Stranger Things season 3 is charming but frustrating. Here’s a spoiler-free review.

Stranger Things 3 is almost here, and it sees all the characters from Hawkins, Indiana growing and evolving. And yes, I’m including a few monsters in that mix.

The second season of Stranger Things came in for its fair share of criticism, including from Vox, for a meandering and sometimes disjointed plot, and writing that clearly undervalued and underused the show’s female characters. And yet, as my colleague Emily VanDerWerff noted in her season two review, “when it works, it works. I’m powerless to resist it. You probably are too.”

That’s still true in season three, debuting July 4. I enjoyed Stranger Things 3 much more than Stranger Things 2, and for the most part, I feel like the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, were paying sharp attention to their critics. Most of season two’s flaws and frustrations have been ironed out in satisfying and interesting ways in season three.

This time around, however, a new set of problems arises — and weirdly enough, a lot of them don’t concern the story itself, but the show’s aesthetic and technical choices.

Stranger Things doesn’t usually struggle with those elements; more often, its aesthetics help smooth over the moments when the narrative gets stuck and starts spinning its wheels. But season three’s plot journey is actually pretty engaging — except when it’s handwaving the larger questions it raises and relying on technical tricks to distract us. As a result, the story feels more stuck in place than it really is.

Don’t get me wrong, Stranger Things is still as slick and stylish as ever; season three really feels like the cover of an ‘80s pulp horror novel, in the best way. But I sure didn’t expect to be criticizing the show for suddenly developing a cinematic tic that makes it seem more narratively discombobulated.

The positive side is that for viewers whose main concern is hanging out with the kids of Hawkins and enjoying the quirky, nostalgia-laced humor and fun that Stranger Things excels at, season three is pretty much on top of its game.

Here’s a spoiler-free rundown of what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s somewhere in between about season three.

Good: the main cast is divided into smaller groups again — but this time, it’s engaging and makes emotional sense

Weekly D&D campaigns are getting more difficult.
Netflix

One of reasons Stranger Things 2 was frustrating was that for most of the season, characters were siloed away from each other, pretty inexplicably. Eleven went on a random quest while Hopper was incapacitated, with no larger plot ramifications; her adventure gave us interesting character backstory, but mainly seemed designed to delay the inevitable showdown between El and the season’s Big Bad, a giant spider-thing known as the Mind Flayer. Meanwhile, Nancy and Jonathan were off in their own totally separate subplot, and it felt largely tangential and inessential relative to the main action.

But Stranger Things has figured out how to fix this issue in season three! The show once again takes a creative risk by splitting up its main cast, but this time, the separate groupings are clearly grounded in emotional logic: Characters are growing, changing, exploring new relationships, and embarking on new phases of their lives, and it’s all good. We get to see our faves interacting with new characters and each other in interesting new ways. It’s fun, and it generally feels like forward momentum for everyone in a way that season two couldn’t offer.

Mostly good: season 3’s plot actually feels like a plot, and its various strands are far more integrated than season 2’s

Steve and Dustin have spotted a plot point!
Netflix

The narrative of season three is still split between different subplots, but they’re all obviously connected to each other from the start. This creates a level of urgency around the fact that no one is able to communicate with each other due to a mix of technical issues and/or frequent states of peril, or aware that they should be communicating, since they don’t know their various dilemmas are all connected.

And the subplots are fun! Although the writing in season three feels heavier and less breezy than before, its narrative feels more substantive and interesting. The cheesy, Red Dawn-influenced plot is instantly more memorable than whatever the hell happened in season two, and while it’s imperfect, it’s also entertaining.

There is one major flaw with the plot, in that the show mostly neglects to provide any larger reasoning for it. But that’s mostly fine — because by the final moments, we realize that it serves as scaffolding for ongoing plot developments in future seasons. Granted, it’s a toss-up as to whether Stranger Things will be able to successfully expand its story; the show might ultimately choose to just ignore any loose threads from this season, the way it seems to have largely jettisoned the US military’s covert interest in Hawkins from last season. But let’s be real: If you’re into Stranger Things for the vast military cover-ups, you’re probably watching it wrong.

Bad: the pacing frequently lags, and WHAT IS UP WITH THE EDITING?

Yeah, we’re confused, too, kids.
Courtesy of Netflix

Stranger Things’ season three editing is erratic at best. It relies so much on flashbacks — either to scenes from season two, or to scenes that literally just happened in the previous episode — that I felt not only condescended to as a viewer, but slightly confused about why so much time was devoted to showing us things we’d already seen.

On top of the flashbacks, the editing frequently jumps confusingly between cross-current action sequences in different locations, in ways that create avoidable narrative confusion rather than suspense. At times, the cross-cutting is used to gloss over how characters got from point A to point B, and while a certain amount of this is acceptable, there are a couple of instances where it jolted me out of the story completely and I actually wound up rewinding to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. When your edits confuse your audience instead of moving the story along, that’s a problem.

