In the weeks since its July 4th release, Netflix’s Stranger Things 3 has already broken records and gathered many fan theories, analyses, and articles. Coming nearly two years after the 2017 release of Stranger Things 2, creators Matt and Ross Duffer (known as the Duffer Brothers) bring viewers back to the summer of 1984 to a Hawkins that is seemingly on the mend. Citizens flock to the community pool and the newly-established Starcourt Mall with carefree vigor, and summertime finds Eleven and company settling into a routine of make-out sessions, sneaking into R-rated films, and pranking one another.
While this season does usher in noticeably more polished cinematography and a surprising level of visceral gore that the preceding seasons lacked, Stranger Things 3 was only granted eight episodes (while ST2 was granted nine). With a plot that is tasked with following upwards of 15 characters at a time, it's tough in only eight episodes to maintain proper consistency and motivation for each of these characters. Let's examine which characters were developed well this season and which characters were left trailing behind.
10 Steve Harrington: Developed Well
Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) was originally established as the charming but egotistical popular kid who lived a carefree life centered around partying and pursuing Nancy Wheeler. Stranger Things 2 saw Steve's character progress more with the arrival of Billy Hargrove, the abrupt end of his relationship with Nancy, and his newly developed bond with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo).
Stranger Things 3 presents Steve's character with an entirely new set of potential growth opportunities which he takes in stride. With no college acceptances and no career prospects, the former megalomaniac stares down a summer of scooping ice cream in a sailor costume with the deliciously sarcastic Robin (Maya Hawke). Even while faced with a crisis of identity and future, Steve still manages to acknowledge his previous negative behavior, maintain his friendship with Dustin, develop a new bond with Robin, and help take down a villainous Soviet insurgence.
9 Karen Wheeler: Developed Well
Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) finds herself confronted with her attraction to Billy Hargrove, and thus the potential for her to commit adultery. Previous seasons have seen Karen as a one-dimensional maternal figure and little else, so presenting her with desires that lie outside her domestic life allows for a more multifaceted presentation of her character.
Her character's strength grows tenfold as she offers Nancy bracing support and encourages her to trust her instincts, stating, “it’s not easy out there, Nance. This world, it beats you up again and again until... most people just stop trying. But you’re not like that. You’re a fighter. You always have been.” She emboldens Nancy to finish what she started, mirroring her own sentiments toward her marriage.
8 Nancy Wheeler: Developed Well
Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) is intelligent, stubborn, and tenacious. Summer finds her navigating her relationship with Jonathan and establishing herself at her internship with the Hawkins Post in the face of flagrant sexism and harassment from her male superiors. In spite of the rampant misogyny of her colleagues and doubts expressed frequently by Jonathan, Nancy acts instinctually and follows through on her investigation of the virulent rats of Hawkins.
Nancy also form a closer bond with her mother, Karen. Their relationship previously followed the familiar avenue of mother and teenage-daughter strife, but season three finds Nancy opening up to her mother and asking for her advice, which makes for a crucial step in the development of both of their characters.
7 Eleven: Developed Well
This season finds Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) facing unfamiliar territory, beginning with her navigating falling in love for the first time. She must confront Hopper's mistrust and Mike's dishonesty, which leads to a new facet of her characer's development: befriending Max.
Eleven had previously found brief comfort in Joyce Byers, transitionary answers in her birth mother, Terry Ives, and cursory shelter with her fellow Hawkins lab-escapee, Kali. This season, however, presents El with her first genuine female friendship in Max. Max assists in helping El form an identity that does not revolve around her abilities or around the opinions of others (namely Mike), but is entirely her own. With the loss of her telekinetic abilities in the final episode, this large-scale development is bound to continue in season four.
6 Max Mayfield: Developed Well
A brassy and courageous renegade, Max (Sadie Sink) spends season three sustaining her fierce nature and establishing a few new character traits. There is a newfound tenderness in her immediate unquestioned loyalty to El and her empathy toward Billy (Dacre Montgomery).
