The highly-anticipated Stranger Things season 3 is finally here and the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana will never be the same after July 4th, 1985. Let’s now take a look at the characters and arcs of an intense eight-episode season.
Warning: This article has spoilers for Stranger Things season 3 as well as the previous seasons.
Stranger Things often has multiple story arcs going on at once that combine later to accommodate the large cast, so I will organize this review by those arcs.
As the season opens, we find ourselves in Russia during the Summer of 1984 with a group of Russian scientists clearly trying to open up a gate into the Upside Down. They can’t quite pull it off, so the lead scientist is killed and the next guy in line is given a year to figure it out. Murray Bauman is about to get his Russian conspiracy after all.
It’s summertime for our favorite group of kids who are awaiting the return of Dustin from Camp Know Where. We are starting to see little shifts in the group, though. Lucas and Max seem to still be decently integrated with the party even while being in a relationship. Mike, not as much, especially adding in Hopper’s stricter rules about where El can be to try to keep her off the radar. It has clearly created some tension in the group. When Dustin returns with tales of an amazing girlfriend from camp, Will is clearly the odd man out in the group. He’s also starting to have that tell-tale tingling sense that the Mind Flayer is back.
Introduction to the Big Bad:
Billy is spending his summer as a lifeguard at the pool being drooled over by middle-aged housewives including Karen Wheeler. He actually tries to set up a tryst with Karen and she almost goes through with it, but seeing daughter Holly curled up sleeping on Ted changes her mind. Karen loves her family and doesn’t want to hurt them. Billy ends up crashing his car on the way to this hookup, which leads to the Mind Flayer latching onto him as its new host.
The Couple Situation (El, Mike, Lucas, Max, and Will):
Hopper is going full annoyed father at the constant presence of Mike making out with El. Joyce tries to tell him how to gently approach the kids on this to set some boundaries, but Hopper loses his cool and decides to scare the business out of Mike instead. While Hopper needs to maybe accept that teenagers making out is normal, El honestly does need to forge an identity outside of Mike too. Mike is scared into spending some time away from El, but doesn’t know how to explain this to her, so he awkwardly lies about it. Big mistake. Lucas tries to offer help navigate, but the two boys are still fourteen and approach the whole thing terribly. It’s nice to see that despite everything that has happened, they still have some normal teenage boy traits.
A confused El goes to Max who is trying to encourage El to be her own person a little. Max and El have a girls’ day including shopping at the Starcourt Mall, ice cream, pictures, and reading Wonder Woman comics. When the girls come across the boys, Mike gets called out for lying and El “dumps his ass.”
Poor Will just wants to play D&D with his friends for once, and a brush off from Lucas and Mike leads to a rough fight between them. Will does need to acknowledge that at some point there would be changes in their group, including the introductions of girlfriends, but you also can’t blame him to want some normalcy of hanging out with the guys without the girlfriend drama as well, especially given the last year and a half he’s had. An abandoned Will wrecks Castle Byers, feeling utterly alone as he gets another Mind Flayer tingle.
The girls goof off during a sleepover and end up using El’s powers to spy on Billy, catching on that something weird is going on. It isn’t long before the girls realize something is extra wrong with Billy and the people he encounters. After comparing notes with the boys, they suspect part of the Mind Flayer was trapped out of the gate when El closed it.
They go to trap Billy in the pool sauna to see if he’ll react to heat like Will did when he was possessed, and now the already dangerous Billy is supercharged by the Mind Flayer. El’s powers save their collective butts when Billy does break out of the sauna, but they got all the confirmation they needed,
The Russian Transmission (Dustin, Steve Robin, and Erica):
When Dustin’s new “Cadillac of Ham Radios” fails to connect to his new girlfriend in Utah, the others ditch him. Naturally, once he’s alone, the tower catches a transmission from the Russians and he decides if his buddies are going to ditch him, he’ll just bring in Steve.
Steve Harrington is in that awkward place where someone peaked in high school and doesn’t know what to do with themselves when high school is over. He couldn’t even get into tech school, and his annoyed father is making him work a minimum wage job at Scoops Ahoy as a lesson. His co-worker Robin delights in his failed attempts to pick up girls at his new status change (Dustin thinks Steve should pursue Robin instead of going after the same kind of girls he did in high school). Steve initially rejects the idea of pursuing Robin but jumps at the idea of being an American Hero and helping Dustin. When the boys can’t translate the transmission, Robin ends up pulled into the whole ordeal. The three manage to translate and crack the code as they discover the Russians are making deliveries to a section of the mall they can’t get into. Their solution: recruit Erica Sinclair, Lucas’s extra sassy sister, to help by crawling through vents.
