Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In-
How Stranger Things 3 Goes Bigger…and Better
The Godfather Part III……Rocky III…..The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Good Lord, there is something about the third installment of a franchise that always seems to make me quiver, even before I begin to watch it.
Commonly, the third installment will jump the shark or reach so far outside of the box that the entire greatness of its predecessors gets whitewashed by the absurdity of where the narrative has been taken. Nowadays, with television, the third seasons do not necessarily disappoint as often, as modern television is a different medium that plays by different rules. In fact, in many cases, such as in The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, the third season is where the entire ensemble–the actors, writers, producers, etc.–begin to hone their craft to the point where there is a certain sense of serenity and security for direction of the narrative. With two previous seasons under the belt, these casts now understand their characters and the arcs begin to conform to the purpose of where the show is heading.
Nonetheless, as I absconded from the BBQs, the beer-guzzling, the fireworks, the overly fake patriotism, and the general familial socialization on the 4th of July to watch season 3 of Stranger Things, I felt that uneasy apprehension of walking into a theater for the third installment of a film. “Please do not be Godfather Part III! Please do not be Godfather Part III” is the silent prayer I repetitiously whispered to myself as I clicked on Netflix and began my holiday binge of one of my favorite shows. See, I felt season 2 of Stranger Things, though it had some great moments, was overall a tad underwhelming. Thus, season 3 felt like it could be the season where–like Michael Corleone from Godfather Part III–I finally got pulled out of the show.
Thankfully, my prayers were answered. This was NOT Godfather Part III. This was NOT Rocky III. This was NOT The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
Stranger Things 3 was the best season of the show to date!
Now, please do not worry! This review and critique will not spoil the show; however, I must say that I want to expound upon why this season was such a remarkable achievement. So if you haven’t seen it yet, tread cautiously. Yet again, there will be no spoilers.
So let’s start with this question: If I could sum up this season in one word, what word would I choose?
The answer: Bigger.
More often than not, “bigger” forces narratives to deviate from their center and ultimately lose that magic that made the story such a hit when it premiered. Yes, when stories tend to get “bigger”, such as with the addition of the influences of the Roman Catholic church upon the mafia in Godfather Part III, or the addition of a ridiculous wrestling match between Rocky Balboa and Thunderlips in Rocky III, or the addition of whatever the hell Tokyo Drift was attempting to accomplish for The Fast and the Furious franchise, the result is usually a hot mess of muddled character shifts or too much of this or too much of that.
Nevertheless, in the case of Stranger Things 3, bigger is better!
So follow-up questions to my assessment should be, “Why is Stranger Things 3 bigger than the previous two seasons? And why in the case is that better?”
To begin, the setting itself finally escapes the borders of Hawkins, Indiana. And in true 80’s fashion, the cold open to this season takes us to the Soviet Union. I mean, what would an 80’s show be without the U.S.S.R.? That’s right! Season 3 is a cold open with the Cold War! Immediately, I thought to myself, “Oh God! Stranger Things 3 decided to skip Rocky III and move directly to Rocky IV. Uhhhh ohhhh!” However, the opening scene quelled that fear when we are quickly taken back to the friendly confines of Hawkins and we realize that this Russian influence will be a part of this season, but not the major focus.
The “bigger” theme continues as Hawkins has now built the extravagantly ostentatious Starcourt Mall, which will serve as one of the primary settings for this season. Again, what would an 80’s show built on recapturing all those great feels of that decade be without a huge town mall? We get a whimsical and time-traveling-like glimpse back at those stores us mallrats used to scamper through, especially Sam Goody. Oh how I miss Sam Goody!
Along with the setting being bigger, the cast itself grows this season. And this is where the greatness of season 3 recaptures the magic of the first season, and in many regards, transcends that already lovable cast of kids. Besides the action returning to form, with little need for a suspension of disbelief, season 3 avoids one of the hardest tricks of any child-driven cast: dealing with the growth from adorable child stars into awkward puberty-stricken teenagers. Thankfully, the cast is still just as warm and inviting as they are in the previous seasons. As the kids grow up on this show, the show itself seems to grow up this season, tackling larger issues (which I won’t spoil here), yet it never loses its center in its attempt to address social and political platforms, which has happened to many shows that attempt to expand to these avenues.
Furthermore, Stranger Things 3 has opened its doors to many new characters who actually tend to steal most of the scenes this season.
The season takes dangerous risks is turning the show over at times to some of the newer characters, yet those risks are ultimately what makes this season the best so far. Sure we were introduced to the slightly diabolical Billy (Dacre Montgomery) and his little sister Max (Sadie Sink) in season 2; however, it is in season 3 that these two characters are allowed to take the reins. The show has found a proper human “villain” in Billy, who was grossly underused in season 2, yet shines in season 3. In some respects, this is Billy’s season. It is complicated for me to explain just how important these two siblings are to the season without spoiling the plot, but their characters take center stage for many of the episodes. The addition of Max to the main cast of children last year could have spelled trouble for the scripts, but it paid off last season and even more this season. On a personal note, she is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters of the entire cast.
