Stranger Things season 3 review: A brilliant return to form

The focus on all that made Stranger Things great is strong.


Despite what some viewed as the blip of season 2, Stranger Things has always had a winning formula of loveable misfits, ’80s nostalgia and a Spielbergian-King sense of heart and horror.

All of that abounds in season 3, a tighter, faster-paced slightly shorter run of eight episodes that manages to tap every emotional vein of childhood (even for those who didn’t grow up in the ’80s) while leaking more monsters from the Upside Down. This focus on what the show does best is a smart return to form for creators the Duffer Brothers, despite a creeping yet evident strain on keeping the terrors fresh for the kids of Hawkins, Indiana.


Billy has a big role to play.


As with the two previous seasons, a threat looms from the ever-murky and generic science lab world of men in white coats, who have pretty ill-advised designs on the small town of Hawkins. Meanwhile, those who remember the lasting shot of season 2 will recall that the gigantic spider-like Mind Flayer remains trapped but intact in the Upside Down. Its threat is tapped in a creepy new way for the poor people of Hawkins, placing Billy front and center to do what Billy and the Jack Nicholson-channeling Dacre Montgomery do best: terrorize while looking cool.


El and Max form a much welcome friendship.


While different, this season’s dual threats don’t benefit from the fear of the unknown — the Demogorgons and their variations just aren’t as scary as they used to be. However, our heroes Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas, Max and El are very much entering new territory. It’s called becoming a teenager and the shock of seeing the young heroes stretched out and deeper-voiced quickly gives way to hilarity over their attempts to navigate identity and love.

Things with El begin tenuously — her world seems to revolve around being Mike’s girlfriend, the boy and the sense of home he provides she tried so desperately to return to throughout season 2. Now their constant kissing causes Hopper deep disdain. Swiftly and for the better, though, her world opens up, along with a new shopping mall setting that seems to be an overflowing gateway to ’80s references.

A highlight is El’s relationship with Max, their initial misunderstanding and jealousy overcome as Max provides some much needed guidance for El. Some of El’s new vocabulary leads to multiple standout El moments, including the word “bitchin”” used to golden effect.

The ever-expanding cast introduces Maya Hawke, daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, as Robin, an ice cream scooper working a summer job with the recently graduated and increasingly down on his luck Steve Harrington. Their prodding and poking fun at each other, along with the glowing Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin and last season’s MVP Priah Ferguson as Erica, form the backbone of a party of misfits we never knew we needed.

Surprisingly, many of the most touching moments come from a hard-drinking and eating Hopper, who turns to Joyce for parental advice. His willingness to move on from everything that’s happened — including the loss of his daughter to cancer — carries his stubborn and bad-tempered police chief beyond his well-established Rambo machine gun-toting territory. David Harbour needs to take yet another bow.

Through the well-timed placement of banger after ’80s banger, a message of embracing your weirdness and nerdom is loud and clear. However, while the smart kids constantly prove their worth to the ever-bumbling adults, there’s still no escaping a few all too helpful coincidences.

The sense of fun this season, the relationship drama and the multiple odd pair-ups spark unexpected nuances, humor and touching moments that made up the best of Game of Thrones. While the story flows in tighter spaces and every party has their part to play in grander events, the conspiracy is simply a fun side project to spending the summer in the warmer than ever world of Stranger Things.

Watch the third season of Stranger Things on Netflix July 4.

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