The Joyful Chaos of Stranger Things
When Stranger Things first dropped in 2016, there was a fair amount of discussion in internet and film circles about how good the show was. Everyone agreed that Stranger Things was compulsively watchable and deeply entertaining — but was it a Good Show? Did it belong in the Prestige TV/Peak TV/Golden Age of TV conversations along with Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones (RIP)?
There were spirited arguments both pro-Stranger-Things-is-a-Good-Show (Star turns by Winona Ryder/David Harbour/the kids, excellent atmosphere, great sound and set design), and anti-Stranger-Things (uneven writing, confusing plot, Eleven as a plot device). A boatload of Emmy/Golden Globe nominations and a SAG win with accompanying awesome David Harbour speech gave more ammunition to the Good Show crowd — but still, not everyone was convinced.
Now that Season 3 has come and gone, the debate is over — Stranger Things is definitely not a Good Show. Its weaknesses are more apparent in this season than they’ve ever been. But unlike Game of Thrones, which collapsed under its weaknesses, Stranger Things also embraced its strengths, diving deeper into the chaotic, awesome and amazing mess that is at the very core of the show, and came out stronger on the other side.
So no, Stranger Things isn’t Good — it’s Great! So let’s take a look at why Stranger Things isn’t a Good Show, but more importantly, celebrate the crazy things the show has embraced that have made this season such an amazing ride.
Why Stranger Things Isn’t a Good Show
The callous disregard with which the Duffer Brothers treat the rest of Hawkins is hilarious by this point. After getting a ton of backlash for killing Barb in Season 1, and doubling down by brutally murdering Bob in Season 2, in Season 3 they up the ante by melting HALF of Hawkins into a giant, horrible flesh monster.
It’s important to note that there are some characters who face horrible fates in Stranger Things that everyone’s okay with — no one’s complaining about the awful newspaper editors getting eaten. Fuck those guys, watching them die was sweet.
But Mrs. Driscoll was nice! A little weird, sure. But that doesn’t warrant getting melted! And Heather! She is the only person besides Max we see displaying any real concern for Billy through the entire series! Her last words are “Billy, are you okay?” And her punishment for this is she is melted into the flesh monster, AFTER BEING FORCED TO PUT HER MOTHER AND FATHER INTO THE FLESH MONSTER. I mean, what the fuck man. #JusticeForHeather
The writing for Stranger Things, especially for the villains, is extremely uneven. For instance, the Russians are a terrifying group of elite soldiers and scientists who brutally torture children. They have set up a huge and complex facility right in the middle of Hawkins under the noses of the US government. Their main heavy is an unkillable, unstoppable monsters.
The Russians are also massive idiots who get infiltrated by children who don’t speak Russian, have no espionage experience and are absolute morons. Show punching bag Steve Harrington wins his first fight by kicking the shit out of an armed, trained Russian soldier.
The Mind Flayer is a horrifying, disgusting powerful flesh beast that massacres people. It’s extremely resistant to bullets, axes, and any form of physical violence. As noted above, it is responsible for slaughtering dozens of people from Hawkins, and is terrifying. But, it’s also easily defeated by a. Fireworks and b. Eleven getting real mad. Are these villains horrifying, borderline unstoppable monsters? Or barely competent mooks for our heroes to mow down? The show can’t seem to figure it out.
This also means the writing for Eleven is extremely uneven. Is Eleven an ice-cold badass capable of murdering a bunch of Russians and taking on the Mind Flayer single-handedly? Or is she a hurt, wounded girl pushing herself past her capabilities and risking herself? It seems to change from episode to episode, and it’s hard to see how the show thinks about Eleven.
This season the biggest victim of the show’s weaknesses was Hopper. The show’s callous disregard for its peripheral characters comes across in Hopper’s psychopathically yelling at Mayor Kline, Alexei, and pretty much every character he runs across. With increased awareness of police brutality, it’s probably not a good look to have the chief of police almost cut the mayor’s finger off, torture a witness and steal a car — but in a show that clearly doesn’t care about its side characters, it’s not really surprising!
The poor writing also impacts him this season. First Hopper is a clueless small-town cop who gets effortlessly ambushed and beaten up by the Russian Terminator, not once, but twice. Then he’s an ice-cold killer who ruthlessly murders highly-trained Soviet soldiers, sets a deadly ambush for the Terminator and chucks the Terminator into a turbine. None of this shift is foreshadowed at all! When Hopper says “I got this,” to Dustin, is he a grizzled badass keeping the kids away from danger and making the ultimate sacrifice because of it? Or is he an inexperienced idiot in over his head who gets his stupid self killed?
He also comes across very poorly in his parenting for Elle in this season. In Season 2 we at least saw the nuances of how he is trying to parent a very difficult child, when they both have deep wells of trauma they are having a hard time processing. In this season, he just yells at Eleven, forgets he has a daughter for most of the season, and then has a tearful reunion with her in the finale. What the hell? But it makes sense, because the show can’t seem to figure out how to portray Eleven, and so of course his portrayal as a parent suffers.
Unfortunately, someone has to suffer when a show has weaknesses this large, and this season our beloved small-town cop was the victim. Rest in peace, America’s Dad/Daddy — when you come back in Season 4, please yell less.
