There’s more than fireworks to look forward to this July 4th: Season 3 of Stranger Things (or what Netflix would like you to call Stranger Things 3) drops this Thursday!
You're likely pumped if you're already a fan, but what if you haven’t seen a single episode yet? Fear not: Just over a week ago I, too, barely knew anything about the show. But I quickly injected Stranger Things into my veins — including the new season — to learn everything you needed to know before starting season 3.
If you’re jumping in almost blind like I did or you’ve been visiting the troubled town of Hawkins regularly for years, season 3 is plenty of fun. I’ve got more thoughts on it below, but if you’re brand new here’s what you need to know about the first two seasons.
What you need to know in a nutshell from season 1 ...
One couldn’t find a more quintessentially 80s small town on TV than Hawkins, Indiana. We follow a group of boys — Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will — who normally enjoy playing in basements or riding bikes. I say normally because, of course, the requisite strange things begin to go down.
Will goes missing after encountering a terrifying creature the boys call the Demogorgon, and in searching for Will they stumble upon a girl in the woods. Going by the name Eleven, she’s gifted with mysterious mental powers and is being hunted down by shady government characters trying to weaponize her abilities.
Eventually Will’s mother Joyce realizes she can somehow communicate with her missing son through flashing Christmas lights, and Eleven reveals he’s been taken to a alternate dimension called the Upside Down. This surreal dimension is the Demogorgon's home, and Eleven is able to partially access it with her powers. Joyce, aided by town Sheriff Hopper, breaks into a secret government lab nearby to enter the Upside Down and at last rescues Will. When he’s alone later, though, he casually coughs up some nasty slug (season 2 spoiler: It’s a baby Demogorgon).
Meanwhile, Will’s brother Jonathan, Mike’s sister Nancy and her jerk boyfriend Steve attempt to hunt down and kill the Demogorgon, which also killed Nancy’s friend Barb. They only partially succeed, as it tracks down the kids — and the agents hunting Eleven — at their school. Eleven wipes out many of the agents before finally destroying the Demogorgon itself, but she seemingly disappears in the process.
... and season 2
Don’t worry, though: She comes back! A year after the events of season 1, Hopper is protecting Eleven at a secret cabin in the woods after she managed to escape the Upside Down.
While she suffers cabin fever, the boys become friends with a new tomgirl in town, Max; her stepbrother Billy is a bit on the crazy side and takes to pestering not-really-a-jerk-anymore Steve and almost everyone else. Oh and Joyce is now in a happy relationship with a fellow named Bob.
But don’t you think for a second the spooky shenanigans are done. Indeed, Will still feels funky from his time in the Upside Down, and in trying to confront the source of his unease he becomes secretly possessed by a new monster called the Mind Flayer. This shadowy beast also controls a pack of young Demogorgons, which Max, Lucas, Steve and Dustin discover after the latter unwittingly tried to keep one as a pet.
Joyce, Bob, Hopper and Mike continually attempt to combat the Mind Flayer and free Will from its grasp, eventually getting themselves besieged in the not-so-secret lab by the young Demogorgons (so long, Bob!). The survivors reunite with our other protagonists, and Eleven makes a grand entrance and kills the Demogorgons. (Note: She briefly stepped out to meet a long-lost sister, but in the end chose to stay with her friends and father-figure Hopper).
The group learns from Will how to defeat the Mind Flayer, and Eleven and Hopper go into the lab to close the gate to the Upside Down, cutting the beast off from our world. The Mind Flayer is also exorcised from Will by Joyce, Nancy and Jonathan.
The aftermath sees the lab shut down for good, following news of the strange happenings there — not to mention its ties to Barb’s death, as revealed by Nancy, Jonathan and their weird private investigator friend Murray. But while the kiddos enjoy a monster-free party at last, the final shot reveals the Mind Flayer alive and thriving in the Upside Down.
Oh, and Mike and Eleven are a thing now, as is Lucas and Max, aaand Jonathan and Nancy. Young love!
Low-down on season 3
This brings us to season 3: summer in Hawkins! Of course it isn’t all fun in the sun for our friends, as the Upside Down — and those who would seek to exploit it — aren’t done with them yet.
With that in mind, Stranger Things does a solid job creating an enjoyable season that gets you more hooked with each passing episode (eight total). Everyone is split into different groups that give the characters room to shine without straying too far from the bones of the plot. Dustin and Steve are joined by new character Robin in perhaps the best grouping of the season, as they investigate some shady characters at Hawkins’ new, shiny, 80s-tastic Starcourt Mall.
The core group of young guys and gals deals with yet another budding monster threat while also managing to be a delightful showcase of pre-teen drama and shifting priorities — as well as some hilarious new uses for Eleven’s powers. Actor Noah Schnapp deserves particular kudos for his portrayal of Will’s struggles with both the supernatural and all-too natural.
But back to that supernatural threat, be warned: Something that’s a little shocking is how disgusting a lot of this season is. Without spoiling the fun(?), let’s just say the show’s new monster might be one of the nastiest things this admittedly squeamish writer has ever watched.
Billy does get some more to do this season, but a lot of his actions become fairly one-note after a while. And even Joyce and Hopper’s adventures lose some of their luster as the season goes on, despite actors Winona Ryder and David Harbour continuing to give entertaining performances. But those are minor nitpicks in a season that proves Stranger Things has earned its keep.
It's worth noting that this season focuses a lot on personal growth in the face of trauma, but it doesn't get too weighed down to enjoy itself. It's a close-to-perfect mixture that quickly convinces you to care for these characters and enjoy their crazy (if occasionally life-threatening) adventures.
Even while some things go a bit too predictably, the last two episodes tie everything and everyone together in spectacular, emotional fashion. You're left wanting more, especially since Netflix made sure to leave a few enticing threads dangling.
So yes, season 3 converted me to the Stranger Things fandom. If you’re new, feel no qualms about jumping in now so you can talk with your coworkers about it after the July 4th holiday.
Follow me on Twitter @HunterJDallas.