The group manages to discover an underground Russian facility that appears to be trying to reopen the gate to the Upside Down. Steve and Robin get caught and interrogated while Dustin and Erica try to arrange the breakout. There’s a particularly great moment as Dustin realizes that Erica is a math whiz with nerd tendencies of her own that she’s trying to deny.
Hawkins Post Internship (Nancy and Jonathan):
Nancy is miserable at her internship where she’s blown off by the sexist male reporters that run the Hawkins Post. Late one night, she fields a call from a little old lady, Mrs. Driscoll, concerned that rats are consuming bags of fertilizer and acting weird. Jonathan comes along and gets pictures of the crazed rats. The reporters back at the Post are not impressed with Nancy’s sleuthing and she’s told to drop it. Instead, Nancy pursues the story and, eventually, a second trip to Mrs. Driscoll finds her tripping out and consuming fertilizer. Nine-one-one is called and Nancy and Jonathan get canned when word gets back to their boss.
Jonathan takes the firing hard because his family counts on him to have that job, whereas Nancy’s six-figure earning dad gives her a safety net. Nancy wants Jonathan to acknowledge the sexism she’s been dealing with and trust her. It’s a fight where both sides do have a point. Nancy has a heart-to-heart with Karen, who encourages her to go after the story no matter what the jerks at the Post say. It’s a great moment for Karen, who is usually clueless and out of touch. Nancy takes the advice, visiting Mrs. Driscoll in the hospital and recognizes some Mind Flayer symptoms in the little old lady. Jonathan is quick to forgive her as she calls to make sure Will is okay.
The Magnet Situation (Hopper, Joyce, Murray):
Hopper is delighted that the Mike situation is dealt with and begins to try to pursue Joyce a bit more romantically. The problem is Joyce is still reeling from the loss of Bob and is even looking at leaving Hawkins. Hopper tries to pull her into dinner and she reluctantly agrees.
Joyce is sidetracked when she realizes something is up with all of the magnets around her. When she can’t sort out the science behind it, a visit to a “Weird Al” blasting, D&D mini painting Mr. Clarke comes in. Mr. Clarke triggers her worst fears that the Hawkins Lab people could be back, since anything that would cause such a disruption would need to be big and expensive. Joyce ends up standing up Hopper as she pursues this investigation.
Joyce is confronted by a hurt Hopper who agrees to take her to the lab to alleviate her fears. He wants Hawkins to still be a place where she can make a home. At the lab, Hopper gets attacked and Joyce notices details about the attacker that bring Hopper to Mayor Kline’s offices. It turns out the Russians are responsible for Starcourt Mall (Kline is getting some kind of benefit in allowing them in) and are looking to buy up some other properties too. Joyce figures out that if Hawkins Lab is empty, that one of these other properties may be where someone is attempting to open the gate again.
Hopper and Joyce go to look into this again and get themselves into trouble but manage to grab Russian scientist Alexei. Alexei doesn’t speak English, but luckily conspiracy nut Murray does. They manage to sort out a way to shut down the gate and the machinery used to open it, and Dr. Owens is contacted and told someone is trying to open the gate again. Joyce shines here when she jumps in insisting Dr. Owens and his resources better show up NOW after she feels Hopper did not demand hard enough. Joyce and Hopper continue to bicker until Murray gives them one of his patented “just hook up already” speeches where he hits the nail on the head with each of their issues.
This group ends up having to dodge Russian soldiers (ending in Alexei’s death) when Kline calls in the goons. Joyce does get a satisfying punch to Kline’s face and groin though. They discover the Russians are dealing with kids at the mall and high tail it there.
Griswald Family (El, Mike, Lucas, Max, Will, Nancy, and Jonathan):
The group quickly sorts out that it’s not just Billy who’s been “flayed’ but a whole bunch of people. They attempt to get to Mrs. Driscoll to see if she can guide them to where ground zero is, but instead, Nancy and Jonathan end up in a desperate fight with two of their flayed co-workers while Mike manages to mend upsets with El.
