By Bradley Sutherland
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Episode 8 of Season 3 is a perfect conclusion to the Stranger Things Series.
As a whole, the season is pretty incredible. From the beloved characters and how they’re grouped, to the blockbuster action sequences and special effects, it pains me to imagine a time when I won’t be getting together for another Hawkins Hang, with arguably the strongest and deepest TV ensemble in recent years. However, it’s also clear that some of the major elements that make the show so great are becoming, if not already, as stale as Joyce and Hopper’s bickering.
To sustain something as special as Stranger Things already feels like an impossible task (see Season 2), but how they use Season 3 to flex all their muscle and remind us why this is one of the greatest shows to ever stream our screens is nothing short of masterful. We’re introduced to all our favorites within the first few scenes, and their arcs and interactions are woven together smoother than Billy’s flirt game.
However, after the first few episodes, the feeling that this is (and should be) also playing out as one long goodbye starts to creep through your brain. You realize major character arcs are rounding out (some feel completed by the end of episode 1), you wonder how many more times they can reconnect to The Upside Down without it becoming silly, and you know that a show that appeals to your younger days naturally becomes less appealing as the Party grows older.
In other words, Part III is the apex of the series. We’re riding along side it at an all-time high, and even though we all certainly want a little more from this world, the reward of leaving us to do so far outweighs the risk of wearing out it’s welcome.
Of course, the Duffer Brothers are certainly capable of knocking us on our asses again with a fourth season. The characters are so well developed and loved you don’t really need a super fresh plot to keep us intrigued (see Season 3). In fact, Stranger Things is at its absolute best in how they split up the team and just explore how they all get on. Let them just bicker and joke and hug it out and call it day. Who cares what their next mission is — it would still be better than most other shows I’ve watched.
However, finding any reasons to get all the band back together might start to feel stale and feel more forced than did Erica’s larger role in Season 3.
For instance, Eleven’s reunion in Season 2 was arguably the best moment of that season. In this season, after Hopper steps on the Flay Worm flung from Eleven’s leg at Starcourt, reuniting the entire main cast yet again, it almost takes your breath away while you pump your fist and yell Fuck Yes toward the ceiling. The anticipation of everyone coming together after they’ve broken off into smaller teams has been one of the biggest emotional appeals the series has. An effective formula indeed, second only to overloading us with nostalgia. But like the nostalgia overload, such anticipation will rapidly ween due to redundancy.
It’s like the friend who moves away only to announce they are coming back after a few months to hangout for a weekend, and that everyone should meetup for drinks at the place you all drank at together for their going away party. It only takes a few times before you start ignoring their subsequent return posts and not meeting up with them at all. A special occasion it ceases to be.
Another problem is what these younger characters have left to offer. The acting and chemistry is top notch, sure, but Season 3 makes quite clear they aren’t going to be given much new to work with, so their main purpose becomes finishing each other’s sentences until they easily figure out what the mission entails, filling the rest of us in as a result.
With the exception of Dustin and Max, the rest of the Party didn’t really develop significantly throughout the series, and Season 3 shines a light on such. Any drastic character developments in season 4, then, after virtually zero in the prior three seasons, will feel uncharacteristic.
Consider this: Robin is a new character introduced this season. You can tell she’s pretty good right off the bat, but by episode 5 you find yourself asking, “Is she really gonna sneak up and steal this entire fucking season?” And then by episode 8, she’s hands down one of the strongest and most developed characters in the entire series, and most of it happened in five or six scenes over the course of three-and-a-half episodes. Compare this to how much Lucas, Will, or Mike really developed over the course of three seasons, and it’s night and Upside Down.
I leave out Dustin because, well, Dustin is Dustin, and that dude can chew scenes all day. He’s a fully formed character the first time we see him offer Nancy a slice of pizza and shit eating grin, and he somehow always comes across as fresh, regardless of where his arc takes or doesn’t take him.
With Max, she went from feeling a bit forced in season 2 to another one of the best characters in the series in season 3. Why? Because they added to her character. They went all in with the girl power, mentor role, as well as show her conflicted feelings for an abusive family member, and it slaaaaaaayed. We got to know Max significantly more.
Given the cases of Max and Robin, it’s obvious significant character growth is something Stranger Things does well. The fact that it isn’t done much at all with the original Party only shows there’s nothing really left to explore with these characters. This isn’t bad. It just means, relative to the rest of the characters, their stories, especially as a group, feel exhaustively complete.
Which brings us to Eleven.
Yes, Millie Bobby Brown is already an incredible actor, but it feels like she is left with trying to play two different, dress-rehearsal versions of Eleven instead of a traumatized teenager trying to transition from lab specimen to human being… jumping back and forth between robot speak and teen speak instead of diving deeper and really trying to explore a damaged character struggling to find an identity in spite of her rather complicated and tragic history.
After a million blindfolds, nosebleeds, hysterical cries, and heroic camera pans to a downed forehead and outstretched power hand, it feels the show lost their way in terms of what to do with her in season 3. If anyone’s arc feels complete, it’s Eleven’s.
Of course, there’s no wrong way to act when going through what Eleven has gone through, but dealing with such in any capacity felt plain avoided in that there was know mixing of the two Eleven’s at any point, which comes across as the show not knowing what Eleven is like in this stage of the story; not the character herself. Such results in a mere discontinuity rather than a convincing attempt at examining any sort of identity struggle as a result of her past experiences.
Finally, the BIGGEST problem with a season 4 is Hopper’s death. Well, his Probably Not death, as suggested by the unnecessary and series-tainting post-credit scene, which I’ll bitch about in a second.
If Hopper IS dead, the show is not even close to as good without him. He runs away from the pack early on in Season 3 and never looks back, despite multiple killer performances from the rest of the cast (We see you Robin, Steve, Nancy, and Murray). Hopper elevates the show to All Time Great status because he is an All Time Great character. He’s flirting with the same league as Tony Soprano and Walter White, and his absence will be way too glaring.
Also, if season 2 wasted a bunch of time trying to keep a character like fucking Barb alive, imagine how much Hopper Spirit season 4 would pump into its episodes to address any glaring absence.
If Hopper ISN’T dead, then, frankly, it’s chicken shit. They already did this with Eleven at the end of Season 1. In fact, the reason most of us are already expecting Hopper’s return, if there is a fourth season, is because of Eleven returning in the first episode of season 2. To do it a second time would curb any shock from future deaths or tragic happenings to any other major players.
Initially, we’d be overly skeptical. And by the time any skepticism was refuted, there would be no punch to the gut. Instead of Oh Shit (which I screamed when I realized Joyce had to kill Hopper), it would be Oh………………… So He/She Really Is Dead.
And, yes, a huge death had to happen to bring the show to Elite, Untouchable, Can’t Fuck With Us status. Especially with how predictable the show has become, as great as it is. Either Eleven, Joyce or Hopper had to go, to rip our heart out and give us one last shock to the system. They pulled it off with Hopper, and it fucking killed us.
Remember all the feels we had during Hopper’s speech at the end? How emotional we were during the montage of all our favorite characters hugging each other goodbye? How we KNEW we were also saying goodbye to something special that will never be recreated? Basically, how it all felt so terrible but in the best way possible? It was satisfying because it gave us closure, a rare and beautiful feeling unlikely matched in future episodes if Hopper returns and the story continues.
This season solidifies the series as one of my favorite shows of all time. Chances are that such is the case for many, many others. Sure, I’ll be chomping at the bit for the Christmas version of this world when it’s announced, but the ending to Stranger Things 3 is already a masterpiece ending to a phenomenal, brilliant, and truly epic series. It’ll be dope if it remains that way.