By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
As I write this I have just literally finished my two day binge of Stranger Things season 3 and my God, what a rollercoaster it was.
By the time you read this you will know what the shock ending was but to be fair, I sort of gathered that it was coming. It’s like frigging Walking Dead and teenagers having sex in the Friday the 13th movies; one sniff of a happy ending and the universe rips your soul right out. It’s no secret I was openly crying by the end of this. It is so beautifully written not even a stone can fail to be moved.
I found season two a bit up and down and could skip through certain parts but within the first two episodes of this season I was hooked.
The Duffer brothers have capitalised on what fans loved last year, what worked and what didn’t. This year’s eight episodes have been so tight and so structured that it is obvious they had a lot of fun with this year.
We have three separate storylines dividing our heroes but sending them all on the same collision course to the shocking climax.
There’s no point in saying the cast are great because they are. There isn’t a single poor performance and everyone is on the mark getting stronger with every year. Add in brand new characters including Robin, the show’s first gay character. It feels such a natural progression because spliced in with all the horror is a gorgeous coming of age story.
I could fully identify with poor Will as he realises that his friends now like girls and Dungeons and Dragons is not the focus any more of their nights and weekends. I loved the subtle undercurrent that suggested Will may be gay when Mike tells him it’s not his fault Will doesn’t like girls. But is it because Will is scared of being left behind or the fear of growing up and facing the big bad world?
Mike and Elle are madly in love as are Max and Lucas. Even Dustin has a new brainy girlfriend Suzie whom he met at science camp. Steve learns about himself through Robin and grows up to become a hero while Hopper and Joyce get closer. The kids are more honest about how they feel than the two adults which is a joy to watch. By bringing back Murray (Brett Gelman), we get to enjoy Hopper and Joyce’ sexual tension put out in the open by Murray’s bluntness and chastised like a couple of kids.
The world is ending and Hopper is being a big man baby because Joyce stood him up for dinner.
Murray is a breath of fresh air this season as he gets right into the action and gains a new friend in the shape of Alexi, the Russian scientist helping open the Gate again and triggering the rise of the Mind Flayer once more.
But I get ahead of myself. What Stranger Things does so well is use the 80s background but weave a story about childhood innocence amid events outside the realm of normal. Season three is not different.
We have nods and homages to Aliens, The Blob, The Thing and Invasion of Body Snatchers as well monster movies that sit side by side with classic 80s tunes like ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’ Setting it all against a background where malls were on the rise and killing local high street stores is so well weaved that it gives us a tapestry of the times.
We also get the epics 80s battles that spawned Rambo and Arnie in the 80s with evil Russians. This time round the Russians have been able to build an underground base below the new Starcourt mall in order to reopen the Gate to the Upside Down. It’s underdog Hopper versus the Russian killer machine just as Rocky faced the expressionless man mountain Drago in classic 80s style.
They’ve gotten a foothold thanks to corrupt Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes) who plays the perfect slimy official and one obstacle that Hopper loves to beat the crap out of. All he sees is money and power completely ignoring the threat to the town of Hawkins.
It’s a great mix of characters that hit the most horrific season of Stranger Things yet. The Mind Flayer is back and powered by the Gate opening begins to infect the townspeople in the most horrific of ways. But the plan is simple; kill Elle then kill everyone she loves along with everyone in the world. The doorway to Hell is opening and Hawkins is Ground Zero.
For me, evil works best when it hides itself in normality to rip our lives apart. Stranger Things does it exquisitely without sheering away from anything.
Those initial scenes with exploding rats the Mind Flayer uses to build its body are gross enough but when it summons all the infected humans, they dissolve and are absorbed into it which is both graphic and terrifying. Seeing characters like the lovely pensioner Mrs Driscoll being murdered make it personal because we all know someone like her. She could even be your granny. Mind Flayer loose in our world is a stunning sight. Its hatred of Elle drives it. When it wipes out the Holloway family, it is sickening as we see Heather Holloway dissolve and become part of its body, We see her father Tom melt to form another monster along with co worker Bruce. There is no saving them demonstrating the ruthlessness of the Mind Flayer. This is true horror from the citizens dissolving to a rabid Mrs Driscoll eating fertiliser to Nancy and Jonathan being attacked in a hospital littered with dead bodies. These images are stuck in my head and although reflected in other movies and shows there is something unique here when Stranger Things does it.
Mind Flayer’s return is nicely telegraphed by Will whose hurt at his friend’s being leaving him for girlfriends is quickly put to the back burner when he realises that they have a battle to fight once again. This gives him a maturity that is not based on hormones as they face down the new threat.
