‘Stranger Things 3’ Gets Invaded by the Russians—and More Gore Than Ever Before
The ’80s-set Netflix thriller is getting a bit repetitive in its third go-round. But a tangle of eerie plotlines and some creepy Russian villains make for a perfect summer binge.
It is the summer of 1985 and things are getting exciting in Hawkins, Indiana. A new mall has arrived! Oh, and also the Russians.
The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same in the universe of Stranger Things, which released its third season July 4 on Netflix. Our adorably nerdy group of young protagonists is growing up—it’s been nearly two years since the last installment of Stranger Things, and nothing will make you feel older than seeing how much the show’s teen stars have aged—and starting to learn that life isn’t all Dungeons & Dragons and innocently saving the free world anymore.
Even a large, quintessentially ’80s mall (a sensory overload of nostalgia for viewers of a certain age) doesn’t come innocently. The Starcourt mall isn’t just a haven for Hawkins kids to screen Back to the Future, go on shopping sprees at The Gap, and grab a cone from Scoops Ahoy, where the series’ noble heartthrob goofball Steve, played by Joe Keery, works a hilarious summer job. (Editor’s note: I would die for Steve.) It also happens to be a front for a major Russian operation aimed at reopening the gate to the Upside Down that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) dramatically sealed at the end of Stranger Things 2.
Attempts to crack open the gate have greater repercussions. The Mind Flayer (simply put, he controls your mind) is back with a vengeance in eerie, surprising ways, and there’s yet another epic showdown with a vicious Big Bad. New year, new season (school’s out for the summer!). Same looming threat of impending doom thanks to the Upside Down, its psychological terrorism, and Godzilla-sized monsters.
The repetitiveness is part of the fun of Stranger Things 3.
We’ve been down this road before. Things seem settled and hunky-dory for Will (Noah Schnapp), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), new friend Max (Sadie Sink), and Eleven, not to mention their slightly older counterparts Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and Steve. But as soon as Will feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, it’s clear to everyone that danger lurks again.
Or maybe it’s when the rats start to explode. Or when Joyce (Winona Ryder) notices that magnets stop sticking to metal. Or when Dustin discovers a Russian code coming across his walkie-talkie. Or when another gargantuan spider-like monster with nesting doll-like carnivorous tentacles shows up. Either way, Eleven: You in danger, girl.
There's a comfort to the familiarity of it all: The fun-as-ever ’80s nostalgia permeating everything from the dialogue to the wardrobe to the music to the set dressing and even the series’ tone and inspiration. The rat-tat rapport between these kids, and, especially in this season, Ryder’s Joyce and David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper. The high-stakes thrills, and the knowledge that the second that any main character is in any sort of life-threatening peril, Eleven will show up with her endless array of narratively convenient clairvoyant talents to save the day—all at the expense of a minor nosebleed.
In that sense, Stranger Things 3 is the perfect summer movie. This may be the only case in which one could give credence to the whole “TV shows now are just eight-hour movies” argument, typically a narcissistic justification from an auteur for their art to drag on and on insufferably.
Stranger Things was inspired by those great, familiar ’80s tentpoles, from Steven Spielberg to Stephen King, where tone and mood mattered as much as the spooks and scares. It barely pretends to be episodic, labeling each installment a “chapter” instead and only vaguely concerned with a traditional episodic structure. (While it’s fun to hang with these kids we’ve grown to know and love in the first half of the season, it’s really only in “Chapter 4” that things start to actually get going.) Even the seasons are labeled like sequels: Stranger Things 2 and Stranger Things 3.
To that regard, Stranger Things seems to have mastered the idea that so many franchises seem to miff: When it comes to sequels, fans often just want more of the same.
That’s not to say that things haven’t escalated. The CGI action set pieces are more impressive that I remember from previous seasons. (This go-round’s big battle royale culminates in a fireworks show that would make Macy’s blush with inferiority.) It’s... grosser? Creators the Duffer Brothers seem to really be leaning into the campy gore of the era, and it’s actually a lot of fun to watch.
And, perhaps most importantly, the series and these characters have been around long enough to really earn Stranger Things 3’s grander emotional stakes. That there would be character deaths is inevitable; that’s always been the case with this show. (#JusticeForBarb #AlsoBob.) But there’s a poignancy and a maturation with which these moments are handled this season that elevates this crop of episodes from mere popcorn-blockbuster summer fluff.
There’s something weird happening in Stranger Things 3, where it’s both plottier but also settles into the kind of rewarding TV show where we get to see characters we love just hanging out.
Various plot contrivances splinter the ever-sprawling casts into miniature Scooby gangs that are as random as they turn out to be inspired, allowing more comedy to find its way into the show’s dialogue.
Will, Lucas, Mike, Max, and Eleven are attempting to figure out what’s going on with Max’s brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), whom they fear is under the control of the Mind Flayer and—in a first for the series—may not be alone. Nancy and Jonathan are tracking the mysterious case of rabid rats, and, it turns out, humans.
Dustin and Steve, along with newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) and sass-queen Erica (Priah Ferguson, upgraded to series regular), are on a mission to crack the Russian code Dustin intercepted, which then leads the bumbling amateur sleuths to the secret underground bunker itself. And then there’s Joyce and Hopper, siphoned off in an attempt to understand what the Russians are doing, what they want from the Upside Down, and how to stop them.
It’s honestly a lot to follow, and kind of difficult to as well. So when a certain climax reunites everyone and they have to explain to each other what they’ve been doing this whole time and everyone is confused, it’s very cathartic. And also, on the show’s part, self-aware!
What we’ve told you about the season thus far doesn’t include what we think is its eeriest, most dramatic plot. But it does include oodles of information that Netflix banned us from revealing before July 4, even basic plot points like the Russians are villains (which we learn in the season’s first scene) or the existence of the underground base beneath the Starcourt mall (which is like the whole point of the season). Nothing we’ve written is a major spoiler.
While we scoff at the needless intensity of the spoiler ban, there is a certain aspect to it that we can get behind. When it comes to Stranger Things, what happens kind of doesn’t matter. It’s about the show’s mood. How it makes you feel. The ways in which it takes you back to a different time in pop culture and invigorates today’s landscape through that nostalgia.
There are aspects to Stranger Things 3 that are baffling and illogical. One might wonder how long we’re expected to go through this whole Upside Down rigamarole, over and over again. But then there’s the fun of watching these kids age and deal with hormones, defeating monsters while they’re at it. Or the winking delight for this ’80s-set, ’80s-inspired show to craft a season around Russians as villains. It’s almost too on-the-nose for the period. (And, as it turns out, timely, too!)
It’s a show that doesn’t require anyone be under the control of a Mind Flayer to have a good time. In the summer of 2019, just as it was 34 years ago, that’s just enough.