Pull up a chair, crack open a New Coke (or a Slurpee), and get ready to talk about the highs and lows, the best ’80s references, and the loose ends of Season 3 of Stranger Things. (Spoilers ahead, of course.)
1. What is your tweet-length review of Stranger Things 3?
Mallory Rubin: Lucas’s take on New Coke (and Carpenter’s The Thing) is also my take on Season 3, my favorite Stranger Things installment yet: “The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake? Ah. Sweeter. Bolder. Better.”
Alison Herman: To quote the great, luckless Joyce Byers: They’re not kids anymore—they’re teenagers!
Miles Surrey: Well, I’ve been ’fraid of changin’ / ’Cause I’ve built my life around you / But time makes you bolder / Even children get older / And I’m gettin’ older, too.
Ben Lindbergh: This isn’t the series I anticipate the most breathlessly, analyze the most scrupulously, love the most passionately, or even really remember the most clearly, but it’s still the one I watch the quickest. I swallowed this season in one day and would’ve watched more.
Claire McNear: This was way more fun than it had any right to be.
2. What was the best moment of the season?
Lindbergh: Hopper’s letter to Eleven.
McNear: I love Alexei, a.k.a. Smirnoff. Put Alexei in everything, thank you.
Surrey: Hopper’s speech in the finale was probably the show’s high point, and if it didn’t make you tear up a little, it’s time to check your pulse. Honorary mention to Dusty-bun and Suzie-poo slaying the NeverEnding Story theme. (That was a solid finale.)
Herman: I wept at that final Hopper monologue; I’m not made of stone.
Rubin: El reading Hopper’s letter as our friends mourn his death (“death”?), help the Byers clan pack, and say farewell not only to each other, but to this time in their lives. It’s the most powerfully sad and moving sequence the show has delivered to date, a beautiful farewell (“farewell”?) to a cherished character and a powerful insight into one of life’s great truths: “When life hurts you, because it will, remember the hurt. The hurt is good. It means you’re out of that cave.”
3. What was your least favorite part?
Lindbergh: The exploding rats. Not because they were gross (although they were), but because I felt bad for them.
Surrey: The disgusting realization that the Mind Flayer used rat flesh, chemical products, and, eventually, human flesh, to put together its corporeal form. It had a real “grabbing the subway at 2 a.m. and happening upon weird shit on the platform” energy.
Rubin: Will’s usage. I found Will’s struggle to adjust to the party’s new dynamic in the early episodes absolutely gutting and extremely relatable; Mike’s “We’re not kids anymore. I mean what did you think, really? That we were never gonna get girlfriends? That we were just gonna sit in my basement all day and play games for the rest of our lives?” challenge is a dagger to the heart of anyone who’s ever felt life moving a little faster than they’re ready to move with it. Watching Will tear down Castle Byers, a monument to his childhood and to the power of wonder and dreams, crushed me. And then he was relegated to alarm clock status the rest of the way, his neck tingle the Harry’s-burning-scar warning of this story, but without Harry’s attendant depth. I’m glad that Will is still connected to the Mind Flayer, but I want to better understand how that lingering trauma affects him—and badly want to spend more time on how the shifting sands of adolescence and self-discovery continue to affect him, too.
McNear: I understand that the show felt like it had to explain why all these things keep happening in Hawkins. But that explanation—that the barrier to the Upside Down was still “healing”—was so lacking that it just raised more questions.
Herman: Stranger Things does a pretty good job of not overplaying its hand on the whole cuteness thing, but Erica’s boosted presence this season really seems like a step too far. She’s too new to make our Annoying TV Kid bracket, but all those hammy line deliveries and forced entries into primary plot lines are sure making a pretty solid case!
4. Who was the MVP of Season 3?
Surrey: Look at god:
Lindbergh: The Steve-Robin dynamic duo, specifically Steve’s Scoops Ahoy uniform.
