I’ve avoided posting this review for a long time. If my YouTube channel “Planet Calvin” has become known for anything, it is my Stranger Things theories. The show captivated me when I first saw it in 2016 and has stuck with me ever since. I loved the first two seasons, but upon finishing season 3, I was struck with a feeling I never expected to feel toward Stranger Things, not hate, not even disappointment, just “Meh.” I didn’t like it.
Then I tried to figure out why I didn’t like it, I wrote this review and never ended up posting it, because who wants to throw dirt on their favorite show? Then I stopped making theory videos on YouTube because, well damn, season 3 really didn’t leave any loose ends beyond “Is Hopper Still Alive?” which would’ve been the shortest theory video ever considering we never saw him actually die, and we now know he is still alive, so yeah, no loose ends. Anyway, here is my Stranger Things Season 3 review 1 year, 3 months, and 8 days late, not that many people were going to read it anyway, LOL
First of all I just want to say that I’m not here to dump on Stranger Things, it’s my favorite show and it still is… even after a somewhat lacking or incomplete season 3. In this review, I will discuss my slight distaste for Season 3 with direct comparisons to the previous seasons. As far as how I would rate each of the seasons to this point, I would rank them in order of release, 1, 2, and 3.
Now I’m not dragging the Duffer Brothers because they tried new things, I really didn’t have any problem with any creature-related stuff in season 3, regardless of how strange it is that the Mind Flayer would need household chemicals to help transform human hosts into a mutant monster, I don’t mind that at all. What I don’t like about season 3 is just how different it feels from the previous 2 seasons, and it’s so different it almost feels like the show was made by completely different creators.
The best way I can describe my gripe is how the shows focus seems to have pulled away a little bit from Eleven. While the two previous seasons centered around her, season 3 really doesn’t seem to feature Eleven as the main character like it once did. There is no sense of her internal struggle, even if you consider her conflict with Mike and their brief breakup, it all feels so surface level as if we are seeing her logic entirely from an outside perspective or just from Mike’s perspective.
And because all of Dr. Brenner’s scenes were cut from season 3, it’s like Eleven isn’t even concerned about him anymore.
Eleven is not the main character in season 3, and I would argue that depowering her was just another way to push her into the background. While many fans would anticipate seeing Eleven level up like she had in previous seasons, this season features Eleven level-down, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it seems like this kind of power-related struggle would have been much more satisfying had it happened mid-season and she had to overcome it by the end of the season, even if that meant she had to go visit her mother and get some kind of sensei-like tuneup before arriving to save them at the last minute.
But Eleven’s lack of abilities would have completely prevented her from entering the void again and thus she would not have greater access to a more alert version of her mother. So maybe they could’ve had Kali show up in Hawkins to give Eleven another power lesson and maybe hang around to help take down the monster. But based on how the season turned out, it seems like the only real reason they de-powered Eleven was to prevent her from seeking out Hopper in the void and realizing he is still alive in a Russian prison-cell.
The best way I can describe why season 3 feels wrong is that Eleven does not have a single flashback in the entire season. The only thing that is remotely close is when she touches Billy in the void and sees an ocean-side montage of Billy’s entire childhood. I’ve never cared for Billy’s character so I can’t say I’ll miss him going forward; It’s not that there is no value in humanizing a villain and giving them a chance to redeem themselves, it just seems like Billy was not worthy of such a redemption.
If you look at the setups for Eleven’s flashbacks in season one, again and again, she was going about her day when she sees something that jogs her memory and we are instantly brought back to a similar memory in her past. These flashbacks were so well set up and so eye-opening I would argue they are what elevated Stranger Things season one from a satisfying glimpse of 1980s horror into the cult phenomenon it became. As great as the story and characters were, it was these brief glimpses into the main characters past, that fleshed them out so well, while also giving us an immediate understanding of how that character is feeling in that moment. Hopper even had moments like this in season one also, setting up his flashbacks to Sarah. I feel that this is the clearest indicator that Eleven and Hopper are meant to be the show’s main characters. It’s not that you can’t grow the cast and flesh out more characters, but I would argue that you never want to do so at the expense of your main characters, which is exactly what happened in season 3.
