'Stranger Things 3' Spoiler Review: An 8-Hour Summer Blockbuster

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick...and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Stranger Things 3.)

When Netflix provided me with screeners to review Stranger Things 3, they included a laundry list of spoilers that could not, under any circumstance, be mentioned in the review. As a rule, I try to avoid any and all spoilers in a general review, but this list was daunting to say the least. Now, the cat is out of the bag. Stranger Things 3 dropped on July 4, and I'm guessing if you're reading this, you went ahead and binged the entire season over the holiday weekend. That means its time to head back to Hawkins, and delve into the details that Netflix was so hellbent on keeping a secret.

Spoilers follow – obviously.stranger things eleven and max

Teen Romance, Exploding Rats and that New Mall Smell

Stranger Things wouldn't be Stranger Things without dangerous goings-on, but as far as the main characters know, things in Hawkins are a-okay. When season 3 kicks-off, summer is in full-swing – and so is teen romance. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) aren't kids anymore. They're in their early teenage years, and they're also in the midst of some serious smooching. The two have embraced if not their feelings, than their hormones, and like to spend as much time as possible kissing – much to the chagrin of Hopper (David Harbour), who has fully assimilated into his role as Eleven's father.

Hopper would like to do some kissing of his own, with Joyce (Winona Ryder). Unfortunately, Joyce is still hung-up over the death of her ex-boyfriend Bob. It's clear that she has feelings for Hopp, though, and the two spend most of the season dancing around those emotions, to the point where it becomes something of a running joke.

Mike's sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and her boyfriend Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are in a relationship of their own, but they're headed in different directions. They're both interning at the local newspaper, but while Jonathan is content to hang back and develop pictures, Nancy is in full-blown Lois Lane mode, hoping to break a big story.

The rest of the gang seems fairly content, with a few exceptions. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is back from camp, but discovers his friends aren't as interested in the nerdy pursuits that he is. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) have an easygoing relationship, although we learn from Lucas that Max has dumped him several times already. And Joyce's son, poor Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), is growing concerned as all his friends are in a rush to grow up and leave him behind.

Darkness rears its head in the form of the Mind Flayer, the monstrous beastie from the Upside Down that possessed Will last season. Eleven thought she had successfully destroyed the monster, but she wasn't counting on those damn dirty Russians. Yes, in true Red Dawn fashion, the Soviets have infiltrated Hawkins and are trying to reopen the gate to the Upside Down. Why? Because they're evil, that's why. All that Russian tomfoolery jostles the Mind Flayer back into action, and it proceeds to find itself a new host – Max's brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery).

The Russians are hiding out deep beneath the new Starcourt Mall, the fancy shopping mall bankrolled by the town's corrupt mayor (Cary Elwes), who is, of course, working with the Russians. While the Reds toil away underground, Steve and his glorious hair (Joe Keery and his glorious hair) slings ice cream up above, working at the mall ice cream shop. His coworker is the no-nonsense Robin (Maya Hawke), who ends up getting swept into a plan to discover the Russians and their evil ways. As Robin, Steve and Dustin team-up to go underground, possessed Billy proceeds to recruit more hapless Hawkins residents into his evil army. The end game is to give the Mind Flayer a physical body in this world, and that involves exploding rats – and melting people – who all liquify together to form a big, gooey monster.

Hopper takes it upon himself to break up Mike and Eleven by threatening Mike. Eleven, pissed off at Mike for his lies, bonds with Max, while the boys try to solve the mysteries of the female species. A quest to discover weird magnetism leads Joyce and Hopper directly into the Russian plot, and the two end up with a defecting Russian scientist named Alexi (Alec Utgoff), and loudmouth know-it-all Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman).

Over the course of the season, all of these thread come together, converging in a big cinematic showdown in the mall. Hearts are broken, lessons are learned, and Hopper dies. Although we all know he's not really dead, and he'll be back next season. Because of course he will. And so will you, Stranger Things viewer.

The Hurt Is Good: What Works

Stranger Things 3 is an improvement over season 2 in nearly every single way. In fact, it's the best season of the show to date. This season is entertaining from top to bottom, unfolding like an 8-hour summer blockbuster. The pacing is on point, the humor is (mostly) successful, and the horror ramps up. Things get nasty this season, with a lot more gore, a lot more danger, and a lot more violence.

Season 3 also is smart enough to focus on change. While the show continues to tread familiar ground in terms of '80s movie references and story plotting, season 3 has a heavy focus on how the characters have grown (and in some cases regressed) since we first met them. The kids are the most obvious examples, since they don't really seem like kids anymore – they're bordering on young adulthood. Eleven is still awkward in the real world, but she comes out of her shell in a big way this season, thanks primarily to the friendship she strikes up with Max. Max and Eleven were kept apart all through season 2, and when they finally met, Eleven couldn't seem to give a damn. I can't say I blame her – season 2 Max was a bit of a bore. Season 3 Max, however, is a welcomed addition. The show lets Sadie Sink do a lot more this season, and she makes the character her own. The chemistry between her and Brown's Eleven goes a long way, and some of the best moments of season 3 involve Max and Eleven just hanging out, and acting like normal kids.

And what of the adults? Poor Winona Ryder is still massively underused on this show (give her more to do, damn it!), but she makes the most of what she's given. David Harbour's Hopper remains the real focus of the adult characters, and Hopper's arc this season is fascinating. As more people have binged through the season, I've seen several complaints about Hopper's characterization this year. Some seem turned off at how violent and angry he is. But here's the thing: Hopper has always been violent and angry. He was an outright jerk in season 1 (remember – he was willing to sell-out Eleven), and he wasn't much better in season 2. I have a feeling that fans are confusing Hopper with David Harbour. When Stranger Things started, Harbour wasn't exactly a household name. In the years since, he's become a popular presence, and by all accounts, the actor comes across as a genuinely charming, genuinely warm guy. So when it came time to revisit Jim Hopper in season 3, audiences might be so used to Harbour that they find Hopper's gruffness alarming.