And I’m not done! In addition to the flashbacks and the narratively confusing cross-cuts, the editing also deliberately suspends our temporal location. It occasionally jumps backwards in time by a few minutes to pick back up with scenes we just saw, returning to characters who are still exactly where we last saw them, even though the narrative has jumped to simultaneous action occurring somewhere else and carried that action forward. In other words, when the cross-cutting isn’t skipping over several narrative steps in an action sequence, it’s keeping characters in place without any action. The effect is disorienting, but to no greater emotional or narrative purpose. It just feels lazy, confusing, uninspired, and inexplicable.

The consequence of all these edits is that the pacing frequently stutters, and in fact sometimes grinds to a halt. Since the flashbacks and cross-cuts carry zero emotional weight — even when they’re meant to — the whole project occasionally feels like a tedious cinematic experiment. But it also doesn’t help that the season’s writing frequently cycles back through things we’ve seen before, to no apparent point. There’s only so many times, for example, that Will can slap the back of his neck and feel the sensation of the Mind Flayer still being around before it starts to feel like Stranger Things is just having him do this out of narrative laziness rather than putting in work to build dramatic tension.

Great: the cast is as sparkling and fun as ever…

Robin! Look, everybody, it’s Robin!
Netflix

One of Stranger Things’ greatest assets is the show’s irresistible cast dynamics, and in season three, the teen ensemble, led by Millie Bobbie Brown as El and Finn Wolfhard as Mike, is as capable as ever. At times Wolfhard doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with himself, perhaps because the writing asks Mike to take on whole new levels of cluelessness regarding the state of his new, hot-and-steamy relationship with El. But Brown remains astoundingly good at everything she’s asked to do. Given how blatantly pain-filled Eleven’s life has been and continues to be, it’s a testament to what a tremendous actor she is that Stranger Things doesn’t feel more melodramatic.

Meanwhile, Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin and Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington, everyone’s favorite babysitter, are two of the show’s strongest comedic weapons, and the decision to keep them together at all times this season is a smart one. And the upbeat energy between the cast helps compensate for the season’s editing issues. One of the great things about Stranger Things is that it’s especially good at treating new characters like they’ve always been around. In season two, that mostly worked with new arrivals Max and Billy, though the show ultimately suffers in both season two and season three by referencing but then glancing over their abusive home life without a lot of deeper scrutiny.

Where it really works in season three is with the arrival of new character Robin (Maya Hawke), who finds herself mixed up with Hawkins’ zaniest friends group and proceeds to steal every scene she’s in. Deadpan and lowkey, she fits in effortlessly with her designated troop of mallrats: Steve, Dustin, and Lucas’s little sister Erica, whose own role is beefed up this season.

Bad: …but most of the new side characters are kinda eh, whatever

Remember when Billy was a potentially interesting deconstruction of vaguely homoerotic masculine stereotypes of the ‘80s? Yeah, you can forget all that.
Courtesy of Netflix

That said, nearly all of the season’s other new characters are ciphers, present to serve plot points or deliver comedy without substance. One character exists solely as a running Arnold Schwarzenegger joke, which is… fine? On the one hand, this is just what Stranger Things does, but on the other, between throwaway gags and disposable characters, the show spends a whole lot of time glancing over characterization and backstory that could have deepened the drama and our connection to the characters.

As I hinted above, this is especially notable in the case of Max and Billy, because they, for all intents and purposes, are still new characters, and Billy’s motivations and backstory in particular are largely still unknown to us. When we’re asked to accept parts of the plot that revolve around him in season three, we know so little about him that it seems like an unfair tradeoff.

And the lack of emotional connection is especially obvious toward the end of the season, when narrative subthreads that should be moving us most seem to fizzle and resolve without much intensity at all. I found myself ‘eh, whatevering’ a couple of major plot spoilers, because Stranger Things just didn’t make me care enough even when I wanted to.

Bad: the jokes often feel forced — and the Starcourt Mall, season 3’s biggest comic backdrop, doesn’t fulfill its narrative potential

Yep, they sure are in the mall!
Courtesy of Netflix

Stranger Things has definitely moved away from parroting familiar ‘80s tropes as closely as it once did, and while that’s a good thing, it seems to be relying even more on belaboring the ‘80s in-jokes it does include. It just doesn’t always work. While there’s still plenty of charm and amusement to be had, there are a few running jokes in season three that aren’t nearly as funny as Stranger Things would like them to be, and a couple of moments where the show’s patented throwbacks to ‘80s esoterica are downright cringeworthy.

The biggest of these is Hawkins’ new mall, Starcourt, in all its colorful, funky detail. The mall functions as both a giant ‘80s throwback and a blatantly unsubtle commentary on corporate greed wreaking havoc on small-town America — season three’s anticapitalist undertones being an unexpectedly woke new addition to the show.

