Back at Bat: Stranger Things 3 Ramps Up the Action While Staying True to its Soul

Stranger Things 2 bucked many of the pitfalls that plague sophomore seasons, but with an aging cast and upped hype for the show’s third entry, not to mention the still-simmering rage of fans unhappy with the other double-D team’s handling of the final season of Game of Thrones, the Duffer Brothers have a lot riding on the Stranger Things 3 premiere.

From the opening of the first episode, the Duffers want you to know that they’ve been given an expanded VFX budget and they’re not afraid to use it. The upped CGI in the third season is a noticeable jump even from season two’s hordes of demodogs, accompanied by an uptick in gore that seems to pointedly assure the audience that it’s not just the cast that’s grown up. While the beefed up effects do grant us a bigger, badder monster to fight and more expansive looks at the landscape of Hawkins, Indiana, the extensive green screen sequences can sometimes make you miss the simplicity of season one's Demogorgon suit.

Learning from the mistakes of their predecessors (lookin’ at you, LOST), the Duffers built a time jump into the plot to accommodate the aging of the youngest cast members, which history has shown rapidly outpaces the speed at which Hollywood can churn out new seasons of TV. Plus, it has the added benefit of giving room for the story to breathe. While Game of Thrones could sustain a continuous narrative of war and magical menace, it would beggar belief if the small town of Hawkins was under nonstop attack.

The action resumes in the summer of 1985, right before Independence Day festivities are set to kick off. Yet again '80s nostalgia reigns, and the episodes are heavily populated by the pop culture shoutouts we’ve come to expect. However, the biggest offender in this isn’t Stranger Things itself but the corporations slavering at the bit to make merchandising tie-ins with the latest season, with everyone from Burger King to H&M jumping on the bandwagon. While Coke’s “take a sip in the upside down” tagline is certainly cringeworthy, I do have to admit that the throwback sneakers that Nike’s slinging look pretty rad.

Really, though, rather than the nods to things like New Coke or Back to the Future, the forward march of time is most evident in the shifting color palette, shown most clearly in the cast's updated wardrobe, in which neon brights, loud patterns and sparkling eyeshadow win the day.

The Duffers learned from their own mistakes, as well as those of showrunners that came before them, keeping the pacing of this season much more taut than season two. As the “Mirkwood party” begins to venture into the “teenage wasteland,” interpersonal conflicts arise that keep the energy up in early episodes before a monstrous threat steals the focus. By capping episodes with clever ending stingers, that Duffers draw you in with the seductive power of the binge – this is what Netflix does best, after all. Additionally, following season two’s almost universally panned episode “The Lost Sister,” the third season is kept on the rails of the central plot. Even so, that doesn’t mean everyone is left stuck milling about in Hawkins’ new mall.

The performances by the show’s core ensemble are rock solid – this isn’t their first rodeo, after all. Gaten Matarazzo’s comedic timing as Dustin is still on point and his continued pairing with Joe Keery as Steve remains fruitful, even if not all of the gags land. David Harbour and Winona Ryder have good – if fraught – chemistry as Hopper and Joyce, and Lucas’ little sister and season two fan favorite Erica (Priah Ferguson) gets her time to shine, as does newcomer Maya Hawke as Robin. Will (Noah Schnapp) is still often a tool of the plot, but he finally gets to experience some personal character development, which got mostly shunted to the wayside in season two between his isolation from the other characters and the focus on the romantic pairings between Mike/Eleven and Lucas/Max.

The cast is fleshed out with more iconic faces, with Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, The Frighteners) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) both used to good effect. It would also be remiss not to mention that, as Billy, Dacre Montgomery is again allowed to do what he does best – seethe menace. Unfortunately, the growing number of characters to showcase and the mere eight episodes in which to do it means that Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is yet again relegated to the background, mostly put in a support position.

With so many moving parts, it’s easy for things to get lost in the mix. Although this can create genuine surprises in certain moments, the ramping up of the plot and consequences of the third season leaves the finale with some loose threads that aren’t tied up by the final, albeit emotionally satisfying, denouement. The arc as a whole does come together to create a fulfilling and complete story, but obsessive fans will invariably pounce upon and begin to worry at the fraying edges.

By leaning into the growth of its cast and story, Stranger Things 3 is able to move things in a fresh direction without veering away from what made its first season such a hit. The third installment plays to the strengths of its cast and the world of Hawkins, and while it isn’t without missteps, the show has learned from its past mistakes.

Stranger Things 3 is available to stream in full on July 4.