I have complaints.
Ignore the fact that there is a profound amount of meta analysis on Will Byers’ queer coding, completely unused and wasted. Ignore the fact that I, personally, don’t think children should be actors (as their range can be fairly limited). Ignore your own opinions on whether or not you think the kids have talent.
I want to address the story.
Recently, I saw an article talking about the worst episode of Stranger Things. I was baffled to see it wasn’t any of the entirety of season three. It was the episode where Eleven runs off with Kali, her “sister.” At the time it came out, I remember not being a fan. I was interested in the idea of more kids like Eleven, but I wanted to get back to the main plot in Hawkins.
I wanted to see the group of ragtag friends that I’d come to know and love, getting into strange shenanigans.
Looking back, I realize how foolish I was.
Because season three was butt cheeks.
Going in, I had one request. After seeing the trailer, and noticing that Eleven and Max would be going on a shopping spree, I thought: What a perfect place to use Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!
Were the lyrics too on the nose?
“Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world” and “Oh Daddy dear, you know you’re still number one, but girls just wanna have fun” were pretty spot on considering the direction that was taken. Instead we got Material Girl.
I have to cringe.
Now this is where I’m pulled a bit from my immersion in the show. I have younger cousins that are huge fans of Millie Bobby Brown. I think it’s great that they have an idol, and I wish this girl all the best. I hope she has a loving family and strong support system, and the horror that is Hollywood doesn’t destroy this child.
That being said, for parts of this season, I wondered how much of what I watched was Eleven… and how much was just Millie being Millie. While I understand Eleven’s limited exposure to EVERYTHING has given her the personality of a chair, I’m confused as to why she’s so hellbent on being “girly.”
She had no concept of that when she first arrived in Hawkins, yet she immediately was self-conscious about whether or not she was pretty. She got a makeover in season two, which was effectively dropped (and I’m curious as to why this was – did people really hate the bottle episode that much). In season three, during the photo shoot at the mall, it felt as though I was watching the actresses in a blooper reel. I ultimately decided to suspend a little more disbelief and just enjoy these kids having fun after all they’ve been through.
However, I couldn’t help but wonder what Eleven’s personality was going to become. While I did like the idea of Eleven being petty, it’s a little alarming how vindictive she is. Now that’s an interesting take. What if she was evil? Why can’t we look deeper into her mind and see how she navigates these decisions? Because it’s not always as easy as black and white. If the Duffer brothers are trying to make this a coming of age story with some supernatural elements, that would be a much more interesting journey than the teen drama they sank their show with.
That brings me to my next point.
It’s been over a year, and Mike Wheeler still hasn’t apologized for lying.
In this season, he was threatened by Hopper (we’ll get to that disaster in a minute), and resorted to badly lying to his girlfriend. She caught him, of course. They never address it again.
Mike being a disaster in the first season was charming, and continued to be funny in the second season. Coming into the third, I couldn’t help but feel like Finn Wolfhard was no longer interested in playing the role (which, I can’t blame him after hearing him talk about overzealous fans).
When I first watched the season, I tried to excuse everyone (and I mean everyone) for their out of character behavior. This was a group of damaged people with severe trauma. They just wanted to be normal teens – and THAT we can all relate to! I know what it’s like for the first “love” to take up all your time.
But then the season aged. Like milk.
Eleven and Mike never address their issues. They never talk about why Mike lied (again, he doesn’t apologize at any point for doing so, nor does he explain himself or see why that was the root of the problem – he blames Max over taking any responsibility), they never discuss their unhealthy obsession with each other, and they never acknowledge that they were happy at the expense of their friends. I found it incredibly strange how Mike reacted to her saying she loved him – as if it was something he no longer expected or even wanted.
Here’s a boy whose friends are the most important priorities in his life. Now here’s a season where he has one or two scenes caring about those friends. The rest of these seven hours, he will simply be a person, loosely connected by a stringy plot, to these other anonymous people. Throw in a joke or two to make it seem like they have a deep bond, and rely on memory of the past seasons to do the rest of the work.
Of course, this is just one example of a character gone wrong.
What. The. Hell.
He started out as gruff. A renegade when he had to be. Lawful good, with some sprinkles of chaos here and there. He was a man who lost everything, and when you have nothing left to lose, it changes you. Then he found a second chance. I understood his desperation to keep that chance.
But season three went off the fucking rails.
Who was that bumbling drunk man who barged into his teen daughter’s room? What did he plan on doing if he did find Mike? In any other context, that would’ve been cause for alarm. Well, it alarmed me here.
Who was this insensitive lumberjack that assumed pissing on Joyce’s leg meant he claimed her?
