I’m a huge fan of Stranger Things. I’ve even got the Steve Harrington t-shirt to prove it.
As someone who grew up watching Steven Spielberg movies, reading Stephen King books, and being constantly overcome by a sense of nostalgia and a fear of change even from an early age, Stranger Things is pretty much the perfect show for me. But I still want the most recent season to be its last.
When Stranger Things first dropped on Netflix in 2016, it was an instant hit. It tapped into the nostalgia and yearning many were feeling not just for the aesthetics of the 1980s, but also the kind of storytelling of that era. Free from cynicism and irony, it was an old school adventure full of plot twists, mystery and a lot of heart.
The eight-episode season was strongly plotted and well-paced, balancing the various stories of the ensemble cast well before bringing them together at the end. Naturally, a second season was announced soon after its release.
The second season, like the sequels to so many of the movies Stranger Things takes inspiration from, did not live up to the promise of the first. It was a bumpy ride, failing to strike the right balance between the divergent plots and at one point dedicating a whole episode to Eleven finding her “sister” Eight/Kali, which disrupted the rhythm of the season and ultimately went nowhere.
There were, of course, moments of glory (the pairing of Steve and Dustin was a particular highlight), but overall it was a bit of a drag.
This is why I approached the third season with a lot of trepidation – and why I was so surprised and thrilled to discover that actually, Season 3 is wonderful. It manages to recapture a lot of the magic from Season 1, tapping into nostalgia and whimsy while combining real, genuine scares with the right amount of comedy and emotion.
Characters that floundered in Season 2 are given clearer direction and depth – with the girls in particular coming out stronger than ever before (and not just in a kick-ass kind of way). New characters enhance the plot, for the most part, and the vague and shadowy threat of the Mind Flayer is firmed up – literally, as he’s transformed into a horrific flesh monster.
It isn’t a perfect season, sure; but it is a really, really good one. It’s also a great end point for the story.
What is it about TV shows that makes people think it’s a good idea for them to last as long as humanly possible? When it comes to movies, sequels are often treated with suspicion or concern (not counting huge franchises like the MCU, of course, which these days feel more like TV series themselves – but that’s a whole other topic).
We look to movies to tell complete and satisfying stories in under 120 minutes, and yet when it comes to TV we just want more, more, more.
There are many TV shows that are cancelled too soon – Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life, for instance. But I do wonder, if they had lasted longer, would they actually be as treasured as they are now? After all, the vast majority of series more than outstay their welcome, dragging on for year after year, long after the writers, cast and fans actually care anymore.
As someone who endured about five seasons too many of Pretty Little Liars and at least three more of One Tree Hill than I should have, I’m a firm believer in shows ending when they’re still good.
Who wants to watch something they once loved crawl to the finish line as a hollow, rotting husk of its former self? Not me, that’s for sure.
The thing about narrative is that it needs conflict and tension to move forward, and characters need to change and evolve along with their plot. When season after season gets lumped onto a show just because it’s popular, it can start to push the limits of believability around how much conflict and drama these characters can go through.
Far too often, the characters themselves stop moving forward and end up becoming two-dimensional caricatures.
Stories should end when the main conflict is resolved, the tension is eased, and the characters have progressed in some way. That’s exactly where Stranger Things is at now.
Sure, there are some mysteries left dangling, but that’s a good thing – the most interesting kinds of stories are those that don’t wrap everything up in a neat little bow. They leave room for fans to speculate, and to imagine for themselves what comes next.
Season 3 provides just the right amount of closure for Stranger Things to go out on top, leaving viewers with a warm feeling and a readiness to treasure the show as a whole – even with that uneven Season 2.
By the close of Season 3, the characters we know and love have grown and are moving on. They’re finally embracing change rather than clinging to the past. They’re letting go. And that’s exactly what Stranger Things, and we as fans, need to do as well.