But what it isn’t is innovative. Although the setting of the mall food court and the retro logos of stores like the Gap and Sam Goody’s are fun to look at, after a while they’re just kinda there, and the mall starts to feel like a wasted opportunity. Even though a few climactic scenes that take place in the mall, the show doesn’t really use the mall. It’s the mall! Go grab some nerf guns and golf clubs! Make some weapons out of lingerie and underwire! Anything’s possible. But Stranger Things doesn’t really get creative, and that’s disappointing.

Good: the creators know there are only so many times they can rely on El’s powers to save the day before it gets tiring

Take a breather, El, you’ve earned it!
Courtesy of Netflix

The Duffer brothers have developed a bad habit of relying on El as a kind of deus ex machina to rescue her friends and make Eleventh-hour arrivals (get it?!) to save the day. This still happens in season three, but the Duffers finally seem to have accepted that if they want to keep evolving and keep expanding Stranger Things’ cast, they can’t keep using El’s powers as the ultimate trump card. Plus, if you’re anything like me, you have spent far too much time thinking about how El’s nosebleeds can’t be great for her permanent neurological health, so the less she has to use her special abilities, the better!

Thankfully, Stranger Things has well-established that its teen characters aren’t just any group of adolescents; they have tons of talent and smarts and resourcefulness to go around, even without El handy. There are plenty of moments in season three when the Hawkins gang and their ability to problem-solve gets a little eyebrow-raising, but if anything, that just makes the season a little more enjoyably silly.

Good (or at least improved): finally, the women get to drive the plot in meaningful ways

Don’t let the patriarchy rattle you, Nance.
Courtesy of Netflix

In Vox’s round table wrap-up of Stranger Things 2, we dissected how unsatisfying the season’s treatment of women was, from Nancy’s largely token side plot to the unnecessary jealousy subthread between El and Max. In season three, Stranger Things seems to have made a concerted effort to address many of those concerns — with caveats.

The show finally has more than one female character per generation, and season three finally offers scenes where these characters bond over something other than a boy. The women on the show also have deeper relationships with each other in season three — though they also seem a little phoned-in. In particular, Nancy has a heart-to-heart with her mom that feels like a stab at mother-daughter bonding, but is also the only scene they’ve had together, maybe ever? Shrugsies! It’s easy to feel the same way about the “girls bonding over Madonna and the local Claire’s” vibe that season three applies to Max and El’s new friendship — like Stranger Things couldn’t figure out what to do with two teen girls except send them to the mall.

Meanwhile, after two seasons in which her main role was to fret and be erratic, Joyce finally gets a chance to take charge of her own subplot — though said subplot also kinda paints her as being as kooky and erratic as ever.

Still, in one of the season’s more interesting arcs, Nancy gets her own ‘80s trope in the form of a Working Girl story that sees her tackling sexism at the local newspaper where she’s interning alongside Jonathan. The storyline lets Stranger Things pay lip service to a few progressive ideas about intersectionality and class and gender privileges.

And while it may sound like these themes and storylines are a bit shoehorned in — yeah, they are, but they represent far more effort than Stranger Things has bothered to expend on its women characters in the past. This effort is also applied to characters we’ve known for three seasons now, and Stranger Things is better than just about any other show at always caring about its characters and their happiness first and foremost.

That said, season three oddly loses sight of some of its best characters and their relationships.

Bad: Stranger Things winds up undercutting some of its most crucial relationships

We stan an ace king, Will Byers!
Courtesy of Netflix

The Duffer Brothers have said in the past that they recognized how good the chemistry is between Eleven and Chief Hopper, so it’s strange that they deliberately keep the two apart for most of season three. It’s not as if the storyline really demands this; instead, it frequently feels like the show just didn’t know what to do with Hopper, in particular, or with El and Hopper together, so it separated them instead.

In fact, season three seems to shrug at multiple character relationships; it’s forgivable, for example, if you’ve forgotten which siblings were related and whose parents the season is following around, because the main families don’t spend any time reinforcing their family bonds. Granted, the show has always been more focused on its main group of teens and their friendships, and some of the show’s best emotional moments this season revolve around watching the kids clash and deal with the reality that they’re growing up and, in some cases, growing apart. But overall, these moments feel like beats the show has played before; meanwhile, the Hawkins community is expanding, but it’s not deepening.

All of this is a reminder that writing has always been Stranger Things’ biggest weakness: When it’s not closely following pre-established tropes, the show frequently feels like it doesn’t know what to do next. And while it’s committed to its characters, it still doesn’t quite know how to write meaningful character interaction and meaningful plot action; it’s often one or the other.

Season two mostly delivered on developing characterizations, but its plot was frequently marching in place without a lot of direction; season three manages to provide an engaging plot, but falls down on the character development. It would be nice to have a version of Stranger Things that really levels up and commits to both.

All eight episodes of Stranger Things season three will premiere Thursday, July 4 on Netflix.