“Stranger Things” in a Strange Land : Review of Season 3
(beware demodogs and spoilers)
Like the corrupting tentacles of the Mind Flayer, Season 3 took a little while to grow on me, but it eventually happened. Here’s how and why.
Context: Season One of Stranger Things was some of the best television I have ever, ever seen, hitting all the right notes in my perfect-target-audience-mind and soul: 80s culture, particularly nerd culture (calling oneself a “geek” in the 1980s would be anachronistic), and 80s movies in particular. Positively brilliant in the way it both paid homage but also subverted the tropes of those movies.
As complete as Season One felt, Season Two did not disappoint me as much as I’d feared it would. S2 still had everything that made S1 great.
Season Three, however, marked a change, and at first I didn’t like it. Hopper and Joyce, especially Hopper, had seemingly been rendered ridiculous comic relief. Ah, Hopper — here was a man who we’d come to know in Seasons One and Two as a tortured grieving father kept going only by (but fanatically kept going by) his need to “save” these new kids, especially Elle and Will, as his surrogate children. Equal parts self-destructive and heroic, admirable and pitiable…but in Season Three, he’s reduced to angry awkward dad tropes, yelling, getting drunk, romantic squabbling, yelling, fights that might as well have a Looney Toons laugh-track, and more yelling. Also lots of shirtlessness (and let’s hear it for acceptance of flabby masculine bodies…I guess?) Joyce, the vulnerable, shattered yet incredibly strong single mom from S1&2 now winds up a one-trick nagging harridan. I was deeply bothered.
Worse, much of the tension and suspense of the first two seasons rested on the believability of the setting. I mean, yes, Demogorgons and dimensional travel and telekinesis, sure, but all inserted into a world that otherwise very much played by the rules of our own, and the protagonists were as vulnerable as we were, and as such we shared in their terror. The stakes felt real, and the scale was small and personal.
Season Three, though, performed a complete WTF on that tone: from the very first scene we have over-the-top evil Russians choke lifting each other and speaking solely in Cold War villain clichés. These were not characters, they were prop villains (contrast that with Elle’s “Papa” from Season One, the complexity of his genuine affection for her combined with absolute psychopathic sadism). And somehow the Commies have built a massive underground lair in America’s heartland, populated by heavily armed uniformed soldiers, who walk around town with impunity in civvies but speaking Russian and toting heavy weapons, for months, and NO ONE FREAKING NOTICES?
The over-the-top starts here and just keeps going. Beat up the mayor in plain sight, with no consequences? Suuuure, why the heck not? And as for the monsters…part of what was so scary about Season One’s demogorgon was, like any good horror monster, we only ever saw little bits and hints of him at a time. Our own imagination was scarier than it could be. The demodogs of Season Two? We didn’t even know there was more than one until mid-season, and the reveal was awesomely frightening. But Season Three? We see the Mind Flayer Puppet in all his gory glory pretty much nonstop, and after all of that HR Giger-ing of mouth tentacles and flesh melting, we get…well…kind of accustomed to it. We’ve gone from Steven King to Splatterpunk. By contrast, in saving the “soldiers vs. demogorgon vs. Elle slugfest” until the end of Season One, you could forgive the waa-hoo-ness of that massive set piece because it was a climax you’d been building to, begging for, all season…this season, we didn’t get dread or terror, we just got horror, shown through set piece after set piece. It was like a diet of all dessert, sweet but not satisfying.
And my last complaint…the fight scenes! Dear lord, the characters became laughably limitless in their capacity to take horrific physical abuse (Hopper, Jonathan, Steve and Elle in particular) and just come back as if nothing happened in the next scene (except maybe some bloody bruises), when by all rights they should be paraplegic at the very least? And they would have been, had this been Season One or Two.
The moments when the show still felt real and grounded were generally scenes involving the kids. Still well-drawn, still well-acted, and the well-worn trope of “getting older and the band is breaking up, feeling the tension between childhood and adolescence” felt no less real for its trope-i-ness. Some of those moments, some of that dialogue, seriously could have come from the lives of my own role-playing club friend group. (MRC forever, btw!)
And, surprisingly, Billy, who was so damned hateable in Season Two, was consistently pitiable as a villain this season; I didn’t think the show could make me feel pity for him, but it did. The single most powerful moment of Season Three, for me, came when Billy turned and faced the Mind Flayer’s monster, standing between it and Elle, in a clear recapitulation of the scene when he was a boy and interposed himself between his abusive father and his mother. “Don’t hurt her!” Both of those moments captured the nobility, and the futility, of that act so beautifully, and it actually brought tears to my eyes…from the character I would have absolutely least expected to provoke them. The Christ imagery was just icing on the cake (long hair, cross around his neck, dies being crucified by the tentacles, etc…).
