*** Possible Spoilers ***
Modern media lore seems to dictate that The Curse of the Second Sequel is almost an inevitability. For any successful series, Part III is normally the point where the creative juices run out; where inspiration loses its edge. When it works, you can say that at least it was made with some care. When it doesn’t, it can feel like an annuity in action.
Having worked my way through all eight episodes of Stranger Things 3, I am forgiving of several unwise decisions; moments when the nostalgia (it takes place in 1985) doesn’t so much sing as bang a very loud gong. Seriously, there is a moment when the show stops dead so the kids can debate New Coke. Later there’s a duet of the theme to The Neverending Story at which you will either laugh or groan (I laughed). There are moments like that sprinkled throughout this show, isolated moments that can feel uninspired. Luckily they don’t spoil the party. Stranger Things 3 is a solid third act. Nothing that creators Mike and Ross Duffer can do from now on will ever match the austere shock and awe of that first season but I think that here there is a lot of good things going on. I can say that it was definitely made with loving care.
What becomes clear right away is that The Duffer Brothers are not content to repeat themselves. If you pay attention to the progress of this show, you can see that they are very aware of the special quality of the world they have created. They know these characters. They like these characters and they want to see them grow and change. They also want to evolve as writers. Stranger Things 3 is more tightly written and better focused then last season which, as good as it was, felt a bit over-stuffed and took too many sideroads – like a bad Stephen King novel, it kept getting distracted by unnecessary details.
Stranger Things 3 is not perfect. Again, too often clangs with nostalgic brick-a-brack. But what it has is the loving attention to the characters that I loved so much in Season One and missed in Season Two. What’s different here is the narrative, which is about the pains of growing up and moving on. It begins very nicely with the personal relationships. It is interested in the lives of the characters for a good long while before the spooky stuff starts.
For one thing, the kids are growing up. In the year and a half since Stranger Things 2, Will, Mike, Dusty, Lucas, El and Max have now steered into the choppy waters of their pre-teen confusion. Their voices have changed, their bodies have changed, their priorities changed. Will suffers that heartbreaking revelation that he has to put away childish things. Mike and El have discovered romance, as has Dusty by dating the classic girlfriend-out-of-town that nobody is convinced even exists. El is discovering her independence. Their lives are taking shape. At the heartbreaking conclusion of this season, everyone – and I mean everyone – has been forced to let go of something.
Oddly enough, the character that seemed to grow the most wasn’t even one of the kids. It was Hopper, whose hero-cop good guy takes a turn here that I found refreshing. Yes, he’s a tough-as-nails local Police Chief now faced with a challenge that his police training never prepared him for: being father to a teenage daughter with a boyfriend. How he handles the blooming romance between El and Mike is classic Dad-puts-the-fear-of-God-into-the-nervous-boyfriend bit but David Harbour’s performance (which deserves an Emmy nomination) is so much fun that you don’t really mind.
The other performance here that really makes this season come alive comes from newcomer Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) as Robin, who works at the local ice cream shop with Steve, the once popular high school hunk who has now graduated and is slinging ice cream at the mall.
Owing much to the Duffer’s talent for character development, Robin begins the season as a stock character, a surly teen working a summer job, but as the plot gets underway, she blossoms into a complex and fully-realized character. Hawke’s giddy personality reminds you a lot of her mother but she has a vibrant energy all her own.
But if the personalities were all there was to Stranger Things 3 then it wouldn’t be worth much – it would be like a streaming service version of “Party of Five.” The spooky story this time is a lot of fun because it never feels like a repeat of the previous seasons. For spoiler’s sake, I’ll try to remain mum but know that from here forward there are some plot details. So, possible spoilers ahead.
The Russians are coming! Well . . . actually there’s already here. Steven and Robin and Dusty uncover a plot involving the Russians, the local mall and the nefarious upside-down gate that has been a thorn in everyone’s side for two seasons now. More I cannot say but it is interesting the way that this season interweaves elements that are much more grown up than the previous two.
Where the first season leaned heavily on odes to Spielberg and Stephen King, Stranger Things 3 steers into a very clever commentary about mid-80s mall culture, the cold war and Soviet paranoia. For reference sake, this one leans heavily on James Cameron, George Romero and John Carpenter with hints of Red Dawn and The Terminator thrown in for flavoring. One of the best things about Stranger Things 3 is the Duffer Brothers’ use of locations: the mall, a military compound, an over-crowded pool, a parade, a failing hardware store; these things don’t feel like settings, they feel like the town of Hawkins is alive and breathing.
Even more colorful are the supporting players. There’s Priah Ferguson as Lucas’ loudmouth kid sister Erica whose bellicose attitude could have been irritating, but she’s given just enough humanity that she doesn’t become overbearing. Also in town is Cary Elwes as Larry Kline, the town’s sniveling, slime ball mayor. There’s also a sweet-natured Russian scientist named Alexei (Alec Utgoff) who is just plain giddy when he discovers the joys of capitalism – particularly Burger King and Woody Woodpecker cartoons. And there’s even a Russian Terminator (Andrey Ivchenko) who, yes, bears an eerie resemblance to you-know-who.
The one new character who doesn’t work this season, I’m afraid, is the monster. Born of infested organic creatures and elements borrowed from Invasion of the Body Snatchers they are quickly boiled down to something equivalent to The Blob if it were dripping bones. It’s a pretty good set-up. Unfortunately, by the time it rears its ugly head for a final confrontation, it feels like just another CGI monster – think Dormammu if his parents were made of Jello. Ho-hum
So again, Stranger Things 3 isn’t perfect. The negative thing that stood out the most was this season’s tendency to tack its nostalgic bits to your forehead rather than let them purr naturally. Overlaying the best of this season is a shopping montage set to “Material Girl” and an overly-whacky homage to “Magnum P.I.” Those are fun, at least for me, because they are organic to the plot. It’s when the show has to stop (as with Lucas’ New Coke bit) the nostalgia becomes a bit overbearing. That’s not to say that Stranger Things 3 has succumbing to The Curse of the Second Sequel – Heaven’s no! When it deals with the growth of the characters, that’s when it feels new and original – you won’t see a season finale this year that will come close to the heart-tug of this one. There’s a sense of loving care that has gone into these characters and their adventures, not just fighting another monster but in battling this thing called life.