'Stranger Things 3' Review: The Nostalgic Hit Is Better Than Ever With An Exciting, Emotional Third Season

The kids of Hawkins, Indiana aren't really kids anymore. Demogorgons and other slimy monsters are plenty scary, but not nearly as scary as the passage of time. In Stranger Things 3, the third season of Netflix's mega-hit series, characters who once seemed so childish and young are on the cusp of young adulthood, and facing down the future. "One summer can change anything" says the tagline for the season, and it's an apt description. After a lackluster, slipshod second season, Stranger Things roars back more exciting, and emotional than ever, with a third season that moves things forward at a thrilling pace, and sweeps us along with it.

It's summer 1985, and love is in the air. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) are in the midst of a relationship – which, since they're thirteen, simply means they spend any free time they have smooching clumsily in El's bedroom. Their blooming romance is infuriating to Hopper (David Harbour), who has fully embraced his role as Eleven's father. Hopper is threatened by all the kissing going on under his roof, and he'd like it to stop, immediately. At the same time, he'd like to start a new relationship of his own with Joyce (Winona Ryder), who, understandably, remains a bit hung-up over the brutal death of her old boyfriend Bob.

But love, or lack-thereof, is the least of these character's problems. Because the Mind Flayer – the creepy creature from the Upside Down that possessed Joyce's poor son Will (Noah Schnapp) last season, is still lurking – and it wants revenge against Eleven. Will Eleven and her pals triumph over the forces of darkness? Will Hopper and Joyce finally embrace their feelings? This set-up and these questions are familiar – even derivative. But how they play out is not. Stranger Things 3's strength lies in the unexpected directions it heads into, giving viewers the sense of something legitimately new and thrilling.

One of the many problems of season 2 was the character imbalance. The series added even more characters last time – new kid Max (Sadie Sink) and her jerk brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), but had no idea what to do with them. Worse, it didn't seem to know what to do with any of the other characters as well, save for Eleven. Season 3 has none of these problems. Remarkably, it finds a way to give its ever-growing ensemble their fair share of heavy lifting. And we relish the time we spend with them. What a treat it is to spend time with these characters again – like reuniting with old friends.

To better balance the workload, Stranger Things 3 breaks everyone up into groups, while also keeping them in the general proximity of one another. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), back from summer camp, ends up spending most of the season at the town's new mall with Steve (Joe Keery) and his co-worker Robin (Maya Hawke). Steve and Robin work at the mall ice cream parlor, and the three characters are soon embroiled in a secret plot involving the mall itself. They're joined by season 2 fave Erica, once again played with scene-stealing grace by Priah Ferguson.

Mike, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will are situated in their own group, with Mike and Lucas pondering the mysteries of girls while Will grows paranoid that his friends are growing up too fast and will soon leave him behind.

Eleven, meanwhile, forms a new and welcomed friendship with Max. Season 2 kept these characters apart the entire season, and when they finally met, Eleven was instantly hostile to Max. None of that is here this time, and the camaraderie that blooms between the two girls is one of this season's many highlights.

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And while Hopper and Joyce are dancing around their potential relationship, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are trying to navigate their own. The two are together now, and both interning at the local paper. But while Jonathan is content to go with the flow, Nancy dreams of cracking a big story, and becoming a star reporter, consequences be damned.

Eventually, all of these threads come together – and in an wholly satisfying way. Nothing here seems crammed together, or extraneous. Instead, Stranger Things 3 carefully builds its way towards big Spielbergian moments loaded with pulse-pounding action beats against memorable set pieces. And everyone is bringing their A-game.

Brown's Eleven remains a highlight, and she's tasked with some of the biggest emotional heavy lifting she's had to deal with so far. Harbour once again reminds everyone why he's so damn likable, managing to balance Hopper's rough-and-tumble tendencies with real heart. He also gets to kick a lot of ass – Hopper is in full-fledged action hero mode. And the goofy friendship between Keery and Matarazzo's characters is as fresh and charming as it ever was.

On the new character front, Hawke's Robin is a welcomed addition to the bunch. The actress has great dry comedic timing, and her line delivery – her voice sounds almost identical to the voice of her mother, Uma Thurman – is so sharply enunciated and pronounced that you hang on her every word. It would've been very easy for this character to get lost in the shuffle, but Hawke nails it.

The direction, most of which comes from series creators the Duffer Brothers, is often cinematic, but poorly served by some oppressively dark lighting. I get it – this is a show that takes place primarily at night, in dark rooms, dealing with dark moods. But we should be able to see things on screen. My biggest problem with season 3 is that for several episodes, I found myself squinting and trying to figure out just what the hell I was supposed to be looking at.

If you can move beyond the frequently impenetrable cinematography, you'll be rewarded with what might very well be the best season of this series yet. I came away from season 2 thinking the show had run its course, and there was perhaps nothing left to do with this premise. I leave season 3 excited to see what comes next. To hell with the dead summer movie season – stay home and get your blockbuster kicks from Stranger Things 3.

Stranger Things 3 premieres on Netflix July 4, 2019.stranger things season 3 review