Max takes Eleven shopping for clothes and provides her with comic books about powerful and multifaceted female superheroes. She encourages El to have some independence and develop her own identity, and she defends El against Mike with a ferocious tenacity, stating "she is her own person, fully capable of making her own decisions." Despite her typical disdain for him, Max also manages to feel some compassion toward Billy in his altered state as seen in her behavior during Billy's final moments in episode eight.
5 Jim Hopper: Not Developed Well
Hopper's past with the loss of his biological daughter has been well established, as has his intermediate development as a surrogate father to El. Season three, however, offers viewers a perpetually agitated and aggressive rendition of Hopper with no actual in-scene one-on-one interaction between El and himself. Hopper first behaves fanatically territorial of El, then for the remainder of the season does not appear to spare her another thought.
Hopper continues on to behave with rabid jealousy toward Joyce. Rather than build on top of previous exchanges between Hopper and Joyce, which ranged from warmly sentimental to supportive and gentle, their interactions become indignant and quarrelsome. The only catharsis for his character comes in the final episode, when El is given the letter that Hopper wrote for her before his apparent death.
4 Joyce Byers: Not Developed Well
Despite her intense attachment to her sons in the previous seasons, Joyce (Winona Ryder) has all but forgotten about them in favor of solving the mystery of the refrigerator magnets. A narrow glimpse into her trauma surrounding Bob’s death is seen in a handful of flashbacks, which appear added as an afterthought as Joyce's loss is never properly discussed.
Rather than exploring the ways in which the continuous upheaval of their household has affected Joyce and her sons, season three follows Joyce as she chases this fixation upon the magnets and has a number of forced and overdramatized shouting arguments with Hopper. The first real interaction between Joyce and either of her children takes place in the final episode of the season, when she embraces Will after the cataclysm at Starcourt Mall.
3 Jonathan Byers: Not Developed Well
Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) is a quietly intense but soft-hearted teenager. He takes great care to attend to the needs of his mom and his brother (working to help support their household, etc). His and Nancy's symbiotic friendship is integral to the plot of both previous seasons, as they team up to find Will and Barbara (season one) and bring down those responsible for the cover-up at Hawkins lab (season two). Season three, however, robs Jonathan's character of any purpose or consistency.
Jonathan dismisses Nancy's brazen mistreatment at the hands of their superiors at the Hawkins Post as “not that bad." He refers to her hunch about the rats and the missing fertilizer as “just some stupid story,” and “too stupid to get fired over.” He displays frequent uncharacteristic exasperation with Nancy, and ultimately does not play any significant role in the overall plot of this season other than being thrown into the role of the naysayer.
2 Will Byers: Not Developed Well
Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) finds himself grappling with the sudden and rapidly shifting dynamic of his formerly tight-knit group of friends. Becoming the sole member of the group that does not have a girlfriend leaves Will clinging desperately to dungeons and dragons campaigns, trying in vain to maintain the interest of his friends.
While Will has previously experienced extreme forms of isolation (being trapped in the upside-down and then having his body inhabited by the mind-flayer), this brief isolation from his friends does not bear the same weight and only serves as a conflict for a short time. Little to no discussion is had about his own trauma surrounding his possession, and he spends the remainder of the season being dragged around as a proverbial drug-sniffing dog for the mind-flayer.
1 Lucas Sinclair: Not Developed Well
Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) is stubborn and occasionally difficult, but ultimately eager to contribute to the group. While he and Mike are often at odds with one-another (over Eleven in season one and Max in season two), season three finds them bonding over their shared "girl problems." Aside from this, however, Lucas is left with very little concrete contribution to the party.
In his minimal amount of screentime, Lucas's character is seen behaving as a lackluster boyfriend to Max and being an inadequate friend to Will (mocking him during the one brief dnd campaign in which Will manages to engage his friends). Aside from his firework contribution in the final episode, Lucas's character arc in season three remained disappointingly flat.