Stranger Things–A 1980s mall and this season’s standout performances keep viewers coming back for more

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s not every location for a TV series that becomes the best part of the that series.  For the third season of Stranger Things, which arrived on Netflix this Fourth of July weekend, the big win was Starcourt Mall.  Maybe it’s the fact so many of us have vivid memories of their own mall for their first jobs, for birthday parties, or where they bought their favorite shoes, rendezvoused with friends, and watched their favorite movies–or just as likely, the fact that so many younger viewers weren’t around to witness malls of the 1980s and can only guess what they were like–whatever the reason, Stranger Things showrunners the Duffer Brothers (Ross and Matt) made a wise move setting a major part of this year’s eight episodes there.  Initially Netflix kept its Starcourt Mall intact for a possible tourist attraction (actually a rebuilt section of Duluth, Georgia’s Gwinnett Place Mall, far away from Indiana), but early crowds and the inability to make a deal resulted in trashing the sets entirely (except Scoops Away, which went into storage).  Now nothing remains of the rented space in the mall used for the series, but what a great idea gone to waste!

So what other than the mall makes for the good and bad this season on Stranger Things?

Six writers concocted interwoven storylines that matched the prior two seasons–the series is consistent, neither better nor worse than past seasons, but just as good and even great in places.  That fandom phrase “I’d rather watch bad [insert: Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. here] than anything else” rings true for Stranger Things, although you’ll rarely find much that qualifies as completely “bad.”  Each season has those early season episodes that make the story seem like the greatest thing since the 1980s, and yet other episodes stumble.  That was true this season.  The best thread tracked older teen Joe Keery′s Steve Harrington and one of the series’ main four kids, Gaten Matarazzo′s Dustin Henderson.  Dustin has just returned from a science camp, to find the two series kid leads Finn Wolfhard′s Mike Wheeler and Millie Bobby Brown′s Eleven/El inseparable in their young romance.  The best recurring question of the season is whether Dustin’s girlfriend Suzie is real or imaginary.  Steve works at the mall now with a grumbly gal named Robin, played by Maya Hawke, who becomes another high point of the season, and integral to moving the story forward.  What better way to launch the career of the daughter of popular and acclaimed actors Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke than a fun season of Stranger Things (Her work and quick development of a likeable character promises a huge career is in store for her).  Growing out of the events of last season, Dustin and Steve, with co-worker Robin, embark on a mission to save their friends, Hawkins, and the world from a beast connected to El, Noah Schnapp′s Will Byers, and the Demogorgon of past seasons, and a new, perfectly timed 1980s nemesis: the Russians, led by Andrey Ivchenko as a thug mash-up of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick in their Terminator series roles.

The other series cast members are divided into three teams, each slowly piecing together clues to solve the season’s riddles, with older teens Natalie Dyer′s Nancy Wheeler and Charlie Heaton′s Jonathan Byers still a couple, but now struggling against 1980s office politics, including a vile co-worker played in typical Busey fashion by Jake Busey.  The other kids–El, Mike, Will, Caleb McLaughlin′s Lucas Sinclair and Sadie Sink′s Max Mayfield, also still a couple, reflect most of the “coming of age” story that dominated past seasons.  The best of this is the visual nostalgia accompanying an El and Max outing to the aforementioned Starcourt Mall.  The adults are back, with top-billed star Winona Ryder getting some better development this season as Joyce Byers, the first to realize something is again wrong in Hawkins.  David Harbour is back as police chief Jim Hopper, but unfortunately his character is the low point of the season–he gets tossed around and becomes the butt of jokes as with last season, instead of carrying forward that decisive, strong, cool personality we met in Stranger Things first season.

The series has always leaned more toward horror than sci-fi, but the special effects this round rivaled those of prior seasons.  The giant, cumulative monstrosity antagonist is much better than the similar creatures from John Carpenter’s The Thing that it emulates–no creature in the 1980s looked this good.  The use of color, electricity displays, explosions, retro technology, a carnival, clothes styles, and again, that mall, will make this season go down as the most memorable visually.  Again with this latest season the homages are never-ending, from the 1980s and beyond.  Look for scene snippets and throwbacks from Jaws to Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings, and more.

Along with Busey, the season’s main actor from the past is Cary Elwes, in a small role as a slimy mayor.  Cara Buono′s Karen Wheeler gets some memorable scenes early in the season, along with Dacre Montgomery′s Billy Hargrove, whose story spans the season.  Part hair, part attitude, Montgomery embodies that vile character stuck in every other 1980s film that had a famous pop song.  Lucas’s little sister Erica, played by Priah Ferguson in a bigger role than earlier seasons, introduces viewers to a possible next generation of the cast.  And a really odd choice, bringing back Brett Gelman′s paranoid conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman, turned out to be an inspired move.  Gelman is a perfect addition in his very 1980s clichéd role.

On the negative side, the series suffers a bit from pop song overkill–the Duffer Brothers milk every bit for nostalgia and then some.  The sets are close to the real 1980s, too, but you may have just as much fun pointing out props–and phrases–that slip in that didn’t exist in 1985.  There’s always that intentional B-movie vibe that makes any errors forgivable.  The last episode is barely a payoff, full of too many denouements more appropriate to a series finale than a season finale, yet the wrap-up of Dustin’s season arc is perfect.

If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss this fan-made homage to Magnum, p.i., featuring Jim Hopper, emerging from a throwaway line in the series.  It has no spoilers, and makes the character look better than he appeared in the show:

Nothing has been greenlit yet, but the Duffer Brothers have said they’ve been in discussions with the writers of plot points for a fourth season.

All fun, great visuals, and some standout performances this season.  There is something for everyone in the entire three seasons of Stranger Things.  Check out all three seasons, including the latest eight episodes of Season 3, now streaming only on Netflix.

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