[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Stranger Things 3. Read at your own risk!]
Stranger Thing 3, which hit the streaming service on July 4, is pure summer entertainment, a neon-soaked adventure dripping with more nostalgia than ever before thanks to the season's ubiquitous mall setting and overt references and homages to popular '80s movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Back to the Future, and The Fly. But the show's ability to be both incredibly popular and also consistently great is a rare feat, especially in 2019, when new shows are being released every day. And with the Netflix series poised to overtake the top spot on Pop Culture Mountain now that HBO's Game of Thrones has ended — and ended poorly, for that matter — the fact the show has proven that sometimes popularity does equate with quality is impressive.
The new season, set in the summer of 1985, introduces fans to yet another dangerous monster — a large, terrifying creature connected to Season 2's Mind Flayer that is physically made up of the gooey corpses of dead Hawkins residents — while also expanding the show's world beyond Hawkins (but not in a trip-to-Chicago kind of way). The addition of the Soviets, a time-period appropriate human antagonist, adds a new yet still familiar layer to the series since the lab isn't in play this season. We don't yet know why the Soviets want to reopen the gate to the Upside Down — we will likely find out in Season 4, if that end credits scene is any indication — and the murkiness of their motivations does slightly lessen their overall impact as bad guys, but the Soviets being one-dimensional enemies also feels like a nod to the many films of the Cold War era that featured the Soviets as bad guys simply because they were Soviets.
Even if the simplicity of the villains turns out not to be purposeful, Stranger Things 3 is another crowd-pleasing entry to one of the best shows currently on TV. So, how do the Duffer Brothers, who created the series, do it season after season?
It would be disingenuous to say they got lucky, even though it sometimes feels that way. The truth is the show's early success as a world-of-mouth phenomenon in summer 2016 was tied, in part, to the fact the series felt more like a relic from the '80s rather than a series from the present that was set in and attempting to mimic an earlier time period. It also wasn't overly nostalgic; the show was restrained in its attempts to make viewers fondly recall the era of E.T. or The Goonies. The series has strayed further and further from that rather simple existence as it has aged, yet people continue to eat it up, and that's because the show evolves just enough with each passing season that viewers hardly notice the story itself isn't changing that much. Basically, Stranger Things subscribes to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of television, and it's found immense success as a result.
In Stranger Things 2, as we wrote in our review, the series expanded just enough upon the mythology of Season 1 to push the overarching narrative forward while still telling a very personal story. The introduction of the Mind Flayer and the demodogs allowed the show to go bigger in the sequel while still keeping the action relatively grounded. That trend continued in Season 3 as the show built upon the idea of the Mind Flayer to create a dangerous new monster that was bigger and badder but whose existence never felt outside the realm of possibility. There aren't a lot of rules when it comes to the Upside Down, and while that might eventually become a weakness rather than a strength, so far it has made it relatively easy for the show to slowly develop its monstrous villains in believable ways.
Of course, although the creatures the teens must defeat have gotten progressively bigger and more dangerous with each passing season, the narrative structure of the season remains the same. A scary monster is coming, and our heroes have to stop it while also grappling with the universal struggles of adolescence. This season, it wasn't just Will (Noah Schnapp) and his friends who were being threatened, though: It was everyone in Hawkins, which raised the threat level immensely. Meanwhile, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) lost her powers after using them more than ever, and both of these developments, when coupled with the addition of the Soviets and the summer setting, were just enough of a deviation from the first two seasons that Season 3 and the final confrontation at Starcourt Mall felt exciting and new.
As Stranger Things slowly upgrades its villains, it also adds new relationship dynamics that help contribute to the overall sense the show is evolving even if the main narrative beats remain the same. In Season 2, that meant adding Steve's (Joe Keery) new role as friend and mentor to Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and a shirtless Billy (Dacre Montgomery) causing mayhem of the human variety. Stranger Things 3 then deepened Steve and Dustin's friendship while flipping it on its head and added some depth to Billy via his backstory with his mother, so that we eventually felt something for him when he sacrificed himself to save everyone else from the monster. Just as Season 2 added Billy and Max (Sadie Sink) to create new dynamics within the group, this season's addition was Maya Hawke's Robin, who instead of being a love interest for Steve ended up being the show's first gay character. It was an unexpected and welcome twist, and one that only helps the show grow and evolve as it ages.
Every season the writers double down on the things viewers love while slowly introducing one or two new elements so as to not totally disrupt the status quo, and surprise, surprise, the show remains as addictive as it was in Season 1 as result. When everything comes together on screen, the Duffers have a winning combination on their hands. At some point Stranger Things will probably have to address the fact that it's not deviating or evolving that much as a show — at the very least the series needs to reveal more about the Upside Down and what the monsters who call it home actually want — but so far the less-is-more mentality continues to propel the story of each season without any real issue. And with three incredibly successful seasons under its belt that prove sometimes what is popular can also be high-quality entertainment, Stranger Things is well on its way toward building an impressive, lasting legacy as one of the best shows on TV.
Stranger Things 3 is now streaming on Netflix.