In season 3 of ‘Stranger Things,’ strengths lie in characters’ arcs and nautical uniforms more than storyline

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Warning: The following article contains spoilers.

In its first two seasons, much of the charm of “Stranger Things” was in its adorable, adventure-hungry cast. But now, in the third iteration of the series, it is abundantly clear that the kiddos whom the masses fell in love with are growing up — and it’s for the best. 

There is very little diversity in the structure of the third season of “Stranger Things.” As always, Hopper (David Harbour) and Joyce (Winona Ryder) sputter kitschy flirtations at one another, someone gets possessed, and gargoyles, ghouls and Demogorgons abound. The Duffer brothers have stuck to their nostalgia-pandering, sci-fi meets Stephen King template. And though it should be tiresome, it isn’t. 

This is largely due to the fact that the cast puts in the work to keep the show fresh. In season three, the whole gang is chaotically navigating a field of prepubescent landmines and life lessons about to blow. As the Russian threats and the Mind Flayer’s evil plans begin to unfold, the incessant and humorously cringey making-out of Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is a perfect contrast. And when the star-crossed lovers break up, the juvenile adventures that the split incites are equally joyful to watch. 

One of such adventures is the one that Eleven and Max (Sadie Sink) embark on. In past seasons, the Duffer brothers and their writing team have struggled to create authentic storylines for their female characters. From the show’s obsession with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) losing her virginity and Eleven’s preoccupation with femininity in season one to the jealousy over Mike forged between Max and Eleven in season two, it’s refreshing to see the writers focus on a female relationship that feels relatively genuine for once. 

Admittedly, the dialogue in Eleven and Max’s shared scenes is often forced and cheesy; Max’s musings about there being more to life than boys are obvious quips. But even if these scenes are pretty superficial representations of how women interact, it’s still fun to see two of the only girls on the show coming of age in a way that is separate from and not facilitated by the male members of their group — as it has often been in both of the preceding seasons. 

It’s not just the younger crew that grapples with these adolescent identity crises; the older squad struggles through its fair share of growing pains this season as well. Joyce debates moving her family out of Hawkins, and Hopper grumpily yet endearingly tries to cope with raising a teen. 

But the most captivating plotline in the season is that of Steve “The Hair” Harrington (Joe Keery). It’s not just entertaining to watch Steve because he spends the entire duration of the season in his Scoops Ahoy uniform; his character arc, too, continues to be the most pleasurably surprising one to watch. He’s gone from jock-bully to heartfelt boyfriend to everyone’s favorite babysitter in the past two seasons, and fans have loved every second of it. It stands to reason that in this new season, his endeavors with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and their new ally Robin (Maya Hawke) into Russian espionage would be equally thrilling to watch. 

And, for the most part, they are. The only minimally disappointing aspect of Steve’s storyline is his unfulfilled relationship with Robin. Throughout the season, the writers spend so much time building palpable romantic tension between the two — helped along greatly by Keery and Hawke’s magnetic chemistry. As they are drugged and tied up by the Russians, jovially riffing and tripping hard, the two trek into incredibly vulnerable territory. Steve ruminates on his obliviousness and washed-up high school glory, and Robin in turn seemingly, and naturally, confesses her past infatuation for Steve. So when she comes out to him later as a lesbian, the scene — though wonderfully sweet and heartwarming — ultimately feels like a tacked-on pander to LGBTQ+ audiences and not a fleshed-out story arc. 

There are many storylines in this season that play as afterthoughts. The writers dabble in uncovering what it’s like for women to work in a sexist environment but pull back the reins before any real commentary is ever made. They take Hopper and Eleven right to the edge of having a powerful father-daughter conversation about growing older, trust and boundaries — but instead of following through, they settle for an aggressive man-to-man talk between Hopper and Mike. All of these disappoints are set to the backdrop of the gang’s familiar supernatural debacles.

But where there are disappointments this season, there are strengths. Seeing these characters evolve, watching as they tackle issues like puberty, first love and new horizons, is satisfying to behold — even if it has made for some messy plotlines. We can only hope that next season, the Duffer brothers take their storylines as far as they have allowed their characters to go. 

Maisy Menzies is the opinion editor. Contact her at [email protected].