Stranger Things Season 3 dropped July 4th to accolades and fanfare- so why didn’t I like it? This Stranger Things Season 3 recap will contain massive spoilers for the season, so be warned!
The opening shot for the season establishes the Red Menace, the nebulous-yet-nefarious Russians driving the season’s plot of a reopened gate and a reassembled Mindflayer. The first shot we have that brings us back to the Hawkin’s gang sets the tone for the rest of the season.
It may have something to do with how young the actors actually are, but I was intensely uncomfortable watching Mike and El’s extended make outs which seemed to go on for a lot longer than plot necessary. Millie Bobby Brown is 15. She was likely 14 during filming. There’s a reason why many of the sex-laden high school comedies involve Dawson Casting with late teen and twenty-somethings. But Kat, you’re being a prude. Nothing happens. As Joyce points out, “they’re just kissing.” Possibly it was shot in this way to put us in Hopper’s shoes. Generally the overprotective Dad trope is overused and unsympathetic. We’re grossed out, he’s grossed out, we’re all okay when the gives Mike an extremely cliched hypermasculine talking-to.
This is important because it established a pattern that continues over eight episodes. Even from the beginning, we have a problem that began in season 2 turned up to- well, eleven.
Who are the main characters in Stranger Things Season 3?
Well, let’s recap.
Season One was so popular because even though the main plot revolved around a magical girl living in a Stephen King-esque small town, the focus was on a small group of kids. Their friendships, personal struggles, and reactions were the thing that sold us. The teenagers were secondary. The adults were tertiary. They were the outsiders, not quite of this ‘special world.’ We all knew if we were the Lucas (grounded realist), Will (the sensitive), Mike (reluctant leader), or Dustin (overbearing charmer). It was an ensemble, but these four American-style retro nerds captured our hearts. We play D&D. We argue over movies and video games. We dealt with the world’s cruelty and were stronger for it. El, while brilliantly acted, is a plot device rather than a fully fleshed out character. For now, the formula works.
Season Two tried to capitalize on the unexpected popularity of side characters by giving them a promotion. Frenetic and sometimes confusing, the focus jumped from main plots to side plots so evenly that it was difficult to know what was significant and what was not. Rather than feeling suspenseful, the end result was muddled. Kali was the biggest waste of a significant, powered WOC character in recent history. The music was bitchin’ (take our recap flip quiz to remember some bangers), and the cinematography was great, but the plot fell flat. The most charming aspects of the season were the side characters- ones we met just long enough to be interested in but not enough to be sick of: Max and Billy.
Oh season 3. You want every character to be important, to hold a missing piece to the grand puzzle, but it simply doesn’t work. Hopper doesn’t need to use his connections to infiltrate the Russian base when Steve, Robin, Dustin and Erika manage fine on their own. Nancy and Jonathan’s stint at the paper reveals a subplot about rats that is immediately unimportant when El can trace the source using her powers without investigation. Redundant storylines only highlight how desperately the Duffer Brothers juggle storylines- especially those involving the girls.
El breaks up with Mike after he begins avoiding her and lying, due to Hopper’s intervention. She takes this time to bond with Max in what should be the highlight of the series, but isn’t without problems. A second make over scene, really? Is that what you think women do every time they hang out? Kali literally already had this conversation with her last season.
I don’t even want to talk about Max. Her brother is possessed all season and we get zero reflection from her. Acted beautifully, written terribly. How about Lucas, a prominent member of season one and two, who is so sidelined that we don’t even see Max breaking up with him? It simply occurs, off screen, as a side effect of El and Mike.
Platitudes like “women are emotional and men are not,” seem to be a set up for character development. Then, of course, they are played straight. Mike is too embarrassed to declare his love for El except in an argument. Lucas never has a genuine conversation with his girlfriend of over a year. Hopper abandons his heartfelt speech until after his untimely death. Jonathan might well be replaced with a glaring sack of flour. After seven episodes doubting the existence of Dustin’s Mormon girlfriend Suzie, a cute sing-a-long moment is meant to be demeaning and unmasculine.
The sensitivity of the characters- their tears, their emotions are the driving force of Stranger Things.
The boys cried over friendships, over loss, over growing up in a way that still left them bonded. It was a story about being true to yourself despite the odds. Somehow it has turned into a story where Will throwing away his D&D books is a sign of positive growth. These aren’t the nerdy kids we know and love- these are generic strangers who belong in any problematic 80’s era media. Even Steve’s plot becomes less charming when he can only form significant friendships with women if the woman is a lesbian. Robin was a charming, interesting character who deserved more than a decoy love interest slot. Joyce and Hopper deserved better than Deus Ex Machina matchmaker Murray Bauman. Which was a lazy plot device the first time around, actually. That guy was way too invested in letting teenagers screw on his couch.
The male characters dress better. They never pick up a video game or comic book. They are disinterested in playing D&D with Will, or even having a conversation that doesn’t revolve around bashing women or bashing male characters for their lack of women. They completely ignore Dustin. When Will protests, Mike calls him childish for not liking girls. I mean… you and Lucas picked up the only two girls who would even speak to you before? Seems a little mean that you called dibs while Will was sucking up slugs and trying to survive the Upside Down.
In this way Stranger Things Season 3 takes all the nerdy, outsider parts of the characters we identified with and tells us that we were wrong.
It is wrong and it is childish for us to value emotional expression in boys. It’s wrong to value friendships the most- even making it the basis for romance later. It is wrong to be honest. It is wrong to be nerdy. You should have outgrown it.
Maybe we’ve just outgrown Stranger Things.