The Duffer Brothers have always been masters of déjà vu, constantly reworking the familiar into the new. The duo's first season of Stranger Things was a fascinating fusion of the canons of the two Steves (King and Spielberg) that somehow managed never to stumble into simple pastiche. It was a post-modern collage of influences and references, built from the same spare parts that J.J. Abrams used for his own Spielberg-aping Super 8, but Stranger Things succeeded where Super 8 failed: It managed to become more than the sum of its well-worn parts, thanks to its supreme binge-ability and its murder's row of gifted, then-unknown child actors. It was also just so brain-bleedingly charming.
And now, three years after Stranger Things first hit Netflix back in 2016, the Duffers are back with another, much-improved third season. Sure, these eight new, action-packed episodes are the usual grab-bag of 1980s nostalgia, but what makes Stranger Things 3 succeed isn't that the Duffers have expanded from cribbing Stephen King to cribbing John Carpenter or whatever; it's that they have finally started borrowing from themselves. It finally feels like the Duffers have figured out what Stranger Things is and what it wants to be—and the series is all the better for it.
Stranger Things 3 takes the campy nostalgia and sci-fi tropes that worked in season one, trashes everything that bogged down season two (meaning no more terrible trips to Pittsburgh), and polishes the whole package into a real summer blockbuster of a season. The action is bigger, the explosions are louder, and the horror is actually, legitimately, scary. (Everyone is also, uh, extraordinarily horny for some reason. But we'll get to that later.)
Season three is set in the summer of 1985, picking up half a year after the events of season two left off. Back to the Future is in theaters. New Coke is tearing America apart. The kids are out of school (Dustin's off at a summer camp), the teens are working summer jobs (Nancy and Jonathan at the local paper, Steve slinging ice cream in a sailor's outfit), and Joyce and the adults in town are reckoning with the death of their downtown at the hands of the shiny, new Starcourt Mall.
Of course, this is Stranger Things and all, so the mall's nefarious purposes extend farther than destroying local business. It's also housing a hidden, underground lab where a horde of Russian scientists are using a giant laser beam to bust back into the Upside Down. Why, you ask, are these secret Soviets trying to release the Mind Flayer again? And how can they do it in a massive bunker in Indiana without anyone noticing? These are questions that earlier seasons of Stranger Things might have tried to explain, but season three is confident enough with itself to realize that the answers are irrelevant. The Russians are bad, the Mind Flayer is worse, and the whole secret operation has gone undetected thanks to the town's corrupt, Jaws-ian mayor looking the other way. Got it? Good.
It may not make a ton of logical sense, but who cares? The episodes move at such a rapid pace that there's no time to consider the intricacies of how, exactly, a foreign government could excavate hundreds of feet beneath a suburban mall under the noses of a bunch of small-time city officials. But it doesn't matter! What does matter is that the Mind Flayer is back, and it has figured out a way to build itself a body in the Rightside-Up World using the guts of exploding rats. (Uh, yeah—there are a lot of exploding rats. So, so many exploding rats.) Netflix has seemingly poured a ton of money into this new season, and the Duffers spent a bunch of it on filling the show with ghastly, Cronenberg body horror. This isn't the first season, where the scariest stuff involved a person in some kind of demonic flower suit. This is a new, more mature Stranger Things.
And speaking of more mature: Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's the summer freedom, maybe it's the need for some carnal escape after a few very bad years in Hawkins, but everyone in Stranger Things 3 is extremely ready to hook up. Cliché Hot Mom Karen Wheeler spends her time lusting after Resident Bad Boy Billy at the pool as he strolls by like a mulleted Phoebe Cates; the long-simmering romance between Joyce and Sheriff Hopper finally comes to (sort-of) fruition; Nancy and Jonathan constantly hop either into or out of bed with each other; and Steve Harrington has the hots for his co-worker, Robin—played by season three's breakout star, Maya Hawke, who absolutely slays every scene she's in.
But the real heart of the season isn't the sexploits of Hawkins's horny population, it's the budding love lives of the show's tweens. As the season begins, Mike and Lucas are bumbling their way through awkward romances with Eleven and Max, respectively, and Dustin has supposedly picked up a Mormon girlfriend at camp, although he has trouble supplying proof that she does, in fact, exist. These subplots about young love temper the grotesque bombast of the new season, because the Duffers seem to have learned that Stranger Things works best in the lulls—in the low-stakes, quiet moments between Mike and Eleven, or Steve and Dustin, or Brett Gelman's character and a random Russian hostage, in scenes were the show catches its breath and we're allowed to live alongside the characters for a minute. And Stranger Things 3 pulls off both the action and the emotions perfectly.
The season's finale takes place, unsurprisingly, inside the Starcourt Mall, and it's the best ending battle of the show to date, even if the thing has more last-minute, deus ex machina-style saves than a Sophocles play. But it's the new season's balance between action-packed set pieces and deep, interpersonal relationships that brings the series to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.
Stranger Things is obviously a tentpole series for Netflix, and the streaming service is bound to continue cranking out seasons or spinoffs until Finn Wolfhard decides to quit acting and commit his life to touring with Mac Demarco or whatever. But Stranger Things 3 leaves things on a welcome note of resolution, and if the Duffers decide that this is it for the show, then they've managed to end their trilogy of seasons flawlessly—all Pittsburgh subplots aside.