the real secret of the show's ongoing success is that it is becoming less about the Eighties and more about the characters
Stranger Things - Season Three reviewed by John Winterson Richards
This is intended as a spoiler light overview of the third season of the Netflix Stranger Things, but be warned that it is not entirely spoiler free and assumes familiarity with the previous seasons or at least our overviews of them.
After Season Two came across as something of a retread of Season One, the conscious decision seems to have been made to make Season Three conspicuously different. This was achieved by turning two potential problems - one practically unavoidable, the other of the show's own making - into opportunities.
The practically unavoidable problem is the visible ageing of the younger members of the cast - most of whom are in any case, as usual on television, older than the characters they play. Children can grow up very quickly in their teens and it does not help that they also tend to grow up at different speeds. The script makes a virtue of this by addressing it directly. However, a more fundamental problem is that, while small children tend to be very appealing, the same is not generally true of adolescents. The script addresses this directly too, but it cannot alter the fact that aesthetically something precious has been lost.
The problem of the show's own making is the size of the regular cast. The Duffer Brothers seem to have followed Joss Whedon's advice by starting out with a large group of principals in Season One and they added more in Season Two. Apart from the "party" - in the 'Dungeons & Dragons' sense - formed prior to the first season by the four young boys, the characters never constitute any sort of organisation, not even an informal "Scooby Gang." They are just the growing number of people who happen to be in on the world's worst kept secret and so it falls to them to save the human race ...again.
It would look ridiculous if they all got together in a sort of general meeting to discuss strategy. Instead they get dragged in one by one, forming little teams or task forces, each of which finds itself tackling a different aspect of what turns out to be the same gigantic crisis. This works well, giving us a skilfully interwoven story of several separate threads.
The original D&D "party" of the four young boys is no longer one of those teams, because they are no longer young boys. As usually happens, childhood friendships must evolve as children cease to be children. Season Two hinted cleverly at a growing apart of the four and the process seems to have accelerated in the six months or so that have passed since then. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) both have girlfriends now - El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink) respectively. Dusty (Gaten Matarazzo) also claims to have a girlfriend, whom his friends do not know because he met her at a science "summer camp." Hmm...
Poor Will (Noah Schnapp) is falling behind. There was always an "otherness" about him, even before he had to endure not one but two rounds of extreme trauma not shared by anyone else. To a greater extent than his friends he remains heavily invested in toys and games. Perhaps he is taking refuge in them. There is a real poignancy about this whole theme of the loss of childhood.
So Team One is no longer four boys but two boys and their girlfriends. There is a superficial suggestion - never a serious risk - that it will quickly divide into separate boys' and girls' teams as the youngsters experiment with sexual politics without really understanding anything. They "break up" because they think that is what they are supposed to do. To be honest this rather cheapens characters for whom one has built up some respect over previous seasons, but it cannot be denied that El and Max make an entertaining double act.
The surprisingly engaging double act established by Dusty and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) in the second season is the basis of what we will call for convenience Team Two. Steve's character arc continues in the direction of making him simultaneously more likeable and more of a loser - is there a message in there somewhere? Contrary to both probability and the canons of John Hughes films, he has lost the battle for Nancy. Even worse, leaving High School stripped him of all the status he enjoyed there and he suddenly finds himself just another unqualified young man in the wider world that cares absolutely nothing about him. He has not got into College - possibly because he put too much time and effort into being the "King of Hawkins High" - and his father now insists he actually works for a living. The only job he can get is at an ice cream parlour with the most embarrassing uniform ever. As his co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke) observes he seems to be on good terms with a lot of children and Dusty really has become his best friend. Steve seems genuinely glad to see him on his return from "summer camp." How are the mighty fallen!
That said, Keery and Matarazzo have a definite chemistry and it is good to see them back together. Their team is strengthened by the additions of Robin, who seems far too intelligent to be working in such a dead end job, and Caleb's wisecracking younger sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson), who is still very annoying but at the same time oddly endearing. Her particular brand of patriotism is very Eighties.
Team Three consists of Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), now definitely an item and working together at the local newspaper - which apparently employs more people than the local Police. Nancy has a hard time with the journalists, who are all men of a certain age, but it would be a "millennial" mistake to assume that this was due to sexual discrimination rather than seniority - people in the Eighties would have understood without having to be told that the office junior should not be telling experienced professionals what to write.
Team Four is Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), with conspiracy theorist Murray (Brett Gelman) along for the ride and, once again, acting as matchmaker and gooseberry at the same time. Murray is great value as comic relief, but he turns out to be genuinely knowledgeable and we do get to see something of a more human side to him.
Will does not really fit with any of the teams and is rather sidelined - which is something of a relief because two seasons of seeing a small boy suffering is more than enough for anyone. As the alternative universe plotline, in which he played a central part, becomes less important, so does Will. All he really does is sense something bad is happening. We kind of knew that.
The alternative universe is still an issue, but one of the ways new life is breathed into the story is shifting the focus to the evil Russians who are trying to access it. Now it may be very difficult for us in 2022 to remember or understand that there was a time when the Russians were stereotypical bad guys, but the there was more to the Eighties than fashion and music. The Cold War was real and Russia was ruled by an autocracy with a bad habit of invading neighbouring countries. Yes, it seems hard to imagine now...
This enables Stranger Things to reference films like Red Dawn and even The Terminator - perhaps a little heavy handedly it must be said.
Another clever addition to the plot is a new shopping mall, emblematic of the consumption culture of the High Eighties that endures to this day - but also destructive of local businesses and of the cosy image of small town America that was also an Eighties staple. This is addressed in passing but very effectively. It is hardly a spoiler to mention that the mall turns out to be literally evil.
The combination of the mall and new human adversaries succeeds in rejuvenating the plot. Unlike Season Two, Season Three ends with major changes - even if one suspects one or two might be reversed before too long in Season Four.
Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is given a surprisingly strong story arc, including the possibility of a Mrs Robinson moment with Nancy's mother Karen (Cara Buono) along the way. Sean Astin and Paul Reiser make brief return visits. Look out too for Jake Busey and Eighties heartthrob Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) in memorable supporting roles.
The highlight of the season, however, is a very unexpected appearance, leading into a glorious rendition of Limahl's theme song from 'The NeverEnding Story' which has become very popular on YouTube. It is moment of exuberant joy, but there is also a melancholy subtext, because the children's classic is also singing a farewell to childhood, a story that does end.
At the time of writing, a fourth season is imminent, and a fifth has been ordered, which will be the last. One can understand why. There is a limit to how many times one can return to the nostalgia well. The ageing of the cast is an issue, as is the fact that the timeline is running out of Eighties. Some of the references are getting a little repetitive and strained. However, perhaps as the youngsters enter the adult world there is scope to bring in the great Eighties genre of aspirational comedies - Arthur, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America, Working Girl, etc - which is so far largely untouched.
Yet the real secret of the show's ongoing success is that it is becoming less about the Eighties and more about the characters. One hopes it will continue to play to this greatest strength.
Published on May 30th, 2022. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.