We've officially wrapped up our binge watch of Stranger Things season 3 and we are feeling some feelings! Below we break down the 8-episode adventure, including our highlights and lingering questions at the end of the Duffer Brothers' third chapter in Hawkins history.
El & Max's Friendship
At the end of season two, after Eleven gave Max quite a cold shoulder once she returned to Hawkins, it didn't seem like the sole female members of Ghostbusters gang were destined to be gal pas. However, when El needs some advice on the teen romance front, Max is waiting with all kinds of Seventeen wisdom on fashion, boyfriends, heartthrobs, and "good screams." El and Max seal their newly blossomed friendship with an obligatory makeover montage (with an '80s mall twist). Anyone else getting major Robin Sparkles vibes? (If ya know, ya know)
On the less superficial side, Max expands El's world beyond her codependent relationship with Mike, and gives her permission to start figuring out her own identity, outside of her supernatural abilities. She continues to champion El's independence and emphasize the importance of letting her determine her own limits, and assume control over her own body --even if it is technically a lethal weapon.
They're Here, They're (Definitely/Maybe) Queer
This season we met Robin, the Scoops Ahoy ice cream slinger working alongside a newly chastened Steve, who finds that "The Hair" Harrington isn't nearly as compelling post-high school. The show spends the majority of the season building up Robin's badass bona fides: smart, funny, adorable, Russian code-cracker, etc., and foreshadowing Steve ultimately falling for his co-worker. However, in an unexpected and delightful twist, Robin admits to Steve that he is decidedly not her object of affection -- that would be someone named Tammy. Steve seems understandably (for Steve) perplexed by this news, as Robin reluctantly but firmly comes out to him during their heart-to-heart in the bathroom.
On the more latent, but definitely palpable, end of the spectrum is Will's frustration with his best friends' coupledom, forgoing their D&D matches to intermittently complain, strategize about, and make out with their respective girlfriends. It culminates in a blowup with Mike where he screams at Will that it isn't his fault if Will "doesn't like girls." The girls feels especially pronounced here, though we don't get any concrete confirmation. Regardless, it's welcome addition to have some LGBTQIA+ members of the Hawkins crime fighting gang, out or otherwise.
How could you resist that silly, Loony Tunes-watching, Slurpee-loving face? While we never get very much clarity on why the "great energy" architect Alexi is so easily persuaded to share state secrets with Hopper & Co. (other than the likely scarring experience of seeing his predecessor dragged away in chains), he plays a crucial role in getting our adult trio back to Starcourt for the final showdown, and charmed the pants off of us with his goofiness while doing it. RIP, comrade.
The Redemption of Brett Gelman
The notorious BG returns as conspiracy theorist Murray, once again serving a valuable role as part exposition provider, part blunt sexual tension spotter. As with Jonathan and Nancy last season, Murray, in his signature snarky, loud, ranting style, does us all a favor and points out the very obvious chemistry between Hopper and Joyce. His Russian-speaking skills come in hot in the clutch, and his translations often provide some much-needed comic relief. Most importantly, this portrayal definitely redeems the actor a bit from the "bad personality" he exhibited, with grating accuracy, as Claire's boorish husband on Fleabag (#WheresClaire).
🎵 TURN AROUND 🎵
Turns out, there's more than one '80s singalong classic that starts with this iconic line. Thanks to Dustybun and Suziepoo, this delightful but relentless earworm will be stuck in our collective consciousness for the next decade. A new karaoke classic?
Wise beyond his years, Dustin schools two of his underground adventure companions on the importance of embracing one's inner nerd and letting go of bullshit social constructs like popularity. TBH, initiating My Little Pony into the nerd culture canon is long overdue, and he proved a great foil to sass powerhouse Erica, who takes after her brother much more than she'd care to admit.