Why Stranger Things Is a Great Show
Hopper aside, none of those weaknesses can really take away from how great Season 3. Because just like show inspiration Star Wars, Stranger Things is a media property that thrives on chaos! The Duffer brothers absolutely understand that, and Season 3 gives some of the best examples of out and out, hilarious, entertaining chaos this show has ever put together.
It’s funny to look back at how much more grounded Season 1 was. Yeah, lots of crazy shit happens, but it’s all a really slow burn — slowly revealing Eleven’s power, the existence of the Upside Down, and what’s going on in Hawkins Lab.
In Season 3, Steve, Dustin, Robin and Erica discover and infiltrate a secret Russian base in the Starcourt Mall that is reopening a gate to the Upside Down. We also have Joyce and Hopper being hunted by the Terminator and then kidnapping a different secret Russian, who turns out to be the biggest fan of American capitalism. Those are the SIDE PLOTS! This season is absolutely wild.
Other things that happen this season:
- A redemption arc for Billy Hargrove? Sure!
- An extended shopping sequence in the mall for no reason? Definitely!
- Alexei and his insistence on cherry slushies? Into it.
- Evil Cary Elwes? Why not.
- Drugged out Steve and Robin discuss Back to the Future? Yes absolutely!
- You can’t spell America without Erica? Fuck me up, inject it straight into my veins.
This total embrace of chaos also gives the show the freedom to let their characters grow and mature in interesting ways. For all that the showrunners don’t care about the fates of side characters, they are fully invested in letting their cast of main characters do amazing things. Steve Harrington was originally supposed to die, but the showrunners loved how Joe Keery was able to bring such a complex charm to the character. So they gave him a heroic turn at the end of Season 1. Then in Season 2 they leaned into his natural charm and paired him off with the kids, leaving to even more amazing moments. Now, in Season 3, Steve Harrington is fully the parent of our band of adorable idiots:
This is a development that basically no one could have predicted at the start of Season 1. But because this show is about enjoying where the chaos takes us, somehow the asshole jerk is now the mom of all of our best friends, because Stranger Things rocks.
Of course, having this sort of insanity only works when you have actors who are good enough to pull off these sorts of crazy turns. And oh my god, the actors in Stranger Things are SO GODDAMN GOOD. Every time I think an actor isn’t really carrying their weight in this show, they pull something that blows me out of the water.
Finn Wolfhard effortlessly portrays how obnoxious and cocky teenage boys are, while still keeping the warm heart Mike’s had since Season 1. Sadie Sink brings a real depth to Max, fleshing out a character who was pretty one-note in Season 2. Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas is hilariously the most experienced boyfriend of the four, but also simultaneously the biggest idiot when it comes to girls. Dacre Montgomery is able to reveal a real haunted layer to Billy, while still being the obnoxious jerk he’s always been. Cara Buono’s handful of scenes masterfully tell the tale of someone who feels trapped but isn’t ready to give it all up. And Noah Schnapp just straight up has the best scene of the season in the destruction of Castle Byers.
Even the people hampered by strange writing have their moments this season. Jonathan is sidelined for most of the season, but he still has a handful of really good, powerful conversation with Nancy that highlight what drives them apart and what keeps them together. Millie Bobby Brown continues to bring it every episode as Eleveen. Even Hopper, for as weird as his season was, has a farewell letter that absolutely brought tears to my eyes. Netflix absolutely has found gold with this cast, and they continue to let them cook in amazing ways.
If there’s a character in Season 3 who really embodies what makes this season so great, it’s Dustin Henderson. Gaten Matarazzo was one of the breakout stars of Season 1, but he really took it to a next level in this season. His chemistry with the other three friends has always been great, but it’s his relationship with Steve is what makes Season 3 great.
The Steve-Dustin-Robin trio are absolutely the best part of this season, episode after episode. Dustin immediately identifies how well Robin’s chemistry fits with Steve, and is a vital conduit to the ongoing hilarity of Steve and Robin’s chemistry. Dustin switches between insane confidence and absolute terror seamlessly and hilariously, either the man with all the answers or the man in over his head. Even an occasionally grating Erica can’t drag down how great this trio is.
And of course, there’s this scene:
I honestly could write an entire piece on just this song. It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. The whole season you’re set up to believe that Suzie doesn’t exist. This is not foreshadowed in any way. It’s a complete rhythm break in what is otherwise a frenetic and tense finale. It involves believing that the Russians would use a universally known mathematical constant as the safe code. The more you think about it, the dumber this scene is.
And it rules! It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television, and probably the loudest I’ve laughed all year. It’s an amazing example of the joyful chaos of Stranger Things — the insanity, the madness, the glee. It’s the Duffer brothers wildly smashing action figures together while treacly nostalgic nonsense plays in the background, and it absolutely rocks.
So what’s next for Stranger Things? I have no idea! But here’s hoping that Stranger Things 4 delivers the amazing acting, overall crazy writing and absolute chaos that this show is best at. Because Stranger Things isn’t a Good Show — it’s a Great one, and one that we’re all lucky to have.