But we can’t forget that season one also featured flashbacks from Joyce and Jonathan, so it’s not like Hopper and Eleven are the only characters who can be given the flashback treatment, but I don’t think a single character had a flashback in season 3, even to the time between seasons, outside of a brief glimpse of Bob and Joyce on the couch(which was… Winona Ryder’s idea anyway), the only other flashback we get in season 3 is when Eleven picks up the Lucky Charms box and gets a quick glimpse into a season 2 flashback we’ve already seen, a quick flashback to the rainbow room in Terry’s dream circle, which reminds her that she can steal memories if she touches people in the void, you know, when they don’t immediately turn to smoke, which then leads Eleven to seek out Billy in the void and enter his dream circle flashback on the beach.
Even if you wanted to say that by season 3 Eleven’s past wounds had healed and she moved past her trauma, season 2 provided a perfect template at how this flashback structure could be kept as the show moved forward. No longer were these flashbacks used to show traumatic memories, but positive memories which helped fill in the gaps between season 1 and 2. Many of these memories were kind of sad, but some were also very nice and helped flesh out Eleven’s connection with her new father figure Hopper. And this lack of meaningful flashbacks is one reason why I feel like Eleven has been pushed to the sidelines. And the worst part is, that I can think of at least one season 3 deleted scene, that would have made a perfect flashback.
Sometime after Mike and Eleven break up, perhaps during the scene when Max and Eleven visit the local pool in episode 3, as Eleven is looking at the bulletin board, she could have glanced over to the pool water, then they do the typical zoom into her face and flashback to earlier in the summer when Mike and Eleven sneak into the pool at night and Mike teaches Eleven how to swim. This was a scene that was shot for season 3, but they ended up cutting it for some reason. Now we would know that Eleven is on a mission to find this missing life guard, but we also get a glimpse into her past while also gaining an understanding of how she is currently feeling. And the flashback would end when Max walks over and snaps her out of it, bringing her back to the task at hand. Eleven misses Mike, and still has feelings for him, this would make her eventual olive branch (candy offering) to Mike two episodes later much more convincing. This would also help to remove the distance from us to Eleven’s thought-process and would also lessen the unintended consequence that all of this drama is being perceived from Mike’s perspective.
Another massive problem with the season is that the cast is just too bloated now. The fact that Mrs. Wheeler and Billy had a potential romance in season 3 that ultimately went nowhere, really begs the question of why it was even included. I’m actually kind of shocked that a season… so full it had to push out Dr. Brenner… left in a plot line about Mrs. Wheeler. This is why season 3 felt like season 2.5. So this is what they’ve been doing every summer between each season.
I would argue that Jonathan and Nancy really don’t have a place in this show anymore. The original template of the show called for 3 storylines, Kids, Teens, and Adults, but now that Steve has fractured off into his own group, there are now two groups of teens, the kids… who are basically teens now also and the adults, which is why I think Jonathan and Nancy were stuck in the kids group during season 3, because they are essentially the same group now.
I think it’s time that Nancy moved to New York to go be a hot shot reporter and Jonathan went to NYU and is relegated to the worried older brother calling home from college on a payphone to see if everyone is okay, only to show up at the end when everyone needs a hug during winter break or something. They now feel redundant and I wish that weren’t the case, but I just don’t see what they have left to offer the show at this point.
They should both be high school seniors in season 4, so hopefully they aren’t forced into this story for much longer, especially considering that Steve and Robin are a much more charismatic alternative to Jonathan and Nancy and have already graduated from high school.
All that being said, I’m absolutely positive that Jonathan and Nancy are going to spend all of Season 4 spreading the word about their grass roots Action For Truth group, which is going to eat up half the screen time in season 4, culminating in another 30 second news report that ultimately changes nothing in the overall plot.
As bloated as season 3 was with new characters, I actually wouldn’t mind giving some other characters the same type of introspective flashbacks that Eleven and Hopper get, but you could definitely over do it. So I would say that, outside of the standard Eleven and Hopper flashbacks, they could alternate between two side characters that have a flashback every season. I don’t care, give Dustin a moment like this, like flashing back to his time at camp with Suzy so you don’t have to introduce Suzy at the worst possible time. The scene with Dustin’s girlfriend singing really drove the final nail in the coffin for me, regardless of how funny it might be, it felt like the wrong moment and dissolved any of the tension in the scene.
Not every character has to play a role in stopping the threat. This is actually kind of my biggest problem with season 3. I know it seems like something… out of the Lord of the Rings, where every single friend they make along their journey comes to their aid in their time of need and that’s great and everything, but it’s getting to be kind of ridiculous. Season 2 was enough of a stretch, having all the kids distract the demodogs so Eleven could be free to close the gate, fine whatever, okay, but season 3 seems like the breaking point. It’s like one long relay race of character contributions, each cast member helping all the way to the finish line. In retrospect it looks like they did this just so people wouldn’t say some characters were left out, but if that happened, you know what that would be, realistic. In season one, if Hopper hadn’t sold out the kids at the school, they would have just stayed in hiding and ate pudding, and even though that’s boring, it doesn’t mean they have to show it.
