Stranger Things 3 spoiler-free review: the most exhilarating and devastating outing yet

The return of the Netflix show lives up to and eschews expectations in its third season

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There’s a hopeful energy to summer when you’re a teenager. The school year is over, the social hierarchy is out the window, and long days offer seemingly unlimited possibilities. 

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Unfortunately, the possibilities in Hawkins, Indiana are very much limited. There’s a 100% chance the gateway to the terrifying parallel universe of the Upside Down will be re-opened, and that the gargantuan, drippy monster The Mind Flayer will return to wreak havoc upon the town’s inhabitants. That much is clear from the get-go.

You’d think this sense of impending doom would be a downer, but it really isn’t. Stranger Things 3, the third instalment of Netflix’s brilliant teen series, is exhilarating; the equal of its predecessor in terms of pure enjoyment but still eventually devastating, with a shocking and emotionally-charged conclusion that will ring out on social media for weeks to come.

The new episodes are set in the sticky-hot summer of 1985, eight months after Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) sealed off the portal at the end of last season. School is out; Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has returned from summer camp with tales of a new girlfriend Suzy, but no one believes she exists. Will (Noah Schnapp) is well, for once, but he’s not growing up quite as fast as his lusty pals Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who do their best to spend every waking moment with their girlfriends El (Eleven shortened) and Max (Sadie Sink). 

The older kids are in varying degrees of arrested development, too. Steve “The Hair” Harington is working at the local Ice Cream Parlour in the new mall, his trademark ‘do obscured by a kitschy sailor hat. He’s not having much luck with the female clientele at Scoops Ahoy, but he’s got a nice rapport with his co-worker, the bookish and affable Robin (Maya Hawke) – not that he’s willing to admit it.

Nancy and Jonathan are interns at the local paper, where the former buries her journalistic integrity at the bottom of her gut while she does coffee runs for her misogynist bosses – a gaggle of archetypal male hacks lead by Jake Busey’s Bruce – while the latter broods in the darkroom. 

And then there’s the parents: Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), still grieving the loss of her dorky boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin), and single dad Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who is tearing his hair out trying to keep Mike and El at an age-appropriate distance from one another. 

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David Harbour and Winona Ryder

All is calm, until it isn’t. The action takes a while to ramp up, as the Duffers luxuriate in summery vibes. Pop hits from the likes of Madonna and Foreigner are dropped in at an alarming rate as the camera slinks through the town breathing in the fresh air while the going is good. There are some tantalising interactions between bad boy Billy (Dacre Montgomery) and Nancy’s mom Karen (Cara Buono) at the public pool, and shopping montages at the mall.

The set-up bleeds into the third and fourth episodes, but it never lags. This year, there’s a different bunch of shadowy men trying to break through to another dimension, and a few more real-world villains in Billy, who takes a dark turn this time around, and the town’s mayor (Cary Elwes), a stereotypical power-driven and corrupt politician who butts heads with Hopper. 

Still, the story this year is shaped in a very similar way to the previous seasons, to the point that some narrative echoes (that may well be callbacks) end up feeling like rehashes. The gang are split up into similar subsets as season two, and they each embark upon missions to uncover the truth about what the bad guys are doing, and figure out how to stop the Mind Flayer and close the portal.

Frankly it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve been here before, and not just within Stranger Things, with every element of the Duffer Brothers’ vision pulled from ‘80s films (among the most evident this time around are The Terminator, Red Dawn and Fast Times at Ridgemont High). 

There are some new additions, of course, with fresh characters are thrown into the mix to spice things up to varying degrees of success. Hawke is by far and away the best addition, striking up an easy rapport with the rest of the cast. She appears to be the perfect genetic amalgamation of her parents, actors Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. She has her mother’s effortless cool, and the depth – or illusion of depth – of her father (she somehow looks exactly like both of them, too).

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Generally, the Duffers have a keen understanding of what their fans want, and they’re not afraid to tap into it. This was true to a fault in Stranger Things 2, which failed to surprise audiences in the same way as its predecessor. 

They manage to strike a better balance here, leveraging fan service with riskier plot points (some pleasantly surprising, some devastating). Dustin and Steve, who formed an unlikely but fan-favourite fraternal bond last time around, share a story strand once again. Happily, there’s a notable absence of anything even remotely resembling last season’s bottle episode, The Lost Sister, which focused solely on Eleven as she ventured off to Chicago to link up with a band of superpowered misfits. It was an experiment that was resoundingly rejected, so it has been forgotten.

On the other hand, Lucas’ younger sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) seems to have been shoe-horned into the story this year on the back of Twitter fame last time out, making for a less-than-satisfying result.

Throughout the new episodes storylines take unexpected turns and difficult decisions are made, all building up to a heartbreaking conclusion that stands in stark contrast to the previous two finales.

As for what comes next, well – there are still plenty of mysteries left in Hawkins, Indiana.

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Stranger Things 3 is released on Netflix on Thursday 4th July 2019