In addition, to Billy and Max, both Mrs. Wheeler (Cara Buono) and Erica (Lucas’s no-nonsense and precocious little sister, played by Priah Ferguson) were also in previous seasons. Yet, in season 3, they too are allowed to flex their weight as characters. In fact, one of the most poignant scenes of this season occurs when Mrs. Wheeler and her daughter Nancy have a very direct conversation about the role of women and the pitfalls of working in what was still an entire dehumanization masculine-driven workplace. Where this conversation could have felt like a forced political move, the scene feels authentic and needed for both Nancy’s growth into adulthood, as well as her mother’s suppressed feelings of isolation in the home.
As for Erica, well whenever this little bratty sister is given dialogue, she serves as a strong complement to the dorky crew of misfits who make up the original ensemble. Erica steals so much of the spotlight, that her lines are most likely going to be the ones that get quoted long after the majority of fans watch the season finale. One line in particular is so spot-on perfect, many of you who haven’t seen the show might already have heard it! Don’t be surprised if “Erica” becomes the new patriotic name to give a child for the rest of 2019 and into 2020!
Another big addition to the cast is Robin (Maya Hawke). At first, it seems like she will be Steve’s new co-working sidekick for scenes where he is stuck at his mundane post-secondary job. But, Robin’s character becomes quickly embedded into the mysteries, riddles, and brain-twisters that make season 3 such an inviting storyline. And with Jonathan and Nancy’s romance still seemingly strong (much to the chagrin of the Steve-and-Nancy shippers out there), Robin appears to be the new possible love interest for Steve throughout season 3. This subplot goes into another area where this season gets bigger, but again, I cannot divulge this major revelation without spoiling a great ending to the Steve-and-Robin season 3 narrative.
But season 3 did not just get bigger by the cast and by the setting. No, like all great spectacles, season 3 decides to get bigger with even more CGI-induced action. Now anyone who knows me knows that I have a great disdain for the role of CGI in both the world of television and film. Too expectedly, CGI has watered down some great narratives, where the emphasis is placed more on pleasing the lowbrow fanbases with generic and meaningless “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” of computer graphics, rather than with complex narratives and witty dialogue. Yet again, the CGI of this season is both breathtaking and thrilling. The razzle-dazzle brought to the screen does not really up the effects for just cheap thrills, rather they augment the acting of the characters and the power of the unfolding questions and puzzles.
So yes, bigger is better! And for once in a franchise, that is refreshing!
Notwithstanding, Stranger Things 3 still has enough of everything you probably loved about the first and some of the second season. Mike and Eleven are still exploring their budding romance; Eleven is still a bad ass with powers any sci-fi nerd wished they possessed; Will is facing his usual hardships that become even more complex yet thankfully a tad less tortuous than before; Dustin is still a fan-favorite–he might even have a love interest finally; we get some good ole-fashioned Dustin-and-Steve scenes who seem to be the dynamic duo that most fans adore watching together; Hopper is finally experiencing the adventurous joys of raising a teenager (something he missed out on due to the traumatic death of his daughter); and all the while we are treated to the classic Cheers-like Sam-and-Diane will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Hopper and Joyce Byers (made even more obvious by direct references to Cheers in the show).
All of this leads to a season finale which is pitch-perfect in its delivery, its closure to the major questions posed throughout the season, as well as its classic cliffhanger ending to set up the next installment of this beloved franchise.
And as I turned off the television set and settled into the realization that I would probably have to wait a year or more for the next season of Stranger Things, I am left with the feeling that each new season is in good hands, and that this show has the unlikely chance of actually making it to the ultimate series finale without disappointing the masses (I hear the next season or the fifth will probably be the end). And let’s be honest, that is a hard feat to achieve in today’s ever-so-critical world. So, like the most famous line from the most disappointing Godfather Part III states, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
Rating: 3.5 out 4 stars
My 3 Favorite Episodes of Season 3:
- “The Sauna Test”- Ep 4
- “The Bite”- Ep 7
- “The Battle of Starcourt”- Ep 8
**Side-note: Speaking of the ever-so-critical world, there was one aspect of this season where the show dropped the ball. The great score from the first season is rarely used and it would have heightened the emotional impact of certain important scenes. I kept waiting for that captivating score that opened season 1 to come in and level up these episodes. Instead, this season focused more on implementing a classic 80’s soundtrack, which, though the songs can carry emotional weight, just did not feel like the same homage to the 80’s as the traditional score had conjured. Still, this is a minute and personal gripe. The season survives without it. Heck, that can even be another stunning achievement in itself.