The creature in the third season of “Stranger Things” is a grisly, fearsome, overpowering amalgam of borrowed parts, created from the melted-down essence of other beings. Which is to say, the creature is “Stranger Things.”
'Stranger Things' season 3 recap: All's well that ends weird
This recap includes spoilers for Season 3 of “Stranger Things,” including the finale.
Every season, this sci-fi pastiche assembles itself into a different patchwork of pop-culture influences, rooted in a Spielbergian vision of suburbia but otherwise a K-Tel greatest hits compilation. Even the way this season’s creature gets its shape, gathering mass from the splattered remains of its victims, is an homage to the liquefied metal of the T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” (Though this season takes place in the summer of 1985, the references are inching past the ’80s.)
The show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, have said they will end the show after four or five seasons, but the first three are like a recycling plant, harvesting old movies and tried-and-true formulas like endlessly renewable resources. A creature emerges from under Hawkins, Indiana, the gang bands together to put down the threat, and the pattern repeats itself the next season, with only one or two narrative threads left dangling.
The Duffers understand nostalgia as the comforts of the familiar, and they seem content to write the same piece of fan fiction and expect the same result. It’s not the worst strategy.
The third season ran it back effectively, helped along by a breathless pace and an emotional investment in its characters that keeps paying off. The same people have been beating back a supernatural apocalypse for years, and the experience is like trench warfare, suffused with unending trauma and loss but also the camaraderie of working together for a common cause. When the onset of puberty is added to the mix, as it is in the third season, the intensity of those feelings is heightened all the more. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) winds up losing her powers, but hey, at least she gets a reprieve from thinking about a boy. Sometimes.
The big new addition to Season 3 was the Starcourt Mall, whose secret network of tunnels below were like a high-tech mirror of the more organic dig-dug below the Hawkins Lab in previous seasons. “Stranger Things” has always had a casual engagement with the real cultural changes in the ’80s — last season threw in a couple of Reagan-Bush and Mondale-Ferraro signs on the lawns — but the mall’s effect on ma-and-pa operations downtown was smartly noted.
For one, it pushed the Byers family that much further out the door: Joyce (Winona Ryder) had already seen the Mind Flayer torture her son Will (Noah Schnapp) below and above the surface, and now she is clerking at a general store with no customers. It’s more than the creature that’s sucking the life out of Hawkins, which isn’t the only town in America surrendering to the big chains.
In 1985, the summer of “Back to the Future” and “The Goonies,” it’s telling that the first movie to get screen time this season was George Romero’s “Day of the Dead,” which is about scientists and military types occupying underground bunkers while zombies terrorize the planet. “Stranger Things” gave it a “Red Dawn” twist by having the eggheads and soldiers carry out a Russian plot, and an “Aliens” twist by having them harness supernatural power for military application. Through the bribery and coercion of a weak, narcissistic mayor (Cary Elwes), the Russians were able to turn the Starcourt Mall into a front for late Cold War subversion.
As the Russians used their power-draining, real estate-gobbling electromagnetic drill to blast open the gate that Eleven expended so much energy to seal at the end of Season 2, it cracked open enough space for the Upside Down to wreak havoc once again. Last season, the volatile newcomer Billy (Dacre Montgomery) seized the bad-boy crown from Steve “the Hair” Harrington (Joe Keery), who was relegated to scooping ice cream in a sailor suit at the mall. But this season, Hawkins’ resident mom magnet paid the price. He was the first of many citizens to get sucked into a new supernatural threat, which had the power to possess people (and rats), like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” or simply mash them into a slithering pulp that added to its size and strength.
The fight against the creature divided into three camps, which were helpfully given code names in the finale. The Griswold Family, so named for its deluxe “Vacation”-style station wagon, included most of the younger generation: Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Will, Eleven, Max (Sadie Sink), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer).
The Scoops Troop was a gang of code-breaking, lab-infiltrating mall rats, composed of the Scoops Ahoy employees Steve and Robin (Maya Hawke, the season’s best new addition), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica (Priah Ferguson), Lucas’ sample-abusing little sister.
That left the grown-ups, Joyce and Hopper (David Harbour), along with the paranoiac private eye Murray (Brett Gelman). To Murray’s chagrin, Dustin named their group Bald Eagle.
Before the Griswold Family, the Scoops Troop and Bald Eagle picked up their walkie-talkies for the climactic battle, however, “Stranger Things” took a little time to gather its forces. Dustin’s removal from his buddies for much of the season was one of several fractures within the group, having little to do with any outside threats bearing down on them. Although Will was spared the direct attention of the Mind Flayer this season, his eagerness to return to epic Dungeons & Dragons sessions with his friends was squashed by their preoccupation with girls.
Lucas and Max were locked into the type of on-again-off-again romance that happens between unseasoned teenagers, and their misery rubbed off on Mike and Eleven, who made the mistake of taking their advice.
Over at the town newspaper — a heartbreakingly well-staffed operation, as today’s journalist will surely note — Nancy and Jonathan secured internships, but Nancy couldn’t get the respect of its all-male editorial unit, even after landing the story of the season. While their editors laughed off their investigation, the two followed up on strange phenomena around town, including an older woman (Peggy Miley) who had trapped a possessed rat and eventually started eating her weight in fertilizer. Something was up. They’d seen this movie before.
Most of the fun in the third season, however, came from outside the core group of stars. Gelman’s investigator-conspiracist was a great addition to the previous season, but once he got paired up with a Russian scientist (Alec Utgoff), who spills the beans to Joyce and Hopper, a sweet buddy comedy broke out in the middle of the chaos.
So, too, the delightful relationship between Steve and Robin, whose adventures in code-breaking and espionage broke the monotony of scooping ice cream in humiliating uniforms. (Shades of Captain Hook Fish & Chips in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” — one of many “Fast Times” references in the series, including the entire Starcourt setting.) Their chemistry was so vibrant, in fact, that the revelation that Robin was into girls seemed tacked-on, like a hasty appeal to LGBTQ viewers.
Given how essential Eleven’s powers were in beating back the Mind Flayer in the previous two seasons, the choice to have them betray her in the finale made the inevitable triumph more of a group effort. The Griswold Family tossed Fourth of July fireworks at the creature, the Scoops Troop controlled communications with Dustin’s homemade satellite system and stopped Billy from running over Nancy, and Bald Eagle disrupted the Russian lab, which included a big showdown between Hopper and an enforcer who was one part Dolph Lundgren in “Rocky IV” to three parts Robert Patrick in “Terminator 2.” Hopper gets killed in the process — or does he? — but this was the clearest victory for mere mortals that “Stranger Things” has allowed.
In the aftermath, the show delivered the heartbreak, if a bit too shamelessly. The Byers family finally packed up a U-Haul, taking the now-fatherless Eleven with them. That meant splitting up Eleven and Mike, Jonathan and Nancy, and Will and his friends, and unleashing a torrent of emotion — and that’s not counting the heartfelt words left behind by Hopper, written when he was trying a sane way of keeping Eleven and Mike from smooching all day. (Absolutely no chance Hopper would write anything that sentimental, but that character has been hard to track the last two seasons.)
The Mind Flayer may be gone for good, but Hawkins is in the rearview mirror, too. “Stranger Things” wrung all the tears it could get out of that bittersweet moment, and yet for the first time, the show didn’t basically reset itself heading into the next season. It will take some creative wrangling to reunite the Byers family with all the friends and Demogorgons they left behind. (Nothing on any season would feel as uncanny as if the boys gathered next season to watch “Stand by Me,” which opened in 1986.)
One thing is certain: They’re going to have to get their Orange Juliuses somewhere new.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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