A film and TV series geek
A still from 'Stranger Things.' (Netflix/File)
Growing up is both exciting and scary. It invites you to learn and experience something new, yet at the same time it forces you to leave the comfort zone where you've been living for a very long time, not knowing what is waiting ahead of you.
At one moment you'll be playing Dungeons and Dragons with your friends in the basement of your house, and a moment later all you talk about is crushes and heartbreaks.
The third season of the Netflix hit Stranger Things holds on to this concept of growing up, confronting the characters to move forward while still clinging to the trauma and tragedy of the summer past. It seems fun at first because we get to see deeper parts of the characters, how their emotions and psychology are adjusted to the inevitability of the passage of time while forcing them to reassess their past in order to make sense of the present. Unfortunately, the Duffer Brothers refuse to let this well-established groundwork mature beyond the repetitive formula that has run drier each season.
It is the summer of 1985 in Hawkins, and the gang is feeling the heat. Mike and Eleven are making out constantly in Sheriff-turned-dad Jim Hopper's cabin, while Max and Lucas are perpetually breaking up, leaving Will on the board game by himself. Will’s neurotic mom Joyce is ready to pack her bag, leaving Hawkins for good in order to make a fresh start. Inside the local newspaper office, Nancy and Jonathan are interning, hoping for their big break. Steve has a job scooping ice cream in a newly built Starcourt Mall with a new character Robin while dealing with Lucas' little sister, the smart and witty Erica.
Of course, it wouldn't be Stranger Things without actual stranger things lurking at every corner of the town.
Dustin, who just gets back from a summer camp, intercepts a cryptic message in Russian, which sets him off on an adventure inside the Starcourt Mall with Steve, Robin and Erica. But Dustin is not the only one who discovers something. Joyce also has her own quest with Hopper after realizing that all the magnets in Hawkins are not working, while Nancy and Jonathan are in their Nancy Drew mode, investigating a diseased rat. All of this eventually converges into one big conspiracy of the show's main mythology, which, thankfully, halts the rather exhausting teenage romance subplot.
The stakes are higher, and the challenges are bigger, yet somehow with all of this big potential, Stranger Things 3 still feels like a drag. The show relies on the same format that we have seen for the last two seasons, which has become dull with its third repetition.
I have to give them props for making this season a lot more fun by infiltrating their dark suspense with a breezy coming-of-age fable, but bigger doesn't always equate with better, let alone deeper. Here lies the main problem in Stranger Things 3: the show is trying too hard to look big and service its die-hard fans by giving them a lot of character moments, yet after establishing their own world for almost three years, the Duffer Brothers still haven't given us any closure on the whole Upside Down mythology, how it connects to Hawkins, and why the hell scientists keep barking on about that world.
All of this feels deeply ironic considering how this season is able to dedicate an entire scene to explaining how electromagnetic forces work, but never once makes an attempt to clarify its own science. But maybe the main purpose of Stranger Things is not to explain those things, maybe all the Duffer bros want to share with us is how fun it is to be a kid in the 80s, and we're just asking for something that was never the intention to begin with.
When it was first online, Stranger Things distinguished itself from other sci-fi shows with its thick nostalgia and endless references to 80s pop-culture, all the while presenting charming characters and focusing on the dynamics between them. The problem is that the show never really thickens its plot with a well-meaning story, and instead just shoves in reference after reference, which has grown more tiresome each season. Of course, the Duffer Brothers care about the characters, but not enough to actually craft emotional moments to keep the audience invested.
We never know how Eleven and Hopper's relationship develops because they are kept apart until the very end, resulting in their final scene that is supposed to be heartfelt yet feels somewhat forced and synthetic.
The most wasted character of the season, however, is Will, who is not given a chance to really shine. With all that he has been through, it seems unfair that the Duffer Brothers largely cast him aside this season. The show never really follows through with his trauma, and instead shoves him into the background, serving only as a monster alarm as he touches his neck the entire time.
Considering how uneven the tone and the storytelling are this season, it feels like Stranger Things refuses to grow up. They keep building an expanding world just to tear it down, without leaving an opportunity for genuine emotional stakes that we saw and loved in the show's inaugural season.
The Duffer Brothers really need to move past this naiveté if they want the show to be remembered as a great sci-fi show with personality beyond the nostalgic references.
If they can let the characters grow up, I'm sure they can build a more mature story for the show and start to map out the deep thesis of the mythology. Despite all of that, Stranger Things still deserves all the kudos in this world for creating a lot of delightful, lovable moments. But if it keeps refusing to pop the bubble and stubbornly stay in its own comfort zone, probably all we will hear next is a whimper. (dev/mut)
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