Dustin, Steve, Robin and the new standout performance of Lucas’ sister Erica as part of the nerd team is one of the best aspects of this series. She sees them all in a new light including her brother. Just as Steve and Dustin were the sudden hot couple of season two, now we can add Eric into that duo. Every line is great and young Priah Ferguson is brilliant holding them all in check. Similarly new character Robin, Steve’s fellow gay employee is wonderful. Remember being gay in the 80s was still a big thing with shows like Dynasty making gay characters at the forefront of the show and the prejudice was still strong. Robin’s admission to Steve is heartfelt and beautifully accepted and played down just as it should be. Without Robin Steve and Dustin would not have been able to decipher the Russian code and Steve could not have made his emotional journey to become more adult. I love how Stranger Things echoes life and keep bringing new people into our group that help expand and grow them individually. Maxine teaches Elle about boys and how to handle them when they lie. Nancy stumbles on the story of the century while facing sexism in the workplace, something I remember Quantum Leap did brilliantly by placing Sam at the receiving end of it. It is this Lois Lane drive that gets her and boyfriend Jonathan fired as the Mid Flayer claims more victims including the reporters that belittled her. The scene in the hospital where Nancy and Jonathan battle and defeat her possessed newspaper boss Tom Holloway (Michal Park) and reporter Bruce (Jake Busey) is a great metaphor for women’s equality in the work place. Even Nancy’s heart to heart with her other Karen Wheeler (Kara Buono) in which she discovers her mother is repressed is a perfect reflection of the role of women and why television characters such as Alexis, Krystal, Sue Ellen and Angela Channing were so important as they showed women such as Nancy could be powerful in a male dominated environment.
Even Hopper’s and Joyce’s repressed love for each other are timeless themes that are so well written here that you want to punch the reporters right in the face. I hope we see Nancy in the position of running the paper next season.
In reflection this is a season about change and not to judge someone by how you see them. Change is inevitable as we see by Joyce’s flashbacks to the death of Bob Newby. We loved him so much to be reminded of his death is as powerful now as watching it in season two. Joyce’s plans to move away with her sons to another city are yet another part of the change. As Hopper’s final speech shows that is life. Inspired by the change that his daughter is discovering boys scares him but then doesn’t change do that to us all? The future is not in stone and life has thrown us all curveballs that set us on paths we never thought of and took us to places that we never expected. We hope for a smooth ride but bumps will happen. It is how we deal with them alongside those around us that will define us in the end.
As with Billy, the token villain is as much a victim as anyone else. He is forced by the Mind Flayer to infect others against their will and while it would be standard to label him as a villain, it’s much more than that. Trying to seduce Mrs Wheeler just for the hell of it shows Billy had no compulsion and deserved what he got. It is Elle who sees Billy’s pain when his father’s abuse of his mother forced her away leaving Billy behind. It is the loss of his mother that set Billy on the path where he is a figure of hate. So he’s just lashing out at the world explaining why he didn’t treat his sister kindly. Billy is just a little boy wanting his mother and it is this pain that saves the day and brings back his humanity. He is killed saving Elle and this act makes him someone we will mourn because we got to see behind the veil.
That is how this season has been structured all along; three separate paths that are all connected, heading to the truly exciting climax. Even as evil is about to succeed, we get yet another character that adds to the mix and provides the key needed for Hooper and Joyce to save everyone.
Amidst the horror of the Mind Flayer controlling Billy so he sets Elle before it to devour, we get a musical with Dustin and Suzie duetting Never Ending Story which is actually heartwarming and a moment of delight just before tragedy strikes. It also reminds us that light will always shine in the most horrific situations life throws us into. Similarly with the nurse on the hospital station gossiping on the phone as people are murdered around her. It keeps us grounded that people will still be people no matter what and we can laugh as Nancy is trapped by the Mind Flayer and Jonathan is nearly beaten to death.
Change sometimes means losing people along the way. It is the loss of both Billy and Hopper that makes the final fifteen minutes so heartbreaking that I couldn’t help myself and sobbed. Joyce takes the boys and Elle to another city leaving a trail of promises that they will come for Christmas and Thanksgiving. However when you get to my age you realises promises are unintentionally empty and contact is lost no matter how good your intentions are. You lose contact along the way as new people and places come into your life. But it doesn’t mean those experiences you had with your best friends are devalued. Those times as a kid shape who you are, they form bonds that will stretch across decades and sometimes, just sometimes, change is the best thing that could happen to you.
The seeds are set for a very different season four. Elle has lost her powers battling the Mind Flayer and there is still a secret base under the mall. The deaths are now part of a conspiracy theory so will that bring crackpots to the Hawkins? Will they track Joyce and her family down to bring up bad memories? Is the threat of the Mind Flayer really gone? How will Maine cope following Billy’s death? The team is scattered after the three month time jump leaving so many cards up in the air. Who will replace Hopper next season?
But then again, will we shift to Russia to find the answers following the Marvelesque post credits sequence? Could it be that something else happened in the exploding chamber that we didn’t realise? Do we have a flicker of hope in the Russian prison of Hopper being alive after all?
I could easily make this review a ‘this is what happened in season three one’ which is pointless. You guys have watched it and hopefully loved it. I hope you cried along with me and been reminded of situations from your life that are reflected in this season. I fell in love with these characters so much mire this year. I wrote the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues books to be storytelling with a heart. I wanted the reader to identify with something in the stories despite the time travel and aliens and monsters. I hope that if I have done that half as well as the Duffer brothers have with this season of Stranger Things then I will be a happy man.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.