My other favorite moment was when Robin comes out to Steve in the bathroom. It was a twist that I only called a few seconds before it happened, and Steve’s response was amazing. Here is (yet another) girl who broke his heart, who is revealing herself as gay in an era when to do so carried immense risk, and you see a momentary flicker of confusion and pain in his face before, skipping only half a beat, he says, “Tammy wasn’t so hot, she didn’t deserve you.” That was the second most noble act of the season, and once again from a character who (at least for most of Season One) was an antagonist…and who for most of Seasons Two and Three was both punching bag and punchline. Steve remains, I think, the most interesting character in the series, even though he’s often used only as comic relief.
These two moments were enough to convince me that the writers hadn’t all been lobotomized this season, and made me force myself to reconsider my impressions of Season Three as a whole…
….and eventually I think I finally “got” what they were trying for.
Season Three is the season where the show riffs on the tropes specifically from 1980s action movies. Red Dawn, the Terminator, Jon Carpenter’s the Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dawn of the Dead, the Blob (the last three of which did receive remakes in the late 70s, so they sort of qualify)…these were all over-the-top ridiculous premises. Stranger Things took on those tropes, that flavor, while not (usually) sacrificing its core themes. I’m not sure this experiment always succeeded, but I’m willing to accept that was what the writers were trying to do. The homages were too conscious (right down to the position of the red scarring on the Russian “Terminator”’s face) to lead me to think otherwise. So…Hopper and Joyce weren’t poorly drawn by sloppy writing; they were recapitulating Bruce Willis and Sybil Shepherd’s romantic bickering from Moonlighting, something which “Bald Eagle” Paul actually metafictively rips on for quite some time. Besides, with only 8 episodes this season, you couldn’t do a “slow burn” approach … you had to be a little fast and furious (albeit sans Vin Diesel).
Ok, so the “Never-ending Story” sing-a-long was pure fan service. I’m willing to forgive it.
What I was unable in the end to forgive only turned out to be three things:
#1. Product placement. OMG the product placement. The New Coke conversation in particular. The corporate Mind Flayers totally owned this production and it was relentless. Only one thing was more relentless this season, and that was….
#2. The constant. Gratuitous. Strobe. Effects. I get migraines. Seriously, what the hell, Duffer Brothers, are you trying to kill me?
#3. Elle de-powered. It’s an infuriating well-worn trope from comics (the strong females, from Jean Gray to Carol Danvers to Storm…they get neutered…constantly) and one I wanted to see subverted, not just repeated. Elle had better the hell get her mojo back in Season Four.
I suppose that, given the nice consistent through-line all season of the “you can’t stop the progress of time” as a theme, I shouldn’t get too worked up over Stranger Things itself changing its paradigm a bit. (That theme wasn’t just with the kids: it was with the adults, too: Mike’s mom flirts with the possibility of hooking up with Billy before realizing time has passed and she’s in too a different a place in life for random flings. Joyce realizes she can’t hold on to Bob’s memory forever. We end with Hopper’s letter to Elle about accepting that she’s growing up).
Besides, the writers remind us that not all change is bad — one of the final scenes of the season involves Steve and Robin applying to work at the video store, and Steve realizing that his lack of “geek cred” is an obstacle for employment. It’s a nice foreshadowing of what we geeks couldn’t have known ourselves in the 80s, as we were being ridiculed and shunned and beaten up for our nerdly interests….namely, that by the 2000s, what was the province of “geeks” back then would be the CURRENCY of the WORLD. That everyone now has to eat, live and breathe computers and pop-culture as prerequisites for functioning.
Stranger Things, as always, raises a glass to those of us who were “early adopters” — those of us born just a few decades too early to come of age in a culture where our on-screen heroes solved problems with their intellect. That tech geniuses like Tony Stark and Peter Parker would become on-screen heroes for everyone, not just a select few (think about it: Nowadays, Doc Brown and Marty McFly have switched roles, with the “Docs” taking center stage). That, for good or ill, the fate of the world would be decided by people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who trade ideas instead of punches…that the “Russian menace” of today comes in the form of hackers and not Arnold Schwarzenegger types (btw, I love how the mayor and Hopper drop a “he looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger” line at one point). In the original “Red Dawn” and “the Terminator,” it was largely the brawling, fightin’ types that won the day. In Stranger Things, the fightin’ types are there to support the brainiacs who do the real world-saving. Elle’s superpower, remember, is her mind.
A tribute to the days of 80s action films reminds us just how far we’ve left that world behind…that it now looks goofy when viewed through the modern paradigm. We can nostalgically poke fun, because face it, the Cold War is long over, and we geeks won it.
Yeah, this season was pretty brilliant after all. Grade: A