“I dump your ass.” –El
I mean, I’m not saying this is the best line in the whole series, but, it might be up there in the top 10. Just saying.
So, Stranger Things. It’s built quite the following since it was first aired in 2016, further establishing Netflix as a major player in the film industry. Its stellar writing, lovable characters, and brilliant homage to 80s nostalgia make it one of the most-watched Netflix Originals to date. This is especially true of Season 3, which (according to Netflix’s Twitter account) reached 40.7 million households in the first 4 days of its Star-Spangled launch.
Well, now that it’s mainstream, I’m tempted to like it a little bit less (because I’m just, you know, sooooo alternative). But I still watched Season 3 within the first week of its release (not all in one night, mind you), and I did enjoy it, I promise. If you enjoyed the first 2 seasons and you haven’t seen it yet, I think you’ll enjoy it, too.
But as a writer, some things bothered me, and I had to spent a lot of mulling it all over before I could figure out what about Season 3 was so much… stranger.
Since I claim that we writers are supposed to see any kind of storytelling media as an opportunity for learning, here’s what I think we can all learn from Stranger Things Season 3.
Spoiler Alert: I don’t give away any of the main plot twists (I hope), but I do reveal some important story beats. Read at your own risk.
lesson #1: characters are king (and queen)
Stranger Things has proven itself very capable of writing compelling characters that are often dynamic in ways the audience never expected them to be. (Exhibit A: Steve Harrington.) Most of the critics I’ve watched agree that what sets Stranger Things apart from other nostalgia-heavy TV shows and movies is that it doesn’t use 80s culture as a crutch–it relies on strong, lovable characters to captivate the audience, not all the blended references to various 80s pop culture.
Because of this, the show succeeds in turning the setting itself into a character of its own, in all its retro glory. The setting feels less like a bone thrown to the audience and more like an integral aspect of the plot, and it’s all because they don’t make it the centerpiece of the story. I think Season 3 continues to do this pretty well, particularly with the Starcourt Mall, which is the backdrop for much of the dramatic action. I didn’t feel like it was being force-fed to me–it was just a new setting, and it fit with the time period to boot.
I thought character development was still pretty strong throughout Season 3 overall. You get to see the main protagonists struggle with their teenage relationships, which is, you know, pretty normal for young love. (Though ohmigod, the petty drama. In some cases I think they could’ve done with a few less “I’m so mad at Mike scenes.” But that’s just me.) El starts becoming more of her own person, Mike starts on the long path to maturity, and Dustin gets to take more of a lead role. Totally fine.
Some people didn’t like how angry Hopper was the entire time, but honestly, I didn’t mind. He did do a lot of yelling, but it fit with the high-stress situation and his development as a protective father. And yes, I ship him and Joyce. I’m glad the writers didn’t pull a Jonathan and Nancy arc once Murray got involved, though. Nice self-control, Duffer Brothers.
Even the new, more minor characters, like Alexei and Robin, got to be pretty three-dimensional. I think that Stranger Things has always been pretty darn good at introducing new characters and then giving them enough development for the audience to actually care about them. I even thought Murray was a stronger character by the end of this season, and I honestly didn’t expect him to get so involved. So props to that.
On the flip side, the danger of introducing and developing a bunch of new characters is two-fold: other, more established characters get less attention and there’s not as much time to actually advance the plot. First, let’s look at the character stuff.
I really think this season missed an opportunity to develop Will Byers more. He’s been so central the plot since the beginning, but the poor kid was also a victim for two seasons, so he wasn’t able to do much. Now that he’s relatively active, he felt more like a side character that anything, and a pretty useless one at that. Yes, he gets to add a level of conflict because he feels alienated by his girlfriend-obsessed friends, and yes, I think the real question we want answered is, Do they ever get to play D&D like the old days?!? (Though if the answer had been yes, I think it would’ve been a cop-out, but I digress.)
And yes, he does get that “spidey sense” thing whenever a monster is nearby (though where the hell was that sixth sense in the damn hospital?! If you haven’t seen that episode yet, you’ll see what I mean soon enough.) But it was kinda… redundant, sometimes. EXCEPT AT THE GD HOSPITAL.
