The eagerly awaited third season of Stranger Things premieres July 4 on Netflix. In advance of Season 3’s release, Netflix sent us all eight new episodes. Read our review below, and head to our sister site TV Guide for more Stranger Things Season 3 coverage.
There were a lot of varying reasons to criticize Stranger Things Season 2, but the vast majority of viewers seemed to agree that Eleven’s field trip to Chicago in Season 2, Episode 7, “The Lost Sister,” was the low point. Here’s a very minor spoiler to get you hyped for Season 3: The events of that episode, including all those wonky characters, are never mentioned or referenced a single time throughout this season.
Under different circumstances, it would be disappointing for a whole slew of new characters and all the potential they should have brought with them to be completely dropped in the next season, like when Game of Thrones so thoroughly butchered the Dorne storyline in Season 5 that the writers simply murdered all those characters in the Season 6 premiere. But in this case, it’s a gift; “The Lost Sister” derailed Season 2 into another dimension, killing the show’s momentum just as it was finally getting good after a slow, somewhat frustrating season characterized by infighting and separation among the main characters.
Season 3 has no such issues. Trimmed back down to Season 1’s length of eight episodes after the extra long nine-episode Season 2 (like they had to literally jam the Chicago episode into the middle), Stranger Things Season 3 is as tight as Billy’s abs as he sits by the Hawkins community pool in his lifeguard uniform.
It’s summer vacation in Hawkins, Indiana, and the gang’s all here: Mike and Eleven are in full on make-out-every-day mode, much to Hopper’s chagrin; Nancy and Jonathan have internships at the local paper; Dustin has just returned from summer camp; Lucas and Max are going strong; Will hasn’t been possessed by anything lately; Billy sits by the pool getting gawked at by a squad of local moms (including Mrs. Wheeler); and Steve slings ice cream scoops at the brand new Starcourt Mall, where he lets the kids sneak through the back to access the movie theater for free. Honestly, summer break 1985 seems like quite a time to be alive.
Of course, this is Hawkins, so the peace doesn’t last. We won’t spoil anything, but suffice to say the Upside-Down isn’t done with Hawkins, and vice versa. But this isn’t a re-tread of Seasons 1 and 2; things play out way differently this time, with different characters at the epicenter. Eleven is fully in command of her powers, while other characters’ roles are greatly transformed thanks to the time that’s passed since Season 2, as well as some other factors that affect their abilities and motivations. Season 3 feels extremely fresh when it comes to the characters and the forces at play.
Two of Stranger Things’ main strengths have always been its cast and its setting, and both are in top form in Season 3. The main crew of Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Sadie Sink, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, and Noah Schnapp all bring their respective talents–particularly Brown. She’s always been at the show’s emotional core, embodying both vulnerability and power, but the actor shows off more sides of Eleven in Season 3–including a newly confident side influenced by Max. Their scenes together are some of the most fun in all of Season 3.
David Harbor, meanwhile, gives Hopper a new look and a new attitude, with a running gag about him being a low key Tom Selleck/Magnum P.I. fan. And Winona Ryder brings the same lovable, just-short-of-manic energy to Joyce, who by the third time around has learned her lesson about strange goings-on in Hawkins and doesn’t hesitate to get right into the action. Lastly, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) have some of the season’s best scenes, including some sequences that take the show’s horror genre flavor to new heights.
Likewise, 1980s Hawkins remains a place you wish you’d grown up (if not for all the interdimensional monsters and sociopathic g-men running around). ’80s nostalgia is obviously all the rage right now, but in the case of Stranger Things, we’ve yet to have too much of this good thing. And as usual, Stranger Things deploys its targeted blasts-from-the-past in smart ways that fit well with the world and themes–although some of this season’s apparent product placements, including 7-Eleven, Burger King, and New Coke, are completely over-the-top.
Starcourt Mall isn’t just a backdrop for much of Season 3–it’s the main setting for a surprising amount of the show’s action. In many ways, the mall seems like paradise–Stranger Things perfectly captures that hyperbolic 1980s “Material Girl” lust for all things capitalistic. But it also shows the other side–the effect that a mega-mall has on the local businesses in Hawkins. The second-best new character is Mayor Larry Kline (played by The Princess Bride’s Cary Elwes), a slimy politician who’s in way over his head trying to run the show in Hawkins. He’s introduced with anti-mall protests taking place outside his office.
The absolute best new character is Robin (Maya Hawke), who works at the mall’s nautical-themed ice cream joint Scoops Ahoy with Steve (Joe Keery). Season 3 may have forgotten about some of Season 2’s worst additions to the show, but it doesn’t disappoint when it comes to Steve and Dustin’s bromance. And Lucas’s little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) just happens to be a mallrat who pesters Steve and Erica for endless free samples. The four of them have their own adventure throughout Season 3, and although we won’t spoil where it goes, the four actors’ chemistry with one another makes their scenes a highlight of the season.
It’s hard to say much more about Stranger Things Season 3 without giving away too much. There’s going to be a lot of discussion about what happens to various characters, questions about the ways certain things were revealed, and debate about Season 3’s ending, but that will come after the glorious July 4 weekend binge. For now, it’s safe to say that Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer have pulled it off: After a lackluster sophomore slump, Stranger Things is back at the top of its game.