After the hospital escape, we discover the defeated to a pulp flayed can dissolve into goo that sort of comes together to make a bigger monster. No good can come of this. They escape back to Hopper’s house where El is going through an alarming amount of Kleenex trying to locate their foes. Max and Mike have it out over El. Max wants Mike to trust El knowing how much of her powers she can use, Mike is worried they could kill her in they push her mind powers too hard. He loves her and is afraid to lose her again. Mike ultimately decides to trust El, who manages to reach out to Billy. She gets more than she bargained for with insights on Billy’s past. The Mind Flayer via Billy tells her that he built an army just to go after her an everyone she cares about. He calls in the flayed other than Billy and they goo together to make him a bigger monster.
The Mind Flayer attacks the cabin and El’s ankle is hurt. The group makes a desperate escape and attempts to treat El’s ankle while Lucas stocks up on a bunch of hardcore fireworks. Dustin and his escaped group finally manage to get a call into the other kids: it’s time to meet up at Starcourt Mall.
The Battle of Starcourt Mall:
The separate groups finally come together. A piece of the Mind Flayer has to be gruesomely cut out of El. Jonathan manages the cutting, but El uses her powers to expel it out just as the adults turn up. A plan is made: Team Scoops Troop (Dustin, Steve, Robin, and Erica) will go to Dustin’s tower to radio the adults (Bald Eagle) through the Russian Compound while the other kids and teenagers (Griswald Family) will be taken to Murray’s to wait things out.
It immediately goes horribly wrong. A flayed Billy sabotages the Griswald Family car and El’s powers are not working (Steve and Robin return to help in the nick of time). Team Bald Eagle runs into a hiccup when an access code based on a famous number does not work. Luckily, Dustin’s girlfriend is radioed to help with that (she does exist!). Griswald Family is split up with Billy knocking out Mike and Max to get to El. He’s about to hand her over to the Mind Flayer, when the others start throwing the fireworks Lucas got ahold of. The fireworks eventually run out, but El manages to connect with Billy, talking to him about his mom and his happier memories of her that she saw earlier. It does the trick: Billy regains enough control of himself to take the Mind Flayer’s attack on El himself, sacrificing himself.
Hopper and Joyce run into a classic action movie fight with Russians when they need to turn two keys simultaneously to shut the gate down and destroy the machine opening it. Joyce ends up having to do it on Hopper’s command even though he’s with the machinery that is about the self-destruct taking him with it. When the gate is sealed, the Mind Flayer is downed again.
Three Months Later:
This last battle has ravaged Hawkins enough that media sources are starting to notice. Joyce has taken El in and is moving her family and El out of Hawkins. It’s an emotional day for everyone as these changes are really going to hit them all pretty hard. El discovers what Hopper wanted to say to her the day he spoke to her and Mike. It’s touching and tear jerking and we regret he never got to say it. Her powers have still not returned, although Mike suspects they will in time. The two share an adorable moment. Will decides to donate his D&D stuff. He’ll use Mike’s when he does return to visit, and there’s no other group he’d rather play with, so he doesn’t need it to find a new group wherever his family is moving to. The boys end up presenting the D&D set to Erica so she can learn to embrace her nerd side. Jonathan and Nancy share a teary farewell (for now). As for Steve, he and Robin end up finding a job together at a video rental store. They’ll only ever be just friends (Robin confessed to Steve that she’s gay once he realized he really did like her), but you get a sense that even if things won’t work out romantically for him, this friendship is going to be really good for him.
These characters have all grown so much. It’s hard to them getting split up, even though I know they’ll find their way together again. I am particularly sad that El and Max won’t get to have more days out together and that Will is being pulled away from the guys after they realized they shouldn’t have blown him off. Joyce will be there for El, though, and I hope El gets to discover more about who she is as a person. Also, can we give poor Will some normalcy. In his letter, Hopper talked about how change was hard even though it was inevitable, and I really felt it as the Byers packed up and prepared to leave.
Back in Russia:
Just when I thought it was over, and I was still bawling over Hopper and the moving day, a mid-credit scene pops us back to Russia as a poor guy is getting thrust into a room with a Demogorgon. A Demogorgon isn’t the biggest shocker, though, it’s that this guy was offered up instead of “the American.”
Well played, Duffer Brothers, well played.
Have you seen the new season yet? What did you think?