Warning: the following contains spoilers for all three seasons of Stranger Things.
I love Stranger Things. It’s a brilliant show that has truly earned its spotlight in the cultural milieu. As a character-driven show, it’s only gotten better in spite of season 2’s missteps.
But when it comes to those and other aspects of the show, the newest season has problems. The issues with story, themes, and more, particularly because of the change in antagonist, will likely only get worse if and when the fourth season comes out. Even the positive developments in the show, namely its take on the pain of growing up, indicate that it’s time to end it.
CHAPTER ONE: A CHANGE IN ANTAGONIST
Stranger Things is now a fundamentally character-driven show. The characters’ development and how that affects the relationships and the conflicts between them is what drives interest in the show for most people. There’s nothing wrong with putting a greater focus on character, but in this case, it has caused the overarching story to significantly suffer. This is in marked contrast to the tightness of the story in the first season.
In the first season, everything is personal. All the characters have a connection to Will, the Upside Down and/or Hawkin’s Lab in a way that motivates them to advance the plot. The kids are looking for their best friend, Joyce for her son and Jonathan for his little brother. Hopper learned the pain of losing one’s child after he lost his daughter to leukemia, and the death of Nancy’s best friend at the hands of the Demogorgon is what drives her to join the fray in the first place. It even creates other subplots, such as the love triangle between Nancy, Jonathan and Steve.
Even in season 2, the worst-received season so far, almost all the storylines are united in rescuing Will and stopping the Mind Flayer and the Demodogs. Nancy and Jonathan have a more separate storyline for most of the season, but they still face off against Hawkins Lab.
Contrast all of this with season 3. Hawkins Lab was shut down last season, so the Duffers are forced to introduce an all-new antagonist, the Russians. In the first place, the new villain feels shoehorned in, which is probably because it was: there was no prior establishment of the Russians even being in Hawkins or how they would know about the Upside Down. It was hinted at, sure, but hinting at something isn’t the same as establishing it. If we saw Russian agents infiltrating the local government or stalking Eleven last season, their turn as the new villains of the show would have been a lot more believable.
More importantly, the Russians have no personal connection to a majority of the characters. We see the business Joyce works at suffer, but we don’t see the effect of this on her or her family. Not a single member of the cast seems concerned with the small businesses being outcompeted by the mall, except for Nancy who mentions it before being immediately dismissed. A lot of the season does take place at or concerns the mall of course, but there are no personal stakes associated with it until the characters physically enter the base: the Russian didn’t kidnap Will, or Eleven, or antagonize the characters in any way that would personally motivate them to investigate the mall in the first place.
Dustin just stumbles upon the Russians’ broadcast by sheer luck. The Russian assassin character just so happens to be around to attack Hopper. In both cases, the story happens to the characters rather than the characters driving the plot themselves. Alongside all the problems with the story, this shift in antagonist spells trouble for the show thematically.
The prior seasons’ threat was characterized as internal: an accident caused by Hawkins Lab, which is run by the military, is what set the story in motion in the first place. Hawkins Lab continued to drive the story as it attempted to cover up that accident, faking Will Byers’ death and stopping Nancy and Jonathan from exposing the truth of Barb’s death.
Thematically, this could be interpreted as a parable of human hubris as well as carry an anti-war and anti-establishment message: in an attempt to fight the enemies of the United States, the government not only accidentally unleashes a danger on its own people, but actively hunts them to cover it up. This theme is reinforced by Mike’s father in one scene, who ironically declares the family patriots in spite of the fact that the government he is pledging loyalty to is the same that attempted to kill his son a few hours earlier. In the context of the Cold War, that’s a powerful and subversive statement, especially since many of the films Stranger Things took inspiration from held black-and-white views of the world and portrayed the military as heroic. The third season completely undermines those themes.
Rather than subverting and condemning the logic of the Cold War, their appearance ultimately proves the villains of the first two seasons right. The cast of Stranger Things are suddenly no longer victims of an irrational war machine, but necessary casualties in the fight against the nation’s enemies. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned Eleven.
CHAPTER TWO: ELEVEN IS BORING NOW
Eleven doesn’t really have a character arc this season. For the majority of the season, she has no conflicts and almost no agency.
In the first place, Eleven used to hold a central function in the story in seasons one and two. She was ultimately responsible for Will’s disappearance and possession, and was the one to ultimately fix it. She drove rifts between the boys, first because Lucas was suspicious of her, then because her disappearance made Mike act like a bit of a jerk. But now, Eleven holds no such position in the story.
The Russians don’t even know that she exists, and it’s Hopper, not her, that destroys the machine keeping the gate to the Upside Down open. She’s somewhat portrayed as driving a rift in the friendship between Mike and the rest of the group, but this is more Mike’s fault than anything. This season, she mostly existed to deus ex machina characters out of danger, which is not only to the detriment of her character, but those she saves.
In a scene where the Mind Flayer is chasing Nancy through the hospital, the Duffers had a perfect opportunity to develop her character. Nancy, who had her intelligence mocked for the entire season, could have used her wits to fight or escape the Mind Flayer somehow. Instead, Eleven jumped in and easily defeated it. Therein also lies the major issue with her character arc this season: it’s not clear what, if anything, she struggles against.
Her arc was once filled with conflicts that not only drove, but defined her character. Her trauma at the hands of Dr. Brenner left her mentally and emotionally vulnerable, even when he was apparently dead. She was hunted by Hawkins Lab ET-style in the first season, forcing her separation from Mike in the second. She struggled to be accepted by the kids in the first season and to have a parent figure in the second. By the end of the second season, however, she received everything she wanted and needed.
With Hawkins Lab gone, healthy relationships and apparently limitless power, it’s not exactly clear what Eleven has to fight for anymore. It could be argued that her arc in this season was about gaining independence and growing up, but it’s practically handed to her by the second chapter.
It could also be argued that her arc could be about her being treated like a machine. That would be great for the story as well as for developing its themes. Eleven, after all, was created to be a weapon of war. Mike even accuses his friends of treating Eleven like a machine. But the Duffers never really develop this idea much.
We never see Eleven resist or even be bothered by this alleged treatment. She willingly helps her friends while they risk their lives for her in turn. Eleven is now what the show spent two seasons condemning Hawkins Lab for trying to make her: a weapon. The Duffers do give her a moment in the last episode where she defeats the Mind Flayer through empathetic connection rather than violence, but it was done as