McNear: Erica. We probably could have lost just a few (or a couple dozen) of those one-liners, but our girl wasn’t just style: She found the cattle prod that helped them escape and was very (too?) eager to crack open one of those containers of green alien blood. (Sorry, acid. I mean acid.)
Herman: Maya Hawke really blew the roof off this thing. I was pleasantly surprised by the conclusion of her character’s arc, and thoroughly charmed by her platonic chemistry with Joe Keery leading up to it. I’m almost freaked out by how much she resembles her mom, Uma Thurman, but I’m also not mad about it.
Rubin: My real answer is Hopper, because I’m in love with David Harbour and can’t really focus on anything other than Hopper’s dope new fit, celebratory car jam sessions, and fervent Honey Smacks consumption. But for the sake of variety, I’ll go with Steve, for whom I’d gladly board the U.S.S. Butterscotch and set sail on an ocean of flavor any day. Steve and Dustin’s bromance continues to crackle, the Steve-Robin bond was one of the highlights of the new season, and the Scoops Ahoy uniforms belong in the Louvre next to Brad’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High pirate getup.
5. What was the best ’80s reference of the season?
Herman: The Starcourt Mall, as a concept/collection of mini references/occasion for Stranger Things to inch ever so close to a full-throated critique of American consumerism. I grew up in the ’90s, when these massive complexes remained standing but had begun to fade into disrepair. The sight of a shiny new Hot Dog on a Stick sent nostalgic tingles down my spine.
Surrey: Best music cue: “Material Girl” at Starcourt Mall. Best quote: When Alexei called Hopper, accurately, “Fat Rambo.” Best general influence: John Carpenter’s The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
McNear: I think this season laid it on too thick (who knew seasons 1 and 2 could look restrained by comparison?), but I was a fan of the care given to ’80s fashion—scrunchies, high waistlines, overalls, et al.—and the horrifying reality that many of these things are now back in vogue.
Rubin: Speaking of Fast Times, it’s in my top three, for the instantly iconic Billy-Linda pool scene homage (and ensuing Linda video store cutout), the mall as a backdrop for teen angst, and the recurring “Hotter than Phoebe Cates!” bit. Back to the Future is my runner-up and certainly seems like the most prophetic, given the time-travel-tastic hint in Hopper’s letter (“So I think that’s maybe why I came in here. To stop that change. To turn back the clock. To make things go back to how they were”). But there’s only one right answer here, and you’ll see it if you Turn around / Look at what you see / In her face / The mirror of your dreamssssssss:
Lindbergh: The more Stranger Things develops a tradition and identity of its own, the less I look forward to its ostentatious ’80s references. I get that contemporary culture is a part of the characters’ common language, and I like Back to the Future and The NeverEnding Story as much as the next guy, but I get impatient when the story of Stranger Things stops so that the show can cede the stage to something old. That said, I still liked Dustin’s deconstruction of My Little Pony’s “standard nerd tropes.” And Grigori, the Soviet Terminator.
6. After three years of chaos, why is the Byers family the only people to leave Hawkins?
Surrey: People go missing and/or die, the local businesses are in ruins, the town paper is somehow overstaffed while also in dire need of a sexual harassment lawsuit, the mayor is crooked. Hawkins is the most cursed TV town since Buffy’s Sunnydale. The U.S. government might as well install a displacement program for these poor people, who can’t save themselves.
McNear: I can only assume that everyone else has brain worms.
Lindbergh: Low cost of living? Easy access to fertilizer? Honestly, is an occasional incursion by a malevolent entity from another dimension that much worse than whatever we put up with in our own hometowns? Inertia and familiarity are powerful forces. Also, moving sucks.
Herman: Great public schools? A robust commitment to local journalism, as demonstrated by a hugely overstaffed newspaper? Inertia? Sounds like a mystery for the gang to solve in Season 4.