I don’t know what I would’ve wanted to see. Maybe him coming into his own and realizing he’s more capable than he thinks he is, or taking more of a leadership role, or just… anything. Now, I know that there’s still a few more seasons to go, so hopefully he gets more development in Season 4. But think about it: the time they spent teasing the frankly ridiculous subplot between Billy and Mrs. Wheeler that goes nowhere and only serves to kind of give Billy a reason to drive by the creepy factory so he can get possessed could have been time they spent giving Will oh, I don’t know, more than one line at a time?
Come on, guys.
lesson #2: and the plot thin… ens.
Speaking of time spent, there is one thing in particular that bothered me overall about Season 3 aside from all my nit-picky character criticism. It’s probably the biggest thing, and it’s the second part of the two-fold danger of devoting so much time to interpersonal conflict. Don’t get me wrong: I do love how character-focused this story is, and like I said, I think it’s the reason behind of the show’s charm.
BUT. But. There is such a thing as… too much.
Was there anything really new about this season’s plot? Yeah, we’ve got the Russians doing their underground shenanigans, and the Mind Flayer can possess people wholesale now, but the actual monster-related parts of the story felt… kind of flat. And that was hard for me to admit to myself, because it had been such a captivating part of Season 1 and even Season 2. There was so much tension. So much eeriness. What is this thing? What does it want? What really is the Upside Down?
I felt like Season 3 could have answered at least one of these questions, namely, What does our main antagonist want? But it didn’t. The most we get is in that one scene where the Mind Flayer (as Billy) says he’s built this whole army for El so he can destroy everyone she loves… and then everyone, period.
Is that it? Is that really it? Worldwide destruction?! Forgive me for saying it, but that’s so… lame. Is he mad that the humans have found his dimension? That El has the power to destroy demogorgons? Is he hungry? Is he bored? I really don’t care, I just want some kind of MO.
Maybe I’m asking too much of this other-worldly villain. Maybe he’s chaotic evil and just loves himself some killing à la Krombopulous Michael. I guess that might work.
But in the scene itself, the motivation just felt so vague. Maybe on a rewatch it won’t be–there was a lot going on, after all. But regardless, overall it felt like the story was so caught up in itself–the characters, their drama, the Russians, even the 80s nostalgia–that it kind of forgot what made Stranger Things, well, strange: the monsters and the Upside Down. The whole shadow dimension thing. It just felt like the same old rigmarole. You didn’t learn anything new about the monsters (except, arguably, that it could create a host army… and then melt them all together into one, big, gross monster blob. Spoiler alert). They were just kind of there because they had to be.
Which is something that you should never let happen in your plot.
I like ending on a positive, so here are the pros with the plot: it’s still captivating. It still grips you and keeps you watching. The show is great at end-of-episode cliffhangers and even better at end-of-season ones. It’s still paced pretty well, though I did feel like some of the teen drama got dragged out a bit long.
There’s a lot this show does right. It hasn’t gotten too drunk on its own success, though it’s definitely pandering more to the audience a little bit more because it knows there’s a large one and that they’re all eating it up like Alexei and his cherry Slurpie.
But the characters are still lovable. They’re still the centerpiece of the story. They’ve still got room to grow. And I still want to know what happens to them in Season 4. That makes some of Season 3’s weaknesses a little less weak.
(Though for real, how did Will not sense the monsters in the hospital? HOW?!)
I can’t imagine how hard it is to make a compelling TV show. There are a lot more moving parts to it than just writing a story, so many more people involved in the process, so much more time and energy (and money) spent. It’s easy to critique, but not always easy to understand. However, there’s still a lot you can learn from a TV show, the good and the bad.
Not to belabor the point, but I think most agree that Stranger Things has strong character development–that’s something to strive for always, no matter what you’re writing. But Season 3 also demonstrates that dangers that accompany a large cast of characters that are all jostling for screen time. It’s so easy to lose that balance between character and plot, and when you do, you have to compensate in other areas, whether it’s movie references, shock value, or comic relief (I didn’t even get to touch the Never Ending Story scene, but holy shit, I still don’t know what to think about it except that it happened).
Stranger Things also has the advantage of being an already super-popular show with a devoted fan base. It can afford to let some things slide. But not forever. Good writing is good writing, period. The more attention you give to the story, the better things will be overall. Just ask the Game of Thrones fandom.
Did you like Season 3? Did you think it was better or worse than the previous seasons? Do you agree or disagree with anything I just said? (Tbh, in a few weeks, I might disagree with myself.) Comment below!
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