The third season of Stranger Things is here at last, and the kids of Hawkins, Indiana, must once again save the world from the conniving forces of the Shadow Monster and … the Soviet Union? Let’s take a look at some of this season’s winners and losers. (Spoilers abound, obviously.)
OK, OK—most of the Russians in Stranger Things’ third season did not exactly meet happy ends. But it’s sort of wild that there were Russians at all, right? Partly a wink at 1984’s Red Dawn, in which a group of teens in Nowheresville, USA, form the last line of defense against a Soviet invasion, and partly a sendup of ’80s-vintage Cold War hysteria, the Russian descent on a Hawkins mall was … a lot. As in literally a lot: For a joke that takes all of a sentence to explain, Russian scheming got a great deal of screen time, not to mention the, uh, central plot, in which Russky military ops once again unleashed the Mind Flayer by reopening the Upside Down. Definitely the biggest upset win of the season.
Losers: The Townsfolk of Hawkins, Indiana
At a certain point, you’ve just got to throw in the towel and move away. Bad and supernatural things happen in Hawkins on the regular, something even the tertiary townsfolk must surely have noticed by now. You would think, then, that Nancy’s attempt to sound the alarm about strange happenings and berserk rats early this season would have fallen on more sympathetic ears. Alas, the patriarchy is alive and well. (Or, uh, maybe not alive or well, but—you get it.)
This season, the Mind Flayer has a new bag of tricks. Chiefly, the monster’s latest efforts at world conquest take the form of possessing townsfolk one by one via an Alien-esque face sucker, and then forcing them to do such illustrious tasks as gobble down sacks of fertilizer, kidnap and maim future victims, and dissolve into hideous puddles of guts and bone. Our big bad infected dozens of ordinary Hawkinsians this season, a servitude that culminated in all of them gathering at the monster’s warehouse HQ and disintegrating on the spot—the better to use their bodies to build one giant Mind Flayer. Charming! This season finally tried to explain what it is about this town that keeps bringing about trouble, but the answer was less than satisfying: The portal to the Upside Down had to be reopened there because … the previous portal to the Upside Down had not yet “healed” fully. Everyone in Hawkins who’s survived this long should move away immediately.
Winner: Gaten Matarazzo (a.k.a. Dustin Henderson)
The trouble with hiring adorable child actors to star in a years-long cultural behemoth is that, alas, sometimes they pull a Bobby Draper, or a Bran Stark, or a Becca Moody, or, well, sometimes they grow up, and their acting does not always catch up to that of the resident grown-ups. It’s hard to say whether the Stranger Things powers that be simply decided that Gaten Matarazzo, the actor who plays Dustin Henderson, is alone among the original foursome of boys in developing the acting chops necessary for more screen time, or if the allure of building out a buddy comedy starring Dustin and Steve (Joe Keery) was just too strong. But from the end of the season’s first episode all the way through the final scenes of its penultimate episode, Dustin has his own adventures while his erstwhile BFFs scheme elsewhere.
He tracks down Steve at Scoops Ahoy and, with assists from fellow ice cream slinger Robin and Lucas’s little sister, Erica, unravels the Soviet conspiracy, finds the complex hidden underneath the Starcourt Mall, and lives to tell the tale. Matarazzo’s chemistry with Keery remains a highlight—as does, frankly, just about everything Matarazzo does. Bummer for his pals, but more Dustin is great news for the rest of us.
Loser: 1980s Parenting
What—truly, what—are the parents in Hawkins thinking? In Season 3, we see ’80s parenting taken to extreme lengths—which is to say, it becomes basically nonexistent. Our central cast is meant to be around 13 years old, but when parents are seen at all, it’s only fleetingly: Dustin’s mom drives him home from summer camp before vanishing; Hopper threatens Mike to scare him away from Eleven before literally traipsing off into the woods; Joyce hears second- or third-hand that Will is going to the fair and thinks no more of it before heading out of state. Mostly, the other moms of Hawkins are busy: They’re at the pool waiting for Billy, his perm, and his terrifying brain demon to waltz shirtlessly by.
This, as a reminder, is a town where children have been kidnapped and tortured by a secret government lab, abducted by a monster and nearly killed in a cursed netherworld, and actually killed in a cursed netherworld (and then never discussed again). Say what you will about hands-off parenting, but if your kid goes MIA for a couple of days in Hawkins and you’re not calling in the National Guard, you should probably be investigated by Child Protective Services.
The central kids, so charming and petite when the show debuted just three years ago, now all appear to be 6 feet tall. Max is made fun of for getting a zit, and Will alone still wants to play Dungeons & Dragons. Time comes for us all.
Loser: The Forced Reality of the Red Carpet
Most everything that emerged from the Stranger Things red carpet photo shoots is haunting. Consider this picture, in which Steve looks like a stepdad and Finn Wolfhard looks like he is actively working for the Mind Flayer. Other discoveries: Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Lucas, has honest-to-god facial hair. And Noah Schnapp, a.k.a. Will Byers, should maybe consider going Chris Sale on his haircut next season.
Sorry, moms-and-pops: Modern American commerce is here. As Season 3 gets underway, we learn that Hawkins has gotten its first mall, a glitzy neon emporium that has promptly put most of the independent (and not-so-independent; sorry, RadioShack) shops on Main Street out of business. Yes, fine, this mall just so happens to be the result of a corrupt land deal between the Hawkins mayor and Soviet agents (sure!), but the draw of the shopping supercenter is real, and Indiana’s teens and tweens have flocked accordingly. You can take the Russians out of Starcourt, but you can’t do much about the invisible hand. Now, if someone could just go check out that mysterious storage locker behind Amazon headquarters …
This was one long string of L’s for the Hawkins chief of police. First, he was forced to listen to the horrible lip-smacking of Eleven and Mike as they disregarded the keep-the-door-open-3-inches rules in the name of true love (or at least a first tween relationship and its attendant awkward passions). Joyce tried to walk the chief through a thoughtful heart-to-heart with his adopted daughter about building healthy boundaries, but Hopper is as Hopper does, and he told Mike that his beloved Nana was ill, then drove him home and told him to keep his distance, causing Mike and El to split up. Meanwhile, Hopper was carrying out his own bumbling romance with Joyce—or tried to, anyway, while she mostly continued to mourn poor Bob Newby. And while Hopper’s affection for Joyce is sincere, he found ways of poisoning that relationship, too, by accusing her of being interested in pretty much every man she spoke to.
And then, of course, there’s the most fateful L of all. We don’t know for sure whether Hopper died at the end of the season’s final episode, or if he lived to become the shadowy Soviet prisoner we see in the closing moments who is identified as “the American.” The latter is more likely—why show us that if it’s not Hopper?—but that life, in which we saw another prisoner fed to a demogorgon, sure doesn’t seem like a pleasant one. And if it’s fodder for Season 4 (yes, there will be a Season 4), then, ugh, I guess that would suggest there’s more Russia still to come.