Rubin: Well, El’s leaving too! And the government baddies had to leave at the end of Season 2! And a lot of people left by, you know, getting flayed, eating fertilizer, and then turning into goo! So it’s all a matter of perspective. But the real answer lies in some combination of misinformation and coverups; willful ignorance; and the comfort of routine. One of the quietly important moments in Season 3 came when little Holly, from her ferris wheel perch, seems to be the only person at the mobbed fair to notice the trees moving as though the Ents had just uprooted. Joyce, Jonathan, Will, and El had direct, agonizing access to what the Upside Down unleashed; most of Hawkins’s residents are left deciding between letting The Horror in the Heartland news reel spook them or accepting the chemical leak and mall fire lies they’re fed and moving on with their lives. It’s not an accident that on a show so interested in surveillance and spying, most folks aren’t all that interested in gaining new information, or heeding it when it oozes down on them from above.
7. What are the Russians trying to do with the Upside Down?
Surrey: You’ll have to ask Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.
Lindbergh: Weaponize it, presumably with an eye toward invading or destabilizing the Decaying West? There aren’t a lot of non-nefarious reasons to keep caged Demodogs after they stop looking like baby Dart.
Herman: This is where it would be good for Stranger Things to become a show that has “good villains” with “compelling motivations.”
Rubin: Get more cherry slushies for Alexei? It’s Cold War time, and let’s not forget that the gate to the Upside Down opened in Hawkins in the first place because El came across the Demogorgon while Brenner was using her to spy on a Russian agent. Perhaps the Russians found the Upside Down before El, and that’s why she discovered the monster while searching for Brenner’s Russian target. Perhaps they learned of it because of her. Either way, perhaps they want to use the realm’s powers for surveillance of their own, or control—to weaponize it against their enemies, not realizing, as humans so rarely do in their folly, that the tool they seek to use will undo them in the end.
8. Is Hopper alive?
McNear: Definitely. Why else show us “The American?”
Surrey: He better not be. The emotional payoff of that amazing speech would be completely ruined if the show pulled a fake out. Hopper is my spiritual dad, but the show’s better off without him going forward.
Lindbergh: Stranger Things didn’t shy away from showing us Bob being torn apart, so I’d be surprised if the series killed off Hopper without visual confirmation. The chief may not be “the American” mentioned in the postcredits scene, but the door to a resurrection is much more than 3 inches open.
Herman: The optimist in me, who admires this season’s lip service to maturity, moving on, and the enduring consequences that come with them wants to say no. The realist in me knows the answer is yes.
Rubin: I went into this at length this week on both The Watch podcast and our “11 Favorite Things From Stranger Things” Season 3 reaction video, but here’s the (relatively) succinct version of an extremely long answer. There are three possibilities: (1) He’s alive. (2) He’s dead, but he’s coming back. (3) He’s really dead.
Let’s go one by one. (1) He’s alive: First, the Duffer brothers aren’t shy about leaning into what fans love, and fans love Jim Hopper. Second, we don’t see his body—despite the opening scene of the season’s centering, in great detail, on the Russian machine melting proximate humans when it malfunctions. But it’s not just that we don’t see his dead body—we don’t see his living body either. After he looks at Joyce and gives her his blessing to turn the keys, the screen cuts to black. When we return, we’re looking at the machine from the front, but Hopper is no longer there. You know what is? A ladder to a lower level, through which he could have escaped. Or perhaps he ran through the gate itself, before it closed. Which brings us to our third bit of proof: The letter’s ample clues, including the “But please, if you don’t mind, for the sake of your poor old dad, keep the door open 3 inches” signoff that seems to align with the gap that still exists in the gate after it’s sealed. Hopper’s letter also mentions a fear of change—which the showrunners and fans might also share—and this doozy: “I’ve been stuck in one place, in a cave you might say, a deep dark cave.” And that brings us to our fourth clue: “the American” prisoner mentioned in the postcredit scene. Brenner is also a candidate here, as his presumed Season 1 death came in similar fashion to El’s, who of course wound up in the Upside Down, not dead, and whom we learned in Season 2’s infamous bottle episode might still be alive. But it could also be Hopper, pulled through the gate into another one on the Russian side. I’m not sure if the Russians play music in their subterranean prisons, but I am sure that—fifth—Peter Gabriel’s cover of “Heroes” plays in the finale’s closing minutes, as our heroes mourn Hopper, whom they think has died. The last time we heard that song on Stranger Things? When our buds saw Will’s “body” fished out of the quarry in Season 1—a.k.a. the time when the show’s characters mistakenly think someone close to them has died. Which brings us to our sixth bit of proof: When our friends have questions about someone’s whereabouts, they can always ask El to search. But at the end of Season 3, El’s powers are gone—a choice that, while confounding in certain deus ex machina respects, serves numerous useful narrative functions, including prohibiting her from learning immediately that Hopper is alive, if he in fact is.