Hopper is clearly a damaged man, and he has been all along – he lost his biological daughter, and having to deal with nonstop horrors in Hawkins has left him a bit screwy in the head (he tells Joyce he almost shot a neighbors dog to death because he thought for a second it might be an escaped creature from the Upside Down). On top of all of that, he's now a father again, having adopted Eleven as his own. She's growing up before his eyes, and her blossoming adulthood is clearly adding even more stress. So yes, I'd say it's fair to say that Jim Hopper is a total mess this season. And that's the point. Hopper still has a long way to go – to finally work his way back to the good man we all want him to be.

When season 2 introduced new characters Max and Billy, they came across as out-of-place. Billy was little more than a sociopathic bully, and his presence added very little to an already crowded show. Season 3 gives him a purpose by turning him into the Big Bad. It also makes the wise decision to make him a bit more sympathetic by showing his traumatic backstory. While this reveal isn't earned (more on that below), it is welcomed, and Dacre Montgomery does a wonderful job balancing Evil Billy with Sympathetic, Sad Billy.

Speaking of new characters, the true MVP of Stranger Things 3 is Maya Hawke's Robin. Hawke has a true star quality, which shouldn't be a surprise – she's the offspring of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, after all. The actress makes Robin charming right from the get-go, and the playful banter she has with Joe Keery's Steve is a delight. I'm not quite sold on the way the season handles her character's sexuality, treating her confession to Steve that she's gay like a last-minute twist/joke, but Hawke is so effortlessly endearing that it's ok.

Harbour and Ryder may get top billing, but Stranger Things has been Millie Bobby Brown's show for some time now, and season 3 gives the young actress the biggest emotional heavy lifting to date. Eleven spends nearly the entire season in some form of distress or pain, and Brown sells it all. Does she have range beyond playing tortured young weirdos? I'm not sure – her underwhelming role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters did little to suggest that. But within the confines of Stranger Things, she's golden.

Stranger Things Season 3

The Sauna Test: What Doesn't Work 

As endlessly entertaining as Stranger Things 3 is, it's not without its missteps. The season does a great job giving its ensemble cast enough to do, and not letting anyone get lost in the shuffle (a problem season 2 had). To get there, though, the series has to bend its own rules and virtually ignore elements previously established.

Max and Billy had a terrible relationship in season 2, and it only got worse by the time the season ended. Season 3 forgets all about that, and has Max genuinely concerned for Billy's wellbeing. You could argue that Max isn't a monster, so it makes sense that she has some sort of feeling for her brother and his plight. But it never feels earned here.

Billy was a full-blown psycho in season 2, but season 3 dials that down – because it needs to have Billy be somewhat sympathetic before he gets possessed by the Mind Flayer. This, too, feels unearned. Sure, it helps to get the background into Billy's troubled, abusive childhood, but even that feels shoehorned in to give the writing an excuse to tinker with Billy's characterization. The fact of the matter is that season 2 Billy and Max were both pointless, and the series seems willing to completely ignore those incarnations in favor of their season 3 form. It works – but it comes off as cheating.

While the series finally found a good way to use Billy and Max, it lost sight of some original characters: Nancy and Jonathan. Of all the members of the ensemble, these two seem the most adrift. Their storyline is almost an afterthought, and it's hard to care much about their constant bickering. Nancy's subplot, in which she starts investigating some strange goings-on involving the Mind Flayer, might have worked in a less-crowded season. Here, however, it fizzles out. The storyline isn't so much wrapped-up as it is shut down. And the solution to her big problem involving the jerks at the newspaper she's interning at is "solved" when pretty much the entire staff ends up dying.

Priah Ferguson was a big breakout addition in season 2. As Lucas's sassy, scene-stealing sister Erica, Ferguson's performance was one of the rare highlights of the second season, and fans loved her. Creators The Duffer Brothers picked up on this, and wisely brought Ferguson back for a bigger role in season 3. Sure enough, Ferguson gets to steal scenes again, and she's pretty damn funny. At the same time, Erica's expanded role here frequently comes across as fan service. She ends up playing a part in the main action simply because she's small enough to fit through an air duct. It's too random an reason, and just like changing-up Billy and Max's characterizations, it feels like a cheat.

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A Deep, Dark Cave: The Future

Stranger Things will live on. How could it not? It's one of Netflix's biggest hits. Producer Shawn Levy has previously hinted that the series would probably wrap-up after four seasons, only to walk that back a little bit. But four seasons feels right. Season 2 was so lopsided that it made me uneasy about things to come. But season 3 rights the ship, and sails smoothly.

And yet, I can't imagine the series lasting much longer and feeling fresh at the same time. Sure, Netflix could keep the show going, and run it into the ground with uninspired plotting. But as the kids get older, it becomes clear that Stranger Things wasn't meant to be a series that ran on forever. Sooner or later, everyone grows up and moves on to something new. The show itself seems to realize this, and articulates it through Hopper's heartfelt letter that Eleven reads after her adoptive father "dies."

"I know you're getting older, growing, changing," Hopper writes. "I guess, if I'm being really honest, that's what scares me. I don't want things to change. So I think maybe that's why I came in here, to try and make stop that change. To turn back the clock. To make things go back to how they were. But I know that's naive. It's just not how life works. It's moving, always moving, whether you like it or not. And yeah, sometimes it's painful. Sometimes it's sad. And sometimes, it's surprising. Happy."

Stranger Things 3 is a success – a refreshing break from a lame summer blockbuster movie season. But sooner or later, it's going to be time to grow up. That doesn't have to be a bad thing.