It is okay for characters who had screen time and lines to be absent and play no role in the final showdown. Not everyone has powers and that’s okay, and I know you want to show that you don’t need superpowers to stick up for your friends, and that’s great, what a fine message. But enough already, it’s getting to the point where these kids are so used to fighting monsters that there is almost no tension in their group anymore, and they feel free to make New Coke references while Eleven is getting her leg patched up. They broke into a grocery store, and they’re just lingering there, stealing things, oh and there is a big monster after them also, and they’re not even on edge, there’s no tension at all. These characters are invincible. They don’t even seem to get minor injuries, outside of Eleven and the punching bag Steve.
There is also something to be said for how season 3 undermines the competency of the Russian antagonists by allowing four kids to easily sneak into the underground facility and easily sneak back out again. I can’t imagine that these kids could have snuck into Hawkins Lab with as much ease as they had sneaking into a secret underground base, which should have had much higher security.
And it’s like they tried to compensate for this competency-draining by having the Russians beat up Steve, which helped I guess, but not enough. The Russian general guy was not imposing enough. There was no Dr. Brenner-level threat within the Russian group and the show suffered for it. I guess you could say that Terminator-hitman guy filled that role, but it wasn’t the same.
Maybe the biggest problem with the season is the sabotaging of Hopper’s character. Having Hopper be the one to betray his own step-daughter by having him threaten Mike to stay away from Eleven is just a weird decision. You might say it’s no different from when Hopper betrayed Eleven in season one, giving Brenner her location at the school in order to gain access to the Upside Down to save Will, but that was before he adopted her. He has now lived with her for a whole year and a half. He has bonded with Eleven now and would most likely never betray her trust. So the writers decide to have Hopper become jealous of Eleven. Hopper is upset that he and Joyce can’t have what Mike and Eleven have. Then at the end they have Hopper’s note explain that Mike was taking Eleven away from him in the same way that his real daughter had left him and he couldn’t let that happen.
If the goal was to disrupt Eleven’s happiness it should have come from an external force like Dr. Brenner, etc. Not that Mike had to be involved in any way with her unhappiness. Based on how hard Eleven fought to see Mike again in season 2, it’s incredibly unlikely she would actually dump Mike like she did in season 3. They could have had Eleven fear for Mike’s safety around her and have her be the one to distance herself from Mike. Maybe Eleven began having trouble controlling her powers and almost hurts Mike. This would have accomplished a similar thing and would not have been so drama-for-drama-sake.
Season 3 wasn’t entirely uneventful, but it felt like by the end of it, they had to make it feel like something big had happened, so they faked Hopper’s death to make the season feel more crucial to the story overall. Ultimately the season falls flat for me,
In conclusion, Season 3 was too jokey, too overstuffed, too drama-for-drama-sake, and went a long way to betray the genuine characters who were so well fleshed out in the previous seasons. There is still hope for season 4 however. The benefit of having a lack of significant plot developments in season 3 is that there are plenty of plot elements left over from season 1 and 2 that can be picked up on in season 4. I still have not rewatched season 3 after first binge-watching it, so it’s possible I might appreciate it more on a second viewing, but given the time it would take to sit through all those episodes, I think I’d rather rewatch season 1 or 2 instead.
I get that this is coming across as kind of mean, and I don’t mean to insult the Duffer Brothers. Season 3 genuinely feels like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Maybe they were taking a few too many suggestions from cast members. A unified vision is always important and if you don’t know when to push back on suggestions pretty soon the entire season is full of characters who have too much screen time. I still don’t see why Dr. Brenner’s scenes were cut. Surely Netflix has enough money to pay for an additional episode or two. And why does every episode need to be the same length? It’s a streaming platform, it’s not like you have to squeeze in commercial breaks. You have our attention, take all the time you need.
This basically concludes the review. I do have some ideas about how I think Season 4 will probably play out and what I would like to see, kind of a season 4 wish list, which I might post or will most likely make a video about instead.
I’d be interested to hear if you still feel the same way about Season 3 after you’ve read my review of it. I had to delete my comments section due to spam so hit me up on Twitter or YouTube.