, Cameron‘s influence stands out, but he’s not alone. Carpenter‘s creature design and methodical approach to his material adds genuinely terrifying monsters to Hawkins. Body horror finds its way into the season, giving Cronenberg and Romero integral homages. Of course, there are too many references to note, but rest assured both pop hits, cult favorites, and midnight movies are explicitly brought to life.
Perhaps the most exciting element of the season is the humor that bursts from the characters. After two dour seasons, where some comedic relief was present, this season is undeniably funny. The Duffer Brothers don’t necessarily write jokes into the story, but instead, let the humor come from the moment. Scenes with the boys hanging out in the basement feel organic and carry their own humor. Moments of downtime crackle with electricity between the actors and enhance the relationships they’ve built. Fans want to spend time with these characters, even if they were not being pursued by monstrous creatures from another world. A season of non-monster, non-conspiracy “Stranger Things” would be fascinating. The inherent chemistry and fun that the Duffers build for their characters helps sell beautiful, emotion coursing throughout the season.
The actors understand the step forward the show has to take and this season really allows them to stretch their performances. Schnapp builds on an excellent second season, and his emotional complexity adds layers to the boys’ journey. The development of Max and Eleven’s relationship allows for a more complete view of female friendship, and both Sink and Brown give more complex shadings to their characters as a result. Harbour may have captured his Emmy with the emotionally complex work on display here, which allows him to play up the humor but also deliver some of the most emotive moments of the show to date.
Keery and Hawke play off each other brilliantly, and Hawke should quickly become a fan favorite. Yet Hawke’s breakout thunder will surely be hindered by the meteoric performance from Ferguson, who will become an avatar of meme culture associated with the show. She steals scene after scene from established characters and still finds herself an integral piece of the story. Another surprise breakout will be the development of Billy (Dacre Montgomery). The show adds layers of depth to the villainous turn he gave in season 2 and utilizes him well this time around.
From a production standpoint, the show has never been better. The costumes and sets are brilliantly bright, creating unique looks and set pieces that pay off in meaningful ways. Hopper’s “Magnum P.I.” look might inspire a new generation of viewers to try out a mustache. Billy’s lifeguard look captures your (and the Moms of Hawkins) attention instantly for its classic look. Yet the instantly iconic Scoops Ahoy uniform might be the Halloween costume of the year. Eleven even gets a makeover of her own, and the new look fits her character’s growing personality. The Starcourt Mall works as an excellent set piece, the Fourth of July Carnival is nostalgic in the best of ways, and other scenes throughout the season call back to great set pieces from iconic films.
The special effects and cinematography also take a big step forward. Few have disparaged the look of “Stranger Things,” which has always received high marks for cinematography. Yet the camera crew’s use of lighting deserves applause. That group juggles neon lights, stray lightbulbs, fluorescents and more. Meanwhile, the special effects team creates monsters that look better than ever. They are disturbing and frightening in the most terrifying ways. At times, it is impossible to not feel the wonder of watching dinosaurs for the first time in “Jurassic Park,” only to realize that means the Velociraptors are just around the corner. The visuals are incredible, and after “Game of Thrones,” makes the combination of visual effects, cinematography, and lighting all the more impressive.
“Stranger Things 3” will steal the summer from other pop culture events over the next few weeks. The first season ignited a phenomenon, but this season will capture the zeitgeist and wrestle it down. This season allows the show to reach new heights, and prove the Duffers have more stories to tell. If you are in the mood for a genuinely good time this Fourth of July, look no further. “Stranger Things 3” completes a brilliant trilogy of stories, and earns every moment of the season. “Stranger Things” cannot be ignored.