When Stranger Things initially premiered on Netflix it was greeted with high praise for also serving as a love letter to the 1980s. From the games that were played to the props and gadgets seen throughout the show, everything about it screamed the 80’s. The horror element was interesting as well keeping with a sense of 80’s pastiche. The series now returns for its third season, and the question that came to my mind is, can they continue to come up with something original?
Life has been pretty much quiet in Hawkins IN. The great darkness that initially kidnapped young Will Byers, and then possessed him, has been driven back to the “upside-down” where it came from and the breach has been sealed. The mysterious and powerful young girl, Eleven (or El for short) has been adopted by the town Chief Of Police (Jim Hopper) and fellow adventurer Mike Wheeler is now her boyfriend. In fact, the only true excitement seems to be this new mall that has been built in the town. All of the town’s residents are spending their time at this mall, which is killing all of the businesses in the downtown area. Meanwhile, some unsavory Russians are attempting to open the once closed breach, and they have made their way to Hawkins because they believe that the barrier between worlds is at its weakest there. Can Mike, El, and the rest of their Scooby Gang find out the truth of this new monstrosity attacking the town folk, and stop the Russians at the same time?
The threat that was introduced in season 1 of this series was extremely original, and when it came time to do a season 2 they gave it a somewhat Lovecraftian approach (Don’t tell me that at no time the Mind Flayer didn’t look like Cthulu.) thereby continuing with a very original approach, which also highlighted some intense acting for young Noah Schnapp playing Will Byers. Now the showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer have the daunting challenge of trying to go back to the well a third time, but make it look like something completely different. Lucky for fans of the Netflix series, they managed it with great success.
The returning cast for this series from the second season has grown quite a bit and that gets utilized for this new season of episodes. With actors Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler and Millie Bobby Brown as El, to treat them like young teenagers falling in love was the perfect angle in which to launch this new season. Add David Harbour’s Jim Hopper as the inexperienced and overprotective father to El we now have the perfect grounding for this season, creating an air of believability that carries us from one episode to the next until this new threat starts to reveal itself. Harbour’s portrayal is interesting in that he deliberately comes off as inconsistent. He’s more than competent when in the role of a law enforcement officer, but the moment he has to be someone of a more personal and informal nature we see a man who is an idiot. He shows that he has no idea how to be a father, and it’s this shortcoming in his character that gets in the way of the suggested romance between Hopper and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder). However, it gets played up for comedy, which comes in quite handy given how intense some of the more serious elements in this series. As for Ryder, she’s now playing a woman who has suffered a near double tragedy. She first loses her youngest son to a dark, parallel world, but does manage to get him back only to see him become possessed by the very beast that most likely kidnapped him in the first place. Then she also sees the man that she has been dating get killed during the climactic battle from the second season, so now she is a bit on the frantic side, bordering on paranoia. Even when the magnets at where she works, as well as her home, stop working she immediately suspects some greater threat to her part of the world, and Ryder sustains that near paranoid feeling, tinged with a sadness that can only come from personal loss. As for the kids, they are all very solid in their performances, but the one who shone for me is Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson. He comes off with an amazing sense of maturity in the craft but still manages to pass himself off as only a teenager. He has a delivery during the more lighthearted moments that is incredibly deadpan, making those scenes even funnier. However, he has his moment to shine when he has an opportunity to sing, something young Matarazzo has been doing since he was a young child. The rest of the cast was quite strong in their performances, but for me, it was Matarazzo who pretty much “stole the show.”
Lastly, this series found its footing partially with 80’s nostalgia. This was something that didn’t get much focus in the second season, but this year excelled at it by making the central backdrop for this series the new, local mall. Anyone old enough to remember the ’80s would also remember that this was a heyday for malls and the stores inside. This series made use of an old, discontinued mall in Atlanta GA, and they dressed up the food court area on one end and gave it a polish that made me wish for the 80’s all over again when I would spend hours a day visiting the local mall. Having the mall serve as the final staging area for the battle of good vs. evil was a stroke of genius, adding to an already surprising tone to that very conflict.
The Duffer Brothers have shown that they are not a one-hit-wonder with the first season of Stranger Things. Instead, by giving us a three-season series with an original premise and setting, and with each episode having an almost cinematic movie feel to it, have proven that they are masters of the roller coaster horror genre that was so prevalent throughout the 1980s and that they are a force to be reckoned with. With the success of this latest season, it is no wonder that we will eventually see a season 4 of Stranger Things.