It was like watching a character struggle to fill the shoes of Idiot-But-Well-Meaning-Dad and Overprotective-Asshole-Alpha-Male at the same time. It just didn’t work.
Then there was Joyce. I started the whole show because I’m in love with Winona Ryder. She moved me beyond words in the first season. This woman lost her baby boy and was hellbent on getting him back. Nothing – not human nor supernatural – would get in her way. She kept Will close in the second season, because she was reasonably traumatized.
Season three? She completely ditches her family because of some broken magnets. I truly had no idea what I was watching at this point.
As I got further into the season, I thought about other shows I watched in my life. I remembered that as the show went on, characters fell into a stereotype. They might’ve started out as a little bit aloof and silly, but by the last season, they were complete morons – to the point where it was a miracle they didn’t kill themselves getting out of bed. Then there were the characters who started out tough, and had moments of softness and care, only to be made into a raging psychopath by the finale.
I was disappointed to realize that these characters were pushed into boxes, and the lid to the coffin had been nailed shut on them.
To make matters worse, of all the characters for them to waste time on, they chose Billy. If I want to watch a racist, I’ll turn on Fox News.
He not only threatened to mow down children in his tacky car, but he was physically abusive with Max when he “warned” her about Lucas. When he captured that other lifeguard, he ties her up, pins her down, and says the most rape-y lines that I’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing.
“Don’t be afraid, it’ll be over soon.”
Good grief, that poor actor who had to recite this trash.
Not only that, but to get his character to the point they wanted him to be at (meeting up with a MILF just to get captured by the Mindflayer), they had to drag down Mrs. Wheeler. Having an affair with a seventeen-year-old (which, thank God, she did not), is not a cute look. Neither is trying to look hot for one. Yuck.
How dare they try to make me feel sympathy for him! I was bored to tears with his backstory, and it was very much wasted time in my opinion.
This entire season was wasted time, sadly.
I remember several months before season three came out, I had a dream. It was a stunning dream, because it was the entirety of a season. For a while, I thought it was real.
The Mindflayer was still a problem, because clearly it had escaped at the end of season two, and was just biding its’ time. However, instead of Billy being a villain and vessel, he was killed off in the first episode. Like, actually killed off. This dream pulled no punches.
The mall was built over what used to be Hawkins Lab. So sure enough, the basement of this mall held a portal to the Upside Down (instead of Russians, which… what the fuck was that plot line). Our main villain – some bald, young, angry-looking kid – steps out of the door that they have opened. Right off the bat, we’re to understand that this kid has powers like Eleven.
They sneak through the mall, and we hear a voice over from Dr. Brenner (or Papa, as Eleven called him, which was also fucking weird). He talks about trial and error, and it sounds like he’s keeping a journal. It sounds like he’s praising Eleven as his best work. Throughout this “season,” I hear a lot of his commentary, and we even get mention of Kali/Eight as we go on.
This mysterious kid is whistling a fragmented, slowed down version of “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” so now we’re to realize that this kid might know Will. Perhaps they met while he was trapped in the Upside Down. This is somewhat terrifying, as it would mean this child has been trapped there for much longer. Realistically, they should be dead, but it’s a dream. I don’t question it.
Brenner talks about teaching “the first group” to blend into their surroundings, and during that narrative, the mystery kid is stealing regular civilian clothes from the mall. We cut to the first title card and get started!
As the season goes on, we get looks into each character. Joyce is grieving a man that she loved. She’s contemplating leaving this town, because everything terrible in her life has happened there. Jonathan is trying to convince her otherwise, but she tells him that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks. It’s very curious that she’s keeping secrets.
In a flashback, I see Lonnie berating her about being crazy, and implying she’s gone this nuts before. We’re never really told why, if I recall season one correctly, but my brain conjured something to fit into place. Joyce lost not only Bob, but allegedly a second baby. Will’s twin. It’s implied that this child was a stillborn girl, but something inside Joyce tells her that’s not quite true.
Later in the season, she’ll finally confess this to Hopper. His renegade nature causes him to dig up the grave of this previously unknown child, only to find the coffin empty. It’s painfully reminiscent of him discovering that Will’s dead body was fake.
While all of this is going on, Mike and his party are dealing with their PTSD. They’ve seen war, and it’s not pretty. Eleven is losing interest in solely being his girlfriend, and wants to enjoy all the other things childhood has to offer. She cares about him, and she loves her dad, but she needs more. Max shows her She-Hulk (I don’t actually remember if this came out in the 80s), 80s fashion, and skateboarding (in which Eleven keeps messing with her by telepathically jerking the skateboard back).
