'Stranger Things' Comes of Age in Its Horrifying, Heartbreaking Third Season

Starring Finn Wolfhard, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Sadie Sink, Maya Hawke
'Stranger Things' Comes of Age in Its Horrifying, Heartbreaking Third Season
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Stranger Things has always been a show about growing up. Focusing on a ragtag group of outcasts in small-town Indiana as they deal with supernatural creatures and shadowy government conspiracies, the Netflix smash hit served as both a love letter to '80s pop culture — with plenty of homages to the era's most enduring films — and a coming-of-age story in its own right. In season three, Stranger Things finds the series confidently growing into its own, moving past its tributary origins for its biggest and best season yet.
 
It's not a moment too soon. While 2017's second season felt too much like a rehash of the first, as it reset many of the original beats — the same will-they-won't-they romances, similar character clustering, identical stakes and pacing — season three wastes no time establishing how much things have changed (the teenage leads' changing voices certainly help), and keeps things moving through to its explosive finale.
 
It gives fans many of the onscreen team-ups they've been desperately waiting for — Anxious young adults Nancy and Jonathan! Teenage lovebirds Mike and Eleven! Hapless goofballs Dustin and Steve! Intergenerational flirters Billy and Mrs. Wheeler! — without indulging so much as to sacrifice good storytelling.
 
Though Stranger Things built its brand by cashing in on '80s nostalgia, it's the characters that have led to the show's enduring success, and this season adds some welcome new dynamics to the mix. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), often relegated to being "one of the boys," gets a gal-pal in last year's newcomer Max (Sadie Sink), and their nuanced explorations on female friendship provide a vital counterpoint to all the time the show has spent on the boys farting around (sometimes literally). Wise-cracking newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) helps give Steve depth without sacrificing any of her own.
 
Though the show's been praised for its casting, particularly with its stellar cast of breakout child actors, Noah Schnapp as poor, extraterrestrially victimized Will stands out with some heartfelt performances as he fears his friends moving on without him, in a crowning example of how this third season expertly captures the adolescent struggle between holding onto childhood fixations and letting them go in favour of new, hormone-driven escapades.
 
And, of course, the '80s tributes continue in full force. This time, it's body horror that dominates the season's aesthetic, with particular love toward John Carpenter's 1982 classic The Thing, plus dashes of Cronenberg and Alien mixed in for good measure. It's a choice that gives the season higher stakes, though may also alienate the faint of heart — things get seriously gruesome. On the downside, however, is an overlong, underdeveloped Terminator subplot that finds the show at its navel-gazing, nostalgia-baiting worst.
 
This third season also serves a tribute to the concept of blockbuster trilogies itself — the season gives major payoff to several of the show's long-running story arcs without closing all the doors. Show creators the Duffer Brothers have always estimated that the show will last four to five seasons (and besides, how many great franchises stayed great past three films, anyway?), and so as the series hurtles toward its inevitable conclusion, there are plenty of bold ideas still to come.
 
Stranger Things 3 arrives on Netflix on July 4. (Netflix)