(This review was written after watching all eight episodes of the season.)
‘Stranger Things 3’ opens with a teasing revelation of the ultimate ‘bad guy’ of the third season: the Russians. After all, the season is set in 1985, when much of American fiction was pervaded with hostility towards Russia, thanks to the Cold War.
The year is 1984 and in an obscure lab, a Tesseract-like machine is charging a powerful beam at what seems to be the gate to Upside Down which Eleven closed last season. However, things go horribly awry and the machine, along with some scientists, is blown apart into smithereens.
We learn from the laboratory’s impatient proprietors that this isn’t the first failure the encountered. Much to our alarm, we also find that the facility is nowhere near Hawkins, Indiana, but is in a freezing military base somewhere in Russia.
It’s Summer at Hawkins
We are taken back to Hawkins after the credits.
Unlike last season, the third season of Netflix’s sci-fi horror series, ‘Stranger Things’ was released on 4 July and is therefore set in summer. Summer jobs, swimsuits, sunbathing, summer camp and of course, teenage romance, incline the show in a lighter (literally) direction.
After the credits, Millie Bobby Brown as ‘El’ and Finn Wolfharrd as ‘Mike’ kiss in El’s room, the radio blasting. If the awkward Snowball Dance kiss last season left you uneasy, you’d probably feel better knowing they’ve been practicing, since this routine of theirs has come to give much grief to El’s dad.
Hopper isn’t the only one frustrated. The entire gang, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Will (Noah Schnapp), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are trying to balance their collective interests with the ups and downs of teenhood. Will is especially perplexed, unable to see the appeal of girls (and relationships) when all he really wants to do is play D&D.
Even Dustin has a girlfriend, although no one thinks she is real.
As if drawing parallels with the kids’ sudden tolerance (or should we say appetite) for horror, thrill, and adult-like things that teens want to like, the showmakers have also scaled up the visually terrifying and scream-inducing elements on the show. This season is not for the faint-hearted, though Season 1 and Season 2 do prepare you for some of it.
Exploding Rats, Broken Magnets and a Secret Russian Code
Too taken by the summer, nobody seems to pay much attention to the rats in town going bonkers. They eat fertilisers and explode into a moving blob of flesh and bone.
Everyone, except for Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and her reluctant boyfriend Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton). The two are interns at the Hawkins Post. While Jonathan is happy to be in the darkroom developing photographs, Nancy has to buy burgers for the men in the newsroom and tolerate unsolicited comments they make about her. Classic 80s sexism. (Good old days, right?)
Meanwhile, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) thinks it is odd that the magnets in townnhave lost their power. After a session with the kids’ Maths teacher and a missed date with Hopper, she is convinced that the government or the people from the Hawkins lab are up to something.
Hopper and Joyce set out on a mini adventure, only to find that the newly built Starcourt Mall is hiding a dark secret. These events take a Terminator-esque turn when a Russian assassin targets the two.
Dustin, Steve (Joe Keery), his new summer job partner Robin (Maya Hawke) and Lucas’s sister Erica, are already on to the Russians after Dustin’s cool new radio device picks up a secret Russian code which the kids get to crack. Their curious and resourceful minds lead them to a secret Russian base right in the middle of Hawkins, but unfortunately, they are found out.
If you go back to the last two seasons, what defined the side-quest arcs, was seeing characters develop just through conversation.
Out of Many, One
‘E pluribus unum’ is the American motto printed on most dollar bills. It is Latin for ‘part of many, one’.
It’s ironic how this expression also fits perfectly with the monster out to get El, the gang and everyone else.
We learn that the bit of the Mind Flayer who possessed Will in season 2, was locked in the real world, and has evolved since. After feeding on weaker hosts like rats (yup, the exploding rats), it targets Billy (Dacre Montgomery), Max’s brother, as a primary host, and through him, now controls many of the townspeople, who turn to a mass of flesh and bone at the Mind Flayer’s command. If reading this doesn’t scare you enough, watching perfectly normal people turn into a grotesque blob of flesh, should. Hopefully.
What does, however, get frustrating to watch, is how most of the characters ignore evident signs of ‘strange things’ underway. They remain disbelieving after having spend the previous two seasons hunting inter-dimensional monsters or cracking government conspiracies.
The Season Finale
We have Russians operating a secret base in Hawkins, a Russian assassin who refuses to die, an enormous Upside Down monster controlling the townspeople and El’s limit being tested after fighting the evolved Mind Flayer multiple times.
This is the state of affairs when the young heroes, Joyce and Hopper, walk into the Finale. If you’re expecting a happy ending where every strand of the story is neatly tied into a bow, be warned. The season finale is dark and sometimes, quite painful to watch.
Joyce, Hopper and Murray set out to destroy the ‘key’ in the Russian base below the mall to close the gate. They refuse to put the kids’ lives in danger by dragging them with.
While Dustin and Erica guide them through the different levels of the Russian base they're now familiar with (through walkie-talkies), the other kids are to leave town and seek refuge at Murrays’.
This seemingly perfect plan is thwarted by the untimely arrival of Billy, under the monster’s control. With El’s power gone, the kids literally grasp at straw ends and fireworks to keep themselves alive long enough for Joyce and Hopper to shut the gate, thereby cutting the monster from its actual mind inside the Upside Down.
Down at the base, Hopper finds himself in a final face-off with the Russian assassin, as Joyce scrambles to destroy the key in the control room. Hopper barely manages to win, putting himself right in the line of the explosion when Joyce destroys the key.
Billy’s last minute sacrifice saves El from the monster who drops dead soon, hinting that the gate has been closed. But, at what cost?
Is This the End?
In the true American ‘Fourth of July’ style, the season’s ending is bigger than that of the last: the cost is massive, there are fireworks and it leaves you wanting more... However, for the characters, that isn’t the case.
The final few minutes, set three months after the Starcourt mall incident, give you the sense of an ending. It is hard to imagine how the series will return, now that the Byers are leaving Hawkins along with El. While the group is still emotionally connected, they can no longer be together, with Will moving. Nancy and Jonathan’s yearning hug in the latter’s empty room is heartbreaking.
And El? With Hopper gone, it is only natural that Joyce takes her along with Will and Jonathan. Summer, and along with it, the lives the characters were accustomed to, end.
The post-credit scene, however, takes us back to a Russian facility where prisoners are being fed to a captured Demodog.
Loyalists of the show can’t help but put their faith in this seemingly trifling detail.
‘Not the American.’
Could Hopper be alive and held captive in Russia?
The finale leaves you with many unanswered questions and gives you a lot of room for speculation while you wait for the show’s fourth season, the release date of which is yet to be announced.