Recently I was talking with a friend and we were discussing our favorite television shows and did what most people do in discussions like that… we created a list. A top five if you will. At the time I was moderately happy with my selections even though something about it kind of rankled me. You know the feeling, like when something is out of place and you can’t stop staring at it, your skin starts to kind of itch, and finally after an internal debate that goes on for hours (literal seconds) you get up and fix it so you can breathe. Something was off. I couldn’t help but feel like I was neglecting a show. All the shows on the list I love, but there was one that should have been there and for the life of me I couldn’t think of it. It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized that my list was all wrong. Out of all the shows that made the cut, and there are some truly great ones, I had made a giant omission. Where was Stranger Things, Kevin? What kind of list did you just create without Stranger Things?!
The answer, an incomplete list.
My love affair with Hawkins started kind of immediately. Season one just sucked me in like Barb into the Upside Down. This was everything I love about stories. The coming of age tale. Kids vs. monsters. All the ‘80s nostalgia my thirty-year-old heart could barely handle. Strong characters. A story based out of my neck of the woods but moved to Indiana. Heavy Stephen King inspirations. I fell in love with Stranger Things in that July of 2016, and I fell head over heels. Suddenly I was watching the show all the time. I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I watched that first season. I was buying any and all Stranger Things t-shirts. A large portion of my Funko pop vinyl collection was dedicated to the show. I. Was. Obsessed.
Season two I got to watch with my then girlfriend, now fiancé, and the allure was still strong. We actually got into a little bit of a rift over our viewing schedule. Hawkins had become a home away from home and I just needed to be back there. I didn’t care that we had “social obligations” even though our obligations required us to dress up as Eleven and Dustin. I wanted to sit in front of that screen with her and just experience the magic of Hawkins again. To share it together and we did, and it was glorious.
Then, the show kind of fell off the map for over a year and a half. That’s the problem with season dumps. Shows don’t last as long as I’d like them to. It’s all over in a weekend or so. I want to savor. I want it to last as long as possible, even went so far as asking Netflix to space out the release to no avail. But in a world without Stranger Things, there were other shows to distract me. Other shows to get wrapped up in and occupy my headspace. I never forgot Hawkins though. I had my t-shirts. I had my pops. The theme music is my ringtone. I just didn’t visit for a while and I didn’t realize it at the time but… it made me sad. I missed this place, these characters so very much. It wasn’t until our most recent re-watch that I understood just how much.
With that being said, I was slightly concerned heading into this third season. What if the magic and the charm wasn’t there? What if the time in between seasons robbed the show of its heart? The kids were getting older. The window of opportunity seemed to be closing faster than Hawkins’s mom and pop shops due to the Starcourt Mall. After any long absence, you can’t help but wonder if the show you fell in love with would be returning or would this be something entirely different. Just look at the reactions to the final season of Game of Thrones. To say that was met with a mixed bag would be an understatement. I just wanted my friends back. And as the return date rapidly approached I allowed my excitement levels to outweigh my stress. I was going back to Hawkins and that’s all that mattered.
It was abundantly clear within the first fifteen minutes of season three that there was nothing to stress about. That the time in between seasons, while painful, allowed the Duffer Brothers to play into the strength of their cast and enhance their story. The kids were getting older and it’s that growing up that plays into the backbone of this third season. Sure, there’s a mystery to solve and there is a monster problem, but at its core Stranger Things has always been about the characters and their relationships and those relationships absolutely shine here. Outside of the Harry Potter series where else have we been able to watch young characters grow up in real time? Instead of pretending that these kids weren’t going through their awkward changes, like Thrones did with Bran, Stranger Things embraced it and allowed their story to evolve and grow because of it.
We all know that getting older is difficult. Life changes. Interest change. Relationships either evolve, fall apart, or slowly dissolve. Time can be cruel and sad at times, and it’s those thoughts that weigh heavy on this third season. Change. Every one of these characters is going through some sort of change. Whether it’s Will Byers so desperately clinging to a childhood that he’s been robbed of, and if I could have hugged this kid I would have. I see a lot of myself in Will and the majority of the emotions I felt early this season where at his expense and because of Noah Schnapp’s continued excellent performance.
Hopper is trying to adjust to life as a father to a teenage girl while also ignorantly hoping that all the Hawkins Lab stuff is behind them even when the evidence suggests otherwise. He wants his daughter to be safe and needs to believe that she can be. This is a season that sees the steadfast Hopper, stumble and often times look lost. This is uncharted territory for him and after spending such a long time avoiding emotional connections, he’s afraid for the first time ever. The black hole speech from season two isn’t something that Hopper forgets, and he struggles this season to balance being a father, a cop, and maybe believing that there could be something more for him. It’s a very vulnerable Hopper and it takes some time to adjust to seeing him this way, but David Harbour embodies this small town cop so genuinely and honestly. We can’t help but believe that Jim Hopper is the heartbeat to Stranger Things and luckily he has Joyce Byers to remind him of that. A Joyce Byers who is given much more to do then just worry about her son and because of it a new life is breathed into the character. Joyce becomes the anchor Hop needs and Ryder and Harbour eat up their scenery together.