OK, this is not proving succinct, but you’re in the funhouse with me now, so let’s proceed. (2) He’s dead, but he’s coming back: This is where Back to the Future comes into play. Why put time travel on our minds if it’s not going to be a factor in the story? Hopper’s letter, as noted above, contains a tantalizing clock-rewinding clue, as does the farewell montage at the end, when the Byers exit repeats. We see El reading the letter and then watch everyone hug and cry and go; El’s in the moving truck, and Mike’s back home hugging his mom. And then … we’re back on the floor with El reading the letter again, and then back in the front yard saying goodbye again. Seems notable!
(3) He’s really dead: There’s only one convincing case for Hopper really being dead, but it is the most powerful: While the coded language of his letter offers ample evidence of an impending return, the heart of it, the core of it, is about change and loss and pain, and the need to move on and find a way to live through the grief once it cuts through you. “But I know that’s naive,” Hopper says in response to wanting to turn black the clock on change. “That’s just not how life works. It’s moving, always moving, whether you like it or not. And yeah, sometimes that’s painful. Sometimes it’s sad. And sometimes, it’s surprising.” He’s right. And accepting that is part of being alive. Bringing Hopper back undercuts this message and this moment.
But it’s probably happening, and it also puts David Harbour back on our screens, so I’ll learn to cope.
9. On that note, how many more seasons should Stranger Things run for? Where could it go from here?
Herman: Long enough for Joyce Byers to enter a long and satisfying relationship. (Two seasons, max.)
Lindbergh: Last month I wondered whether the scope of Stranger Things would expand beyond the borders of Hawkins. It looks like that’s happening, but there’s still so much unexplored and unexplained. I don’t know what the Russians are up to; I don’t know what the Mind Flayer wants; I don’t know what the Upside Down is. I think the series’ lack of interest in elucidating any of that to this point is part of why I don’t spend much time thinking about Stranger Things between seasons; I enjoy it while it lasts, but after Netflix seals up the gate and new episodes stop pouring out, I tend to forget about it.
I still like the show for what it is, and I’m torn between wanting it to delve more deeply into motivations and mythology and wanting it to stay character-centric summer fluff.
McNear: I’m pleasantly surprised by how well this season came together. I think the key is for the show to stop using “Eleven saves the day” as the grand finale—which, El’s losing her powers would suggest could happen now. The kids have grown up to have, er, varying acting abilities, but this season dealt well with their limitations and brought in new characters to take up the slack. I could see this going another couple of seasons before the well runs totally dry.
Rubin: I understand, logically, that we should get two more seasons: a fourth campaign in which El, still without her powers, taps into newfound humanity, and a fifth in which El, the revived or rediscovered Hopper, and our other heroes flay the Mind Flayer for good. But I have a lot of Will in me: I don’t want our party to break up. I don’t want to stop warming up my Eggos and cracking open my New Cokes. I don’t want to say goodbye to Hawkins.
Surrey: The Duffer brothers have repeatedly stated they want to do four or five seasons, so we’re approaching the finish line. With the way the kids are growing (read: very fast), a fifth season would probably need to tackle college—and honestly, that sounds like the perfect backdrop to wrap things up. I enjoy the simple things; I wanna see Eleven shotgun a beer—and not effing it up like Barb did—before crushing the can with her mind.