Updated: Jan 28
Stranger Things has become a larger-than-life Netflix favorite and this season brought on a whole new slew of nerd references, from clear allusions to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the unforgettable stylings of Dustybun & Suziepoo’s rendition of The Neverending Story theme song. This Netflix Original once again proved that it unequivocally does nerdom right, even if not all of the characters remember their Dungeons & Dragons roots.
As viewers, we came to this season already invested in our motley crew of characters (or else we wouldn't be watching), but I wouldn’t say that the season invested me MORE in those characters. The setting of the story could be described as a summer of love between a group of preteens as they closed the gap between childhood and adulthood. This is a rich and interesting place to develop a plot, but it seemed that teen love, attraction and awkwardness was often set in place of true growth, development and reflection. Mike and Eleven deepened their relationship by kissing ALOT (like honestly, too much), Lucas is still the best slingshot on this side of this Mississippi and gives hit-or-miss advice on girls, and Will’s character is defined by his panicked expression and lack of interest in romance. Though these experiences are realistic parts of being a budding teenager, there was something missing in the actual development of these characters. Their experiences didn't seem to change them or bring them closer to who they truly are, they simply occurred.
I especially wanted more from Will. This is the first season where Will was not stuck in the upside down or body-snatched and yet, after a whole season, I am still left wondering: who is Will? Other than playing with his friends, what does he care about? Other than his Flayer senses, what does he bring to the team? Overall, I felt season three had a fantastic opportunity to give us a sensational coming-of-age story complete with aliens and teenage make out sessions. We definitely got aliens and we definitely got copious amounts of terrible make out sessions, but I don’t feel like we got anything close to a true coming-of-age story.
I had similar issues with the adult characters of the cast. Most of all, I really miss the Hopper that I met in season one. The Hopper that was weathered by trauma but still had a place in his heart for love and affection. This season we got a Hopper that was constantly angry. He was so angry, so often, that the anger became flat. It’s hard to root for someone (especially a man) that's always flying off the handle. There were a few moments where we saw the gentleness of Hopper (the letter to Eleven and asking Joyce to Enzo) and, in those moments, he shined.
Other characters proved their weight in gold. Steve “the Hair” Harrington was the most entertaining character of this season, and I rarely say that about a straight cis white man. Steve is one of the few characters that has continually developed throughout the series (he used to be SUCH an asshole!) and that especially shines in his relationships with Robin and Dustin.
Dustin and Steve are friendship goals PERIODT. Steve is the only character that 80% believes that Suzie is real, giving Dustin the validation he needs and Dustin is the only character that grounds Steve enough to let go of his popular dude persona.
Robin and Steve’s scenes were cinematic gold, especially compared to the stale relationship between Mike and Eleven and the stages of denial between Joyce and Hopper. Robin checked Steve’s douchebag tendencies and Steve uplifted Robin to feel like the super genius badass that she is. It seemed like they would run off into a Delorean together and never look back (except to visit Dustybun and Suziepoo) but there was one small hitch - Robin is gay.
After Robin's confession to Steve in the Russian lair, a few flirty scenes and some trauma bonding in the Russian interrogation room, we come to find out that Robin has been in love with Tammy this whole time and NOT Steve. While I am LITERALLY THE MOST here for a queer story line, even I could see that Steve and Robin had chemistry. Their undeniable comedic, romantic and sexual chemistry on screen made me feel like Robin's admittance of being gay was some form of queer-baiting. We don’t know who Tammy is. We have never seen Robin flirt or fail to flirt with a girl and we are DEFINITELY led to believe that she’s been in love with Steve this whole time.
I am here for representation of queer characters, voices and story lines but I also want to see the truth on screen. I want to see MY truth on screen. It doesn’t make me feel seen when a queer story line or character is plopped into a scene without any depth, truth, evidence or WORK put into that extremely complex and vulnerable confession. It makes me feel penciled in; an afterthought or a sidekick to the general narrative. A nice-to-have in our woke millennial age of television. I am not a nice-to-have. I am worth the work.
The breakout star of this season’s Stranger Things was definitely Billy, played by Darce Montgomery. Billy was never a likable character, but this season gave him a chance at redemption and empathy. Billy was the first to be taken over by the Mind Flayer and gave birth to the cast of body-snatched Hawkins citizens that terrorize Eleven and the rest of the crew throughout the season. When Eleven taps into Billy’s deepest memories and brings him back, we see the depth and trauma Billy holds inside. Although it was hard to see Billy die by the tentacles of the Mind Flayer, he completely redeemed himself as a brother to Max. It was honestly one of the most touching scenes in the show.
More than ever, this season thrust us into the 80’s. Most of the scenes in this season took place at Starcourt Mall; a direct contrast to the other seasons where so many of the scenes took place in people’s homes or at local places of work (Hopper’s police station, Joyce’s electronic store, the middle school, etc.).
To a certain extent, the mall represented freedom and choice for our young characters, exemplified by Eleven’s Clueless-esque makeover. It also allowed for all of the characters to be centralized in one location, a location that made a huge statement about the future of The United States. While Steve is getting customer after customer at the ice cream shop, Joyce and Hopper are in an empty electronic store writing the letter to Eleven (cue waterworks) because there are no customers. The backdrop of this season explored the slow and silent death of small businesses while institutions like Starcourt Mall thrived.
Of course, the best references that Stranger Things made were those to nerd culture. Back to the Future, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Gremlins, Day of the Dead and, of course, the best scene of the whole entire season. The Neverending Story by Dustin & Suzie. Just Wow.
At the end of the series, Stranger Things was able to wrap itself up through Erica, Lucas' sister. While it is sad that the Byers family, along with Eleven, had to leave Hawkins, it is also completely understandable. They have gone through trauma after trauma and, at this point, what do they to stay for? The silver lining in all the goodbyes was Dustin’s gift to Erica: Dungeons & Dragons. For all the women and AFAB people watching Stranger Things, Erica is relatable in so many ways. We may not have had the space to identify as nerds, we may have fit into a diverse array of spaces but somewhere down deep, we knew that Dungeons & Dragons was where we were meant to be. It brought back the nostalgia of season one of Stranger Things while also acknowledging the the crew's changing relationship to their childhood.
Overall, there were a lot of really great things about this season of Stranger Things and a few things I think could've been greatly improved. But, in the end, (I'm gonna say it again) was there anything truly more special or iconic in this season than Dustybun's and Suziepoo's rendition of The Neverending Story? No, there wasn't. I leave you with the full scene, to play on repeat until the end of time.