Her and Mike do break up, but mostly because they have nothing in common other than shared trauma. However, this is an improvement in their relationship, almost leading them back together. His relationship with Will is equally as complicated, as Will does have feelings for him. Not only do they have to grapple with their lost innocence, but they face new, adult concepts that they simply DON’T want to deal with.
Now, Max’s brother was murdered. We can’t forget that.
And a strange string of other murders has come up. These murders are… strangely familiar. Mike will later recognize that this is the way Eleven killed those government guys from season one. It starts to feel like we might see evil Eleven! Alas though, she’s just a red herring.
We see a news story about the weird deaths while Joyce is cooking, but that’s ignored when Hopper comes in to talk to her about moving. He’s trying to convince her to stay, but it’s a tough sale after all that she’s been through. We briefly see her cite these murders as a reason to jet, but nothing more.
Nancy, on the other hand, is quite inspired to solve the mystery.
She leads the gang to the basement of Starcourt Mall, where they find old files of previous experiments at Hawkins Lab. Most of the information is redacted, but Eleven is interested in a file concerning her mother. Before she can read into it, the gang is ambushed by a pack of those demodogs from last season. It seems the Mindflayer is controlling them remotely again, and Eleven has to fight.
The fight ends relatively fast, as something calls the dogs back, and the gang is spared. That’s when Hopper and Joyce find the kids, and Joyce is rightfully pissed. She’s even more convinced that moving is the best option.
As they’re leaving this empty mall, the mysterious kid from the beginning makes themselves known. It turns out, they controlled the demodogs. They have been murdering anyone in their path to getting revenge on the people who held them captive. They are the one with beef towards Eleven. One of the gang asks who they are, and the kid replies, “Ten.”
In a flashback, we’re shown the different ways Dr. Brenner tested on children. Some of them were tortured, others were trained like soldiers from birth. Ten happened to be one of the soldiers. After Kali turned on them, and managed to escape, Dr. Brenner decided that the soldiers were too dangerous to keep around. This led him to abandoning Ten in the Upside Down.
Eleven opened and closed this gate while that poor kid was still trapped in there! This kid has misdirected anger, and I gotta say: I get it.
Ten survived with scraps of food Brenner would occasionally toss in, as he felt more of a connection to this child than the others. After his death, Ten resorted to desperate measures to stay alive. It’s revealed that they made a deal with the Mindflayer, and their most chilling line is delivered: “He’s not the scariest thing in there, Eleven.”
It’s clear that Ten is possessed the same way Will was last season, and the battle begins.
During this fight, we learn the true identity of Ten is in fact, Jane Ives. This leads us to realize that Joyce never lost her daughter. Will’s twin has been Eleven the entire time. The reveal comes in the form of him saving Eleven with a sudden burst of powers – only kids like them can be possessed by the Mindflayer (and I must say, I was hoping this would be revealed during the fight with Billy in the sauna episode – thoroughly disappointed).
As all the pieces fall into place, Eleven tries to reason with Ten.
She talks about what they missed out on, and how it isn’t fair. Joyce joins in and tells Ten that they deserved a mother and father. Eleven manages to project them into that weird void and show her Terry, and how Mother Ives tried to get her daughter back. The blonde little girl in Terry’s memory wasn’t her daughter after all; her daughter was already being put through brutal training.
After almost killing Eleven’s friends, a piece of Ten’s humanity breaks through. The Mindflayer panics at the realization that it’s losing control, but Ten is stronger. In a tragic move (reminiscent of Ripley in Alien), Ten throws herself into a fire to destroy the monster. With no other choice, the Mindflayer shows itself for the fight. Will and Eleven use their powers, the rest of the gang helps in whatever way they can, and when it seems like they can’t give anymore…
Kali appears, delivering some fantastic cheese. She warned Eleven that her friends couldn’t save her, but Kali definitely can.
With her help, they defeat the Mindflayer, and close the gate to the Upside Down for good.
Except Eleven has a feeling in her gut that she might need to go back in to see if there’s anyone else she can save. That feeling is only made worse when she sees Ten’s remains – the tattoo on her arm says “Tenn” instead of 010. Eleven recalls seeing other redacted files with names such as “Tex,” “Wyoming,” “Maine,” etc. There’s a sinking realization that there were multiple other projects, and there’s no telling how many.
It set up a great potential story for season four.
Sadly, I woke up, and the reality was nowhere near as cool.
While I appreciate the work put in by the cast and crew, as a writer, I’m extremely disappointed in season three. Fan service seems to be valued more than a quality story. I think I’ll get the cliff-notes on season four before wasting a whole night binge-watching. I’ll wager ten bucks that they try to queerbait.