Stranger Things 3 review – still frightening as hell, but far more fun

It’s 1985, and the gang’s hormones are running rampant – as is a new monster more scary than a spiral perm. Prepare for a pacy, racy time back in Hawkins

There is a scene in 30 Rock where Jenna gets cast not, as she first assumes, as a main protagonist on Gossip Girl, but as one of their mothers. She has to lie down as her daughter wails “Oh, mother, I can’t believe you’re dying of old age.” “Don’t cry for me, Tartine,” murmurs Jenna bravely. “I’ve had a full life. Oh the things I’ve seen! The first Clinton administration. The Nagano Olympics. Microsoft Windows 95. But I’m 41 now. Time to die.”

This moment plays in the back of my mind every time I watch Stranger Things, now back for its third season on Netflix. It is precision engineered to hook millennials-and-below with maximum plot (so new to you, my fresh-faced, pink-livered darlings, but actually so, so old!) and blast the rest of us down a vortex of nostalgia so that we know not which side is up. We may ourselves be in the Upside Down that has haunted the sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana since the Duffer Brothers concocted their homage to the 80s and caused a streaming sensation back in what seems like the distant days of 2016.

Stranger Thing season 3
Almost like being young again ... Stranger Things 3. Photograph: Netflix

In Hawkins, we are now up to 1985. The gang’s hormones are making themselves felt, as is the new big bad, about which reviewers have been encouraged not to say too much. I will limit myself to noting that a) the special effects are brilliant, though I still hope many, many rats were hurt in the making of this programme, and b) its mode of attack has lurked in the rank oubliette of my brain where I have been locking my darkest fears since about the year it is set. None of this is doing anything to ease my passage through the days, or indeed the series. It is scarier than triple neon eyeshadow and a spiral perm, and Godspeed to all who share the same visceral response to the accumulating army in a certain cellar by episode four.

Will periodically senses its presence, but his main cause of unhappiness is his friends’ rejection of their old world of dens in the woods and Dungeons and Dragons campaigns for the world of girlfriends. Lucas and Max are still together (though their relationship takes a backseat – possibly in response to the story of how the kiss was sprung rather unexpectedly on Sadie Sink by the directors), Mike and Eleven alternate between kissing and breaking up, and Dustin has – if we give him the benefit of the doubt – a girlfriend from science camp who lives in Utah. The friendship with Steve that was a highlight of last season continues, and is even improved by the addition of his co-worker at the ice-cream parlour, Robin (Maya Hawke). Together, they pursue the B-plot, involving Russians and mysterious boxes in a mysterious room in the new mall that is putting the high street out of business. Tentacular evil, you see, takes many forms and 80s capitalism may just be one of them. We’ll have to see how that turns out.

Stranger Thing season 3
On the trail of the mystery Russians ... Steve, Dustin and Robin. Photograph: Netflix

It’s a slicker, pacier operation than the slightly sprawling previous season, and far more fun. Perhaps the most obvious sign of the Duffers’ increased confidence in their talents and the cast is the fact that for the first time it is set in summer, denying itself the customary reliance on spooky greys and shadows to do the heavy lifting (though it does still call in the thunderstorms when necessary).

Adding to the general sense that time is a flat circle, the new characters include a corrupt mayor played by star of the 80s cult hit The Princess Bride, Cary Elwes, and a journalist intent on harassing Nancy at her summer job at the Hawkins Post (a local newspaper, children. Time to die) played with relish by Gary Busey’s lookalike son Jake.

It’s a real and joyful return to form for the show that has been taken fiercely to the hearts of people who weren’t there the first time round and, perhaps even more fiercely, by those who were. The brothers continue to play with, reference and occasionally lift all the things that made the Johns, Carpenter and Hughes, and the Steph(/v)ens, King and Spielberg, enduringly great and mash them into something equally fun, racy and frightening as hell for us all on the small screen. It’s almost like being young again.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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