In addition to incredible effects and high stakes, Stranger Things is sustained by its themes and ever-changing characters. Beautifully-developed friendships, talented actors, thoughtful writing and creative direction are what make this show so enjoyable – especially this season, the most fun and emotionally resonant yet.
Epic allusions to Back to the Future, Jaws and Jurassic Park along with humor and adventure set Stranger Things 3 apart. But an entertaining show about a monster destroying a small-town mall would be largely forgettable if not for the deeper themes presented by characters we’ve come to love and care for over three seasons. It’s not just a great show; it’s a work of literary art, with valuable lessons for the residents of Hawkins, Indiana – and for us.
1. Memory is More Powerful Than Telepathy
For the first two chapters of Stranger Things, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) relied upon her telekinetic powers to rescue her friends from inter-dimensional monsters. But her gifts are compromised late this season, leaving her powerless to the Mind Flayer possessing Billy (Dacre Montgomery). She must rely on his emotional backstory and precious memories of his mother to get back to the human part of him. Brown’s performance is better than ever, proving with her tears that the human heart is the key – to defeating the monster, sure, but also to Stranger Things.
2. Love is Relative
Relationships abound in the series, but the Duffer Brothers and their talented writing staff expertly portray all different kinds of love aside from romance. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven are the clearest example; their characters are still young, but they already know what real love looks like. It looks less like making out to an REO Speedwagon song and more like walking through hell together. With echoes of Harry and Hermione and Dawson and Joey before them, their true friendship and challenging relationship is a joy to watch, proving that television relationships don’t have to be typical to be interesting.
Our favorite Scoops Ahoy employees Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) also had instant chemistry, but when Robin tells Steve she’s gay in one of the best scenes of the series, their platonic friendship becomes undoubtedly just as shippable – and yet another picture of what love can look like when you separate it from physical chemistry. In a season full of heightened action, it’s this quiet scene on the floor of a movie theater bathroom that is most memorable. This is largely due to Hawke and Keery’s acting, and the Duffers Brothers’ ability to turn what could have been a heavy thematic moment into one of joy and understanding.
3. Everyone Has Something to Give
This is a universal theme, but not a lot of shows pull it off quite like Stranger Things. These characters never fall into the stereotypical categories of “the smart one,” “the tough one,” or “the pretty one.” They’re all smart, they’re all tough, and yeah, they’re all really pretty. (Joe Keery: Making Black Eyes Look Good Since 2016.) When the Mind Flayer takes over Hawkins yet again, each character contributes his or her own special talent to fighting it – especially when Eleven needs their help. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) thinks of using fireworks, Max (Sadie Sink) takes care of Eleven’s wounded leg, Steve drives the getaway car, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica (Priah Ferguson) navigate the underground lab, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) investigates the source of the virus, and the list goes on to include the show’s excellent adult cast.
Each character serves a purpose, which sounds like a basic rule of structural writing – but so few shows actually manage it this well. The balanced writing from the Duffers and company is careful and thoughtful – and sends an important message about how much we each have to give.
4. Family Doesn’t Always Mean Blood
Hopper (David Harbour) and Eleven developed their own little family in Stranger Things 2, and she seamlessly joins the Byers family at the end of season three after his presumed death. The boys we met in Mike Wheeler’s basement three years ago created their own Dungeons & Dragons party when they were kids, and though it showed signs of wavering, it never did. Billy and Max weren’t actually related, but they clearly loved each other. Maybe more than 40 million households tuned into Stranger Things 3 in its first four days because it’s actually just about family – the one you find in a mall ice cream shop or an isolated cabin in the woods.
5. Nothing is Ever Really Over
As the wise sage Katy Perry sings: just because it’s over doesn’t mean it’s really over. The post-credits scene at the end of Stranger Things 3 makes its finale feel open-ended, assuring audiences that there is more story left to tell. Despite Eleven and the Byers leaving Hawkins, despite Hopper being supposedly gone, despite a well-rounded, seemingly close-ended finale…just like in life, there will always be more monsters to defeat. But as long as these characters are around, that thought feels a little less scary.
6. There’s a lot of Beauty in Ordinary Things
OK, maybe that’s actually a line from The Office, and maybe discovering an elaborate Russian lair hidden below an Indiana mall isn’t exactly “beautiful.” But this show is built on the premise of something deeper – the possibilities that lurk beneath the surface of a small town and its inhabitants. Beneath Steve, a popular jock who became the show’s most endearing and entertaining character. Beneath Billy, and a lifetime of painful memories that created his hard exterior. Beneath Nancy and Karen (Cara Buono), who share an especially poignant mother-daughter moment in the Wheeler kitchen. Beneath Will (Noah Schnapp), a character who has experienced the show’s load of trauma and pain, who just wants to go back to the way things were when a D&D campaign was all he had to worry about. He doesn’t want things to change – but as Hopper says in his letter to Eleven, life is always moving. Stranger Things 3 shows us just how true that is – and how to see past the surface of people and into their upside down.
All episodes of Stranger Things season 3 are now available to stream on Netflix