Even when it’s unabashedly paying homage to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Alien and Evil Dead, Stranger Things 3 is the most self-assured and confident season of the series to date, one that is far more aware its own identity and position in present-day popular culture. Gone are the fits and starts of previous seasons, and in their place comes a gratifyingly kinetic and fluid story, one that offers numerous satisfying arcs with characters engaged in propulsive and entertaining scenarios that play to their various strengths. Most of all, Stranger Things 3 pulls back the throttle on the series’ nostalgia engine. It instead finds all the fuel it needs in the show’s own history, pumped out by the previous two seasons. As a result, the Stranger Things finally becomes the sort of extravagant, exceedingly ambitious adventure spectacle that would have ruled the theaters during the ’80s, instead of a TV series merely obsessed with films from that decade.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Stranger Things 3 unfolds in the summer, just before and during the July 4th holiday, when long school-less days are filled with lasting light and endless possibility, especially for a group of teenagers clumsily feeling their way through adolescence and all its accompanying joys and difficulties. That's particularly true when Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), and the gang, once again find themselves face-to-face with some not-so nice inter-dimensional creatures with a bone to pick with the residents of Hawkins, Indiana.
It may be a bit counterintuitive that the best season of Stranger Things transpires over its characters’ summer vacation, rather than the more thematically appropriate season around Halloween, when the environment is cold and grey, when streets and lawns are blanketed in dead leaves and jack-o'-lanterns decorate front porches. It doesn’t take long, however, before season 3 illustrates why the languid days of summer are the show’s ideal setting: this is the Netflix version of a summer blockbuster, not coincidentally set during a time when summer was still the primary stomping ground for such theatrical spectacles. Stranger Things is also attuned to the particular frequencies of its seasonal setting: the need to be outdoors, the people-watching opportunities at the community swimming pool, the grimy lure of carnivals and festivals, and the air-conditioned commerce contained within the unique biosphere of the shopping mall — one complete with its own cineplex showing Back to the Future, Cocoon, and more.
For the better part of a year, the marketing around Stranger Things 3 has centered on the arrival of the Starcourt Mall. But here it’s not just a convenient place for Eleven, Mike, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Max (Sadie Sink) to congregate and, eventually, discover things are once again not right in Hawkins. Along with Steve’s (Joe Keery) ice-cream-scooping co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke), the Starcourt Mall is really Stranger Things’ newest character. But unlike the instantly likable and charismatic Hawke, the mall is positioned as something of an inanimate villain, Hawkins’s latest monster, borne of unbridled capitalism. It is the town’s very own downtown killing, small-business eating mega shopping complex, one championed by another newcomer, Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes), making him persona non grata among the town’s suffering middle-class.
Netflix sent screeners ahead of time, albeit with a spoiler list a mile long, so there’s only so much that can be revealed about the season. Yes, there is a new monster, and yes there is an additional threat to the people of Hawkins, one that hails from a more idealogical Upside Down and affords the season a chance to tip its hat to a certain piece of campy ‘80s Cold War propaganda by John Milius.
What’s remarkable about the episodes is that, over the course of their easily bingeable eight-hour runtime, Stranger Things 3 is in a constant state of motion. It’s like a carnival ride that never stops and rarely slows down. And yet, despite its adherence to the rule of progression, the season also finds room to develop its characters’ relationships with one another in meaningful and surprisingly poignant ways. Winona Ryder’s Joyce benefits the most, though that may be a result of her not having nearly enough to do in seasons past. Joyce finds greater agency and purpose this time around, beyond worrying about Will and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), or simply waiting for things to happen. Her relationship with David Harbour’s now-mustachioed Jim Hopper morphs into a Maddie and David-style Moonlighting endlessly bickering will-they-or-won’t-they, as the two spend the majority of the season investigating strange goings-on that would have otherwise gone unnoticed were it not for their unique shared experiences with the Upside Down.
Much of the season feels as like it’s putting lessons learned to practical use. That's most evident in how the season is structured and how characters paired off or grouped together in ways that generate the most excitement, humor, and intrigue. Much of that comes from the season 2 realization that Keery is one of the best things Stranger Things has going for it. Here, he’s positioned as a recently dethroned (prom) king, the cool kid who peaked in high school and finds himself the summer after his senior year scooping ice cream for $3 an hour and hanging out with a teenager who still has a lingering attachment to his toys.
But putting Steve and Dustin back together is the rare example of lightning actually striking twice, especially when their quirky energy is supplemented by Robin and Lucas’s ultra-sassy little sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson). The move also keeps Dustin feeling like the odd man out, even though that’s exactly what he is now that Will, Eleven, Lucas, and Max are dealing with more grown-up things like dating the opposite sex. That pairing, and the sense that the two characters find themselves adrift from what was so familiar gives season 3 its most consistent and meaningfully thematic through-line, one that also takes advantage of the degree to which the show’s cast of child actors have visibly become young adults. Voices have dropped, bodies have changed, and Stranger Things uses those differences to its advantage, telling a story about moving forward, fumbling into maturity, and accepting change, all while doing the same itself. Though it may be corny to say, Stranger Things 3 is a chance for the series to grow up (as much as a series about inter-dimensional monsters can). It is when the show and its creators stop trying to be what they admire, and start using more of their own voice, start to find their narrative own purpose.
The season delivers the sort of eye-popping spectacle that not only justifies staying in and watching television during the summer, but also gives viewers a complete and satisfying story that nevertheless leaves the door wide open for season 4. Stranger Things 3 is unequivocally the best in the series, and perhaps the most gleefully entertaining thing Netflix has ever produced.
Stranger Things 3 premieres Thursday, July 4 exclusively on Netflix.