Who's ready to return to the Upside Down? Maybe not the folks of Hawkins, but Stranger Things fans who have been waiting for payoff of the Mind Flayer cliffhanger since all the way back in October 2017 are more than set to find out what comes next. The long hiatus means that viewers have high expectations of Stranger Things Season 3, and the Duffer brothers had plenty of time to craft something truly spine-tingling.
The bad news for the characters and the great news for viewers watching safely from home is that the Duffer brothers and the rest of the Stranger Things team turned the horror up to eleven, and the season may leave you dreaming sweet dreams of the Demogorgon from Season 1 that doesn't seem so terrifying in hindsight.
Unfortunately, the mind-blowing boost of horror came at the cost of some of the heart. Did I laugh, cry, and/or gasp at various parts of Season 3? Yes. Did I feel it as deeply as I could have? Not quite.
Stranger Things Season 3 picks up in the summer of 1985, and everything seems to be going great for everybody except for the folks who aren’t happy about the new Starcourt Mall. The kids aren’t kids anymore, and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is in the mix for the first time since Season 1, much to Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) delight. A new threat from an old source emerges, and nothing is certain… least of all the safety of the heroes.
Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Steve (Joe Keery) struggle with summer jobs, although only one of them has to do their struggling in a sailor suit. Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) are trying to move on from Seasons 1 and 2, together and apart. (I won't spoil how or why it happens, but Hopper wears a truly glorious 80s-tastic Hawaiian shirt that is one of my favorite things about the whole season.)
Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) summer takes a turn for the worse, and newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) learns about a whole other side of Hawkins.
Stranger Things is arguably the Game of Thrones of Netflix, and the stakes leading up to the July 4 premiere date are almost impossibly high. The show partnered with companies ranging from Coca-Cola to bring back New Coke (and allow one of my favorite jokes of the whole season) to Burger King for the Upside Down Whopper to Baskin Robbins for some real-life Scoops Ahoy ice cream, although sadly not scooped by servers in sailor suits. After the long hiatus, the pressure was on for Stranger Things to craft something fantastic, and Season 3 delivered… more or less.
If Season 1 was the indie horror that blew up and Season 2 was the surprisingly solid sequel, then Season 3 is the blockbuster that pulled out all the stops to do something new without resetting the formula. At the same time, it feels like the latest installment in a franchise that knows it’s going to be a hit no matter what, and some of the subtleties of previous seasons were missing.
What’s to come with the Season 3 monster is best left unspoiled to the imagination, but it’s safe to say that the glimpses of the creature from the trailers are only tastes of the horrors it can unleash. Netflix went to great lengths to preserve Stranger Things secrets, and you can count on more scares than what was teased in the early footage. And also more rats.
That said, Stranger Things Season 3 is strongest when it relies on the characters, their relationships, and the performers to sell the impossibilities of the narrative. The monster is the spine-tingling, edge-of-your-seat, palm-sweating kind of scary that comes from the growing sense that not everybody is going to make it out, even if there is a telekinetic teenager in the mix.
Speaking of that telekinetic teenager, Eleven’s official return to the land of the living means Season 3 can deliver the kinds of interactions that were missing in Season 2. Although her isolation in the second season did allow the relationship between El and Hopper to become one of the most poignant of the series, nobody’s favorite part of Season 2 seems to have been Eleven’s adventures in Chicago. Millie Bobby Brown shines to the point that it’s almost hard to believe that she’s still a child actor.
The whole cast of young actors continues to shine, and the new friendship between Eleven and Max is a highlight of the season. Stranger Things has been short on healthy friendships ever since Barb died, and Millie Bobby Brown and Sadie Sink are lovely together.
Less lovely considering his actions in Season 2 is Billy, but Dacre Montgomery gets the chance to show off a range that wasn’t really called for when Billy was basically just the Henry Bowers in his first Stranger Things outing. If Millie Bobby Brown surprised everybody in Season 1 and Noah Schnapp blew everybody away in Season 2, Season 3 may belong to Dacre Montgomery.
Of course, Priah Ferguson as Erica Sinclair is bound to be a fan-favorite, and I’m guessing one or two of the newcomers will be beloved by the end as well. I’m already ready for a Scoops Ahoy Stranger Things spinoff myself, but only if the entire cast wears those sailor costumes from start to finish.
If there is one thing you should prepare yourself for other than the frights, it’s the awkwardness. Stranger Things is almost painfully realistic about how endearingly awkward young teenagers can be once the hormones hit, especially when those hormones hit different kids at different times.
It should come as no surprise considering how Season 3 was hyped as the “summer of love” that the romantic relationships do get a fair amount of focus. Stranger Things does throw some curveballs on the relationship front, however, that could come into play in key ways in future seasons, assuming Stranger Things still has one or two left before the end.
Stranger Things Season 3 does suffer in certain areas from too much telling rather than showing, and yet some questions left over from Season 2 that were key to the setup of Season 3 went unanswered. If Stranger Things truly was a blockbuster film that began and ended within a span of two hours, that wouldn’t really be an issue. Characters and relationships wouldn’t need to be fully fleshed out.
But Stranger Things isn’t a franchise like Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean. Stranger Things has eight hours in Season 3 to set the stage, and it falls short on some necessary explanations. Blockbusters are entertaining, but I’m not sure Season 3 will be as rewatchable as Seasons 1 and 2 after the shock and awe wears off.
The show does carry on the grand tradition of Stranger Things ending a season with a bang, and David Harbour was not wrong to hype fans up about what’s to come. Just like in the first two seasons, the major arcs are the most thrilling when they finally get the chance to converge. Unlike the first two seasons, however, the Season 3 finale crosses some lines that won’t necessarily get uncrossed before the final credits roll, although you should definitely be sure to keep watching once those credits start to roll.
Stranger Things Season 3 isn’t bad by any means, but equaling or surpassing the stellar first two seasons was a tall order, and I don’t quite think the show delivered on either count. It’s by far better than most TV you’ll get in the summer, and not measuring up to its first two seasons isn’t much of a failing. There’s a reason why Stranger Things became such a smash hit after the first two batches of episodes.
Stranger Things premieres its third season on Thursday, July 4 at 12:01 a.m. PT on Netflix. CinemaBlend will continue Stranger Things coverage up to and following the big release, so be sure to check back for more in the coming days, and don't forget to weigh in on our poll below!