Review: 'Stranger Things 3' is an electric revival of the series

On Fourth of July weekend, I powered up my laptop, logged into Netflix and clicked on the big, bright banner advertising the release of “Stranger Things 3.”

by Maria Harrast | 7/12/19 2:00am

On Fourth of July weekend, I powered up my laptop, logged into Netflix and clicked on the big, bright banner advertising the release of “Stranger Things 3.” My expectations were low. After a lackluster second season, I missed the excitement that surrounded the series when it first premiered — back when the #ImWithBarb campaign trended on social media, memes about Eleven’s name went viral and Eggo waffles surged in sales. I wanted the third season of the sci-fi-horror series to bring the same magic it had created with its 2016 launch. One weekend-long Netflix binge later, I am confident that the magic of “Stranger Things” has finally returned to Hawkins in what may be its best season yet.

“Stranger Things 3” takes place during the summer of 1985, as the familiar crew of teens juggle friendships, romances and jobs. While younger members of the group navigate their first relationships, the older teens take on jobs at the ice cream parlor of the newly-built Starcourt Mall and at the local paper. Meanwhile, the show’s beloved adult characters — Hopper, played by David Harbour ’97, and Joyce Byers, played by Winona Ryder — deal with the awkwardness of parenthood while sorting out the details of their own personal lives. With so much normalcy, it is easy to forget that underneath the small town of Hawkins, Indiana is a portal to a dark, alternate dimension: the Upside Down.

In the first and second seasons, we learn that the Upside Down is home to the Mind Flayer, a giant spider-like monster that tries to invade Earth by taking over human bodies. While the second season relied on the success of the first season’s plot and its likable characters — creating a forgettable plot that was all too similar to the first — the new challenges of the third season provide viewers with a freshly entertaining plot and the opportunity to witness the characters develop in a way we haven’t seen before.

During the first two seasons, the Mind Flayer’s target is the young Will Byers, who only manages to survive the Mind Flayer with the help of his mom, friends, Hopper and most importantly, Eleven. Played by Millie Bobby Brown, Eleven is a quiet girl with psychokinetic abilities and an affection for Eggo waffles. At the end of the second season, she uses her mind powers to close the gate to the Upside Down, which banishes the Mind Flayer from the human dimension.

With the gate closed, all should be well. But, within the first two episodes of the third season, a citywide power outage, Russian radio transmissions and erratic rat behavior reveal that something remains very wrong in Hawkins. Throughout the season, the crew of characters works together in search of explanations for the string of strange events, before finally discovering the truth of what they are up against: The Mind Flayer will not stop until he finds a way out of the Upside Down and into the minds and bodies of the humans of Hawkins.

The third installment of “Stranger Things” hooked me differently than its predecessors did. Rather than binging the season just to get answers to its sci-fi mysteries, I found myself excited to watch how the network of characters and their relationships would evolve and respond to each other and their new circumstances. For example, when Eleven and Mike get into their first fight, Max introduces Eleven to the world of teen magazines, shopping malls and neon scrunchies. When Hopper wants to have a talk about boundaries with Eleven, he turns to Joyce for sound parental advice. When Robin and Steve are forced to work together at the ice cream parlor, they are willing to reexamine old assumptions about one another. 

The third season takes the characters that the “Stranger Things” fanbase loves and hits them with new challenges that force them to grow. Based on the past two seasons, “Stranger Things” fans already know that these characters can tackle supernatural demons. The all-too-relatable territory of puberty and young love thus adds an unexpectedly welcome dimension to our Demogorgon-slaying heroes and heroines. Namely, the young couples — Eleven and Mike, Max and Lucas, Dustin and his mystery girlfriend from camp — struggle with all of the typical obstacles of young love, including time management, miscommunication and of course, the “L” word. All of these struggles combined help bring the characters into a welcome new light in this coming-of-age-season.

While romance characterizes much of this “Stranger Things” chapter, the budding friendships and breakout characters are one of its greatest strengths. Eleven and Max become a power couple in the best of ways, embodying a girl team to counteract the show’s previously dominant boys’ club. Their alliance finally helps Max step out of the shadows of the second season, as she becomes a fierce leader who is more than just a female filler in a predominantly male show.

Max is not the only character who makes a name for herself this season. Dustin, who was once written off as the nerdiest, dorkiest member of the Dungeons & Dragons-playing squad, finally takes charge as he tries to crack the code of the Russian radio transmissions. Billy, whose mean-spirited character was weak and underdeveloped in the second season, is finally given a backstory and a character arc that matters. Lucas’s little sister Erica, who was a simple background character in “Stranger Things 2,” brings another dose of sass and personally as she finally takes part in the main action. The strong character development throughout this season makes it truly entertaining and fun to watch.

So yes, after the breakout cultural phenomenon that was the first season and the forgettable storyline that was the second, I had little hope that the world of “Stranger Things” would continue to impress. But, with the funky fashion, the classic film references and the gory visual effects topped off by relatable new challenges and impressive character development, “Stranger Things 3” delivers. It’s official — the excitement I once felt for this spooky series is back.