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It’s Fourth of July weekend, a time for cookouts and fireworks and trips to the water park, if that’s what you’re into. For many pop culture junkies of a certain persuasion, this Independence Day is all about the long-awaited arrival of Stranger Things 3. It’s summer in Hawkins, Indiana, and while they’ve got a pool and a mall and a fireworks show planned too, they’ve also still got some monsters to deal with — and this time the evil is on their home turf.
If you’re like us, you’ve already spent a good bit of your holiday downtime binging the new season, picking out your favorite characters and moments and trying to figure out where Season 4 might take us. With that in mind, it’s time to talk spoilers and gush about the new season’s best elements, from new characters to an explosive finale. Here are our 11 favorite things about Stranger Things 3.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for all of Stranger Things 3.**
Last year the Stranger Things crew got an infusion of energy in the form of Sadie Sink as Max and Dacre Montgomery as Billy. This year the Hawkins gang only added one new young character to their monster-fighting ranks, but one was all they needed. As Robin, the witty, quirky ice cream slinger who works with Steve over at Scoops Ahoy, Hawke is exactly what the show needed to grow into a new era of slightly older kid concerns and even bigger monsters. She has fantastic chemistry with everyone from Steve to Erica, and we can’t wait to see more of her in Season 4.
There’s a certain suspension of disbelief that comes with the territory of a “Small Town with a Dark Secret” story, but sooner or later Stranger Things was going to have to address whether anyone else had noticed how weird things are in Hawkins. It turns out someone did, and it turns out that someone is the Russian government. Adding Russian enemies to the show lends a great Cold War paranoia angle to the story, and allows Hopper to have a full-on Die Hard homage moment with a foreign assassin at one point.
Eleven gets to be a teenager
One of the earliest charms of the series was watching the other kids interact with Eleven, and watching Eleven learn how to be a real American kid. As great as Millie Bobby Brown is at playing the telekinetic girl of few words, though, sooner or later Elle was going to have to grow up, and it’s delightful to watch her get to learn how to be an actual teenager in Stranger Things 3. Whether she’s talking to Max about boy trouble or simply wearing clothes she got to pick out herself, it adds a good deal more joy to the new season.
Nancy Wheeler, Ace Reporter
Natalia Dyer is wonderful as Nancy Wheeler, but the very nature of the way Nance was sucked into the story in the first place has meant the she’s often functioned as a more reactive character, chasing after the people she cares about. In Stranger Things 3, thanks to an internship at the Hawkins Post, she gets to be a good deal more proactive, and plays a key role in putting all the pieces together. It’s a welcome development that’s a long time coming.
Of course Stranger Things would get around to a mall eventually. The ultimate ‘80s homage series had to get there, and this season we got it with Starcourt, a classic temple to the decade complete with everything from Orange Julius to Wicks & Sticks. Apart from just looking the part, though, Starcourt actually managed to become a bit of a character in its own right, from its secret passages to the way the movie theater becomes a central part of everyone’s lives. It even got to be part of Steve and Robin’s drug hallucination!
Joyce and Hopper
Season 2 left us with the looming possibility of a Joyce and Hopper relationship, and one of the best things about Stranger Things 3 turned out to be that we got the relationship, but perhaps not in the way we expected. Hopper’s foolhardy chase of Joyce as the tries to cope with the loss of Bob gives way to a wonderful two-handed detective adventure that allows them to become comic foils for each other. The love happens more slowly, and it really works that way.
Breaking up The Party
Mike assured Will in the trailers for Season 3 that they weren’t kids anymore, and the way the new season explores the various new directions the kids who make up The Party go on is one of its most rewarding structural conceits. Pairing off Steve and Dustin was natural, but Will’s determination to get at least a little of his childhood back also worked, and so did the notion that Mike and Lucas can never quite figure out how to be boys and boyfriends at the same time.
Turning up the Horror
Stranger Things opened its entire run with a horror scene, and it’s always been a show willing to lean into creature feature fun at every turn, but Season 3 is something different. The decision to make the Mind Flayer into a creature that needs human bodies as raw material to “build” was a great one, because when it does its thing it just looks terrifying. Bodies turning into mush and fusing together into a giant creature that looks like sentient meat sludge was unexpected, and it paid off.
Fan Service with a Purpose
Stranger Things fans have a long wish list of things they’d like to see happen in the show, from ‘shipping to fan theories about the monsters, and for better or worse, the show pays attention. Fortunately, Stranger Things 3 uses most of its fan service very wisely, giving us things like more Erica (Priah Ferguson) and especially more Dad Steve. Giving us a version of Steve Harrington who really isn’t sure where his life is going was an especially nice touch this season, and made for some great comedy.
The Battle of Starcourt
Stranger Things has sometimes fallen into the trap in past action sequences of letting Eleven do all of the heavy lifting while the other kids just watch, but that problem was solved with the season finale. With Eleven’s powers on the fritz, the whole gang got together with a bunch of fireworks and turned Starcourt Mall into a light show the likes of which Hawkins had never seen before. It’s a dazzling, delightful sequence, and every character gets a moment within it.
For most of Season 3 it felt like the show was setting Steve and Robin up for a season finale kiss under the lights of Starcourt, and while there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with that, what we actually got was a welcome diversification of the show through Robin’s coming out speech to Steve. It’s not elaborated on much beyond that because the show doesn’t have time yet, but it’s a moment that delivers real heart, and an appreciated progression for the show.