Hopper and Joyce aren’t the only ones who have apparent love in the air as a number of our party are dealing with first-time relationships. Clearly, Lucas took his father’s advice from last season a little too close to heart and gives Mike some pretty bad love advice. Mike is the opposite of smooth while wrestling with his emotions for Eleven. Dustin might possibly have found love at summer camp but he’s got Steve in her absence, God bless you Steve Harrington, who might have lost his mojo due to his ice cream shop day job. While Max and Eleven discover that the world doesn’t have to revolve around boys and build a strong friendship outside of their respective relationships. Every relationship presented this season feels authentic and like an experienced emotion. Whether it’s cringing at Lucas’s advice to Mike or laughing at Dustin’s supposed girlfriend or sympathizing with Steve who has gone from high school hero to real life zero, everything is earned and fits the characters and their position in life. The Duffer Brothers write young characters so honestly and not projections of what they’re supposed to be. It’s fun to see the younger kids come to the understanding that having a life and having a girlfriend/boyfriend can be two entirely different things. That they aren’t mutually exclusive and the love angles add an interesting, yet very real, dynamic to their maturation.
No new season of any show is without new characters and this third season does an excellent job of introducing a handful of new characters while expanding on others. Luca’s younger sister, Erica, steals just about every scene she’s in. Cary Elwes’s run as Hawkin’s mayor is inconceivably fun. But it’s Steve’s Scoop’s Ahoy partner, Robin (played by Maya Hawke) that is the best addition to this seasons cast. Not only does Robin not feel forced but her dynamic with Steven and Dustin is charming and instantaneous. Whenever the three of them weren’t onscreen, I missed them and when they were onscreen I was enamored. A large part of that is Hawke’s ability to feed off the already strong chemistry between Kerry and Matarazzo’s. It took two episodes before I decided that I would die for Robin and fully expect Hawke to be this season’s breakout star.
But this is Hawkins and what would Stranger Things be without its monsters? Make no mistake about it, everything about this third season is massive. The universe of Stranger Things expands in some major ways but unlike last season’s “The Lost Sister”, everyone’s least favorite/poorly placed episode, this season makes everything feel larger but also contained. At no time does this story feel bigger than Hawkins or the characters that inhabit it, and balances expansion with what we’ve grown to love showing that the Duffer Brothers might have learned their lesson from “The Lost Sister”. There are ways to naturally expand this story without shoehorning things in, and this season is a perfect example of that natural progression. Not only does the narrative thrive because of that but so do the set pieces. Everything is larger. The danger. The monsters. The risks. But at no point do we lose focus on the fact that all this is able to work because how invested in these characters we’ve become.
This year’s mystery moves at a breakneck pace and it’s a blast watching this mystery come together. Everyone is involved and handling a different aspect of the problem and when everything comes together for the finale the results is one of the biggest, most action-packed, emotional episodes in the history of the show. And that’s the true key to Hawkins and to Stranger Things… the emotion. We feel these events because these characters, through writing and performances, jump off the screen. We hyperventilate when Mike jumps off the cliff or cry when Will is interrogated and fist pump whenever Dustin or Steve do anything. We love Eleven, not only for Millie Bobby Brown’s extraordinary performances, but because we want her to find peace and just be a kid. Stranger Things demands us to put our emotions at the forefront and that’s what makes the story so impactful. At the end of the day, it’s not the massive set pieces or the fantastic ’80s color schemes or the nostalgia that makes this show work. That’s all icing on the cake. It’s the characters and the heart that make this machine thrive. This third season is a celebration of all of that and it delivers on multiple levels both satisfying and devastating.
Although our visit to Hawkins seems to fly by it’s the emotions and feelings that remain. I have yet to shake off this season and suspect that I’ll be wearing it for quite a while. Most likely the remainder of the summer. I am not ready to say goodbye to these characters just yet. Of course, this means another re-watch not just of season three but of the entire series is on the horizon, but there’s also the promise of a fourth season. In what is sure to be the conclusion of this story. But before then I’ll allow myself to get lost in this town over and over again. It feels like home. Once that logo comes across the screen everything just feels right.
The gift of storytelling is its ability to stick with you. I first stopped into Hawkins in the summer of 2016 and I’m already planning my next visit before the gang returns. Hopefully, the wait won’t be as long, but I know going forward that if I’m making any favorite tv show lists, Stranger Things belongs there. Somewhere near the top and closest to my heart.