Splitting Up Together
This season began following four distinct story threads, dividing the characters into groups, each intently set on pursuing their own piece of the Russia/Magnet/Mind Flayer/Rat puzzle. Nancy and Jonathan, a snooze of a couple but a decent investigative team, are interning at the Hawkins Post and hunting down a lead from an old lady complaining about rabid rats. Hop indulges Joyce in her fixation with magnets losing their charge and they head back to the good ole Hawkins lab to sniff around. The newly reunited Dustin & Steve recruit Robin and Erica into cracking an intercepted Russian communication, and the majority of the gang is left to contend with Will feeling the Mind Flayer's return, and El using her powers to spy on Billy's suspicious behavior.
Overall, the isolation and these smaller groups allowed for more focus on the smaller, character-driven moments, which is helpful with such a large ensemble cast. However, it was a bit frustrating as an anxious viewer that none of them were comparing notes. Can we get the gang on a #mindflayer Slack channel?
The Emergence of Mrs. Wheeler
In the past, we've put Mrs. Wheeler on blast for being an all-time absentee parent, and we stand by that analysis. However, since her brief and thirsty pool flirtation with Billy, Karen has made significant strides. First, she bails on their Motel 6 rendezvous, effectively re-confirming her commitment to the world's most beige husband. Then, she gives Nancy a kick-ass motivational mom speech after she's fired from the newspaper. Though once again neglecting to have a firm grip on the whereabouts of her eldest children at the fun fair, she's ultimately there for Mike with open arms when he experiences his first real heartbreak after El and Will leave Hawkins. All in all, Karen has definitely leveled up on the parenting scale, and also apparently the wardrobe department slipped in a very body-positive anatomical accessory for her and Twitter is not okay about it.
[We're not crying, you're crying.] TBH, we still haven't fully emotionally processed this one. While Hopper's death scene was particularly gutting, especially since it was Joyce who had to ultimately condemn him with the turn of the key, you pretty much knew there wasn't going to be a happily ever after once they ominously scheduled their celebratory Enzo's date "if we ever get out of here alive."
However, it was the surprise punch of Hopper's written heart-to-heart, which went unsaid in the moment, that got the waterworks flowing. Hop's voice, recounting sweet memories with his daughter, plays over the scenes of the friends saying goodbye as the Byers moving van pulls away from Hawkins. He laments the passage of time, the inevitability of change, and ultimately the futility of living in the past. Though the show has jumped three moths forward after Hop's death, it feels like this is the true goodbye between El and her adopted dad. It's also Joyce's goodbye, closing the chapter of her life in the Byers house, where so much of the action of the past three years has taken place. As a slow, melodic cover of David Bowie's "Heroes" fades in, it feels like a definitive and meaningful end.
Or is it??
...WHO IS THE AMERICAN?
Obviously, we're meant to think that the unseen American referred to by the Russians, captive in an underground cell, could potentially be Hop. This would mean he somehow escaped seemingly certain death when the energy machine exploded. And, since we didn't see the actual money shot of him disintegrating, nor a body, it's certainly possible!
Could it be similar to the Eleven death fake-out that ended season one? But if so, why go through all the emotional labor of mourning him with a very moving grief sequence, only to undo it seconds after the credits roll? Some have speculated that "the American" could also refer to Dr. Brenner, Eleven's former "daddy," which might be a nice twist and potentially bring the series full circle if indeed the fourth season will be its last. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait until next summer to know for sure.
LESS PRESSING, BUT STILL LINGERING QUESTIONS...
Did we miss this? We know they're definitively jumping ship from Hawkins, but is it ever made clear just where they're headed? It's definitely driving distance, but if Mike and El are scheduling holiday visits only, it's certainly longer than a day trip.
I thought we wiped these puppies out after Eleven closed the gate. How did the Ruskies get their hands on a live one to pen up as a Roman executioner?
This doesn't bode well for the inevitable return of the Mind Flayer / Upside Down threat, which seems to somehow emerge resurgent each season. It's interesting that El's lack of mind powers effectively prevent her from searching the universe for Hopper, which could support the theory that he's still out there...
Season 3 of Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix.