The Thrills Get Even Better, Weirder and Deeper in ‘Stranger Things 3’

In its spectacular third season Netflix’s “Stranger Things” becomes something more thrilling. Atmosphere and mystery still drive its story, but as it shimmers with ’80s nostalgia the characters are growing up while love and loss swirl at its core. Few shows continue to top themselves in this fashion, but creators Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer use a very precise and simple recipe: it’s not really about the monsters. If “Stranger Things” were only about continuously opening portals and dripping monstrosities munching on humans, then by now it would be mere, boorish rehash. But like most masterful science fiction, the fantasy channels instantly relatable themes.

We’re now in the summer of 1985, 4th of July weekend. The small town of Hawkins, Indiana is undergoing a major change with the arrival of the Starcourt mall. Mom and pop shops are closing as everyone flocks to the massive shopping hub, including our heroes who are eager to catch “Dawn of the Dead.” Just how is everyone doing this summer? Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is still dating Eleven or “El” (Millie Bobby Brown) but isn’t doing the best job as a boyfriend, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are also still a thing. Returning from science camp is Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who claims to now have a long-distance girlfriend named Suzie, a Mormon from Utah who is “hotter than Phoebe Cates,” but the gang is skeptical. In the adult sphere Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is thinking of moving the family, especially with her business feeling the hit from the rise of Starcourt. This is not good news for smitten police chief Jim Hooper (David Harbour), who likes Joyce. Meanwhile Nancy (Natalia Dyer) slaves away getting coffee at the Hawkins Post, taunted by sexist male executives. At Starcourt, Steve (Joe Keery) isn’t doing so hot himself serving ice cream, but Billy (Dacre Montgomery) gets stares from ladies both young and middle aged while working as a pool lifeguard. Though all this summer bliss will soon be shattered because the Russians have tapped into the Upside Down with a reality laser, and strange things make their way into Hawkins once more, threatening our favorite gang of heroes.

The Duffer Brothers make no secret that “Stranger Things” owes a lot to certain classic films and TV shows from its story’s time period. The aesthetic and texture are all a lush return to the ’80s, but this season takes it even further. There are sequences that could have been directed by James Cameron or Wolfgang Peterson, and at one point in the finale you will hear a duet of “The Neverending Story.” The Russians are back as the villains, almost a wink to “Red Dawn.” Subtitled scientists open portals and emit secret codes. The Russos have done something akin to Quentin Tarantino’s own borrowing of ’70s grindhouse cinema, they have taken these elements and polished them into elevated drama and glistening art. Action and story are balanced so wonderfully that neither cancels the other out. We care just as much for these characters as for the need to stop the giant, tentacle-swinging monster from devouring the town. 

Each character is given enough space to develop and become familiar, and much of the writing has a unique maturity. Billy is the stereotypical ’80s hot guy, shamelessly inviting Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) to meet him at a motel for a late night tryst, but she has a family after all despite really feeling the temptation. When she tries to explain to Billy why she backed out it’s not melodramatic, but quite serious, even as he is acting strange as strange entities have already invaded his body. While the relationship between El and Mike has the wistful air of teen summer romance, it’s the bond between Joyce and Jim that gets more attention. Still rattled by last season’s events, Joyce is hesitant to give Jim a chance, especially since she still thinks about long gone Bob. True comic relief centers around Dustin’s relationship with the invisible Suzie. In the beginning, he sets up a giant antennae system to communicate with her via radio, keeping his buddies lounging around, hoping to get her transmission. This turns into one of the season’s most enjoyable recurring themes.

“Stranger Things” is a truly faithful revival of an era. The sexual attitudes and social norms of the time are flawlessly captured. When Nancy walks into a newspaper staff meeting the men joke about women’s breasts and call her “Nancy Drew” in a style that seems, thankfully, more alien today. The Russos aren’t necessarily cheering on this kind of behavior, but giving viewers a window or reminder of how much the times have changed. As in the other two seasons the soundtrack is an ’80s immersion, with hits of the era all around. One of many nostalgic tracks, Cutting Crew’s “(I Just Died) In Your Arms” becomes evocative when used to score Karen freshening up for her date with Billy. Starcourt mall is surprisingly one of the show’s greatest production design feats yet. It will rush back memories of when shopping malls were overlords of the retail land, shot with an almost neon beauty and meticulous attention to detail.

The great highlight of this season is the finale, when everything crescendos into a gorgeously-shot, riveting spectacle. By then the gang knows what’s going on with the Russians and are racing to stop multidimensional creatures from overtaking the town, one which barrows into the flesh of El, who is suspiciously lacking in her telekinetic abilities, as Starcourt mall becomes the appropriate site for a titanic battle. Stylistically the final episode is a fantastic homage to films by George Romero, John Carpenter and the original “Terminator.” While the battle rages on at Starcourt, Jim and Joyce infiltrate the top secret Russian compound trying desperately to figure out a way to close the portal that is unleashing chaos. Someone will go down, there will be death and heartbreak mixed with the relief that the world can be saved. Everything has some kind of cost. 

Pop art elevated to a sensuous level, “Stranger Things” delivers its tightest season yet, where the story hurtles along without fluff or missing beats. To be both riveting and moving is an impressive feat, to do it even better in its third season is astounding. Turn up the volume and invite a friend over, this is the kind of entertainment most definitely worth sharing.

Stranger Things 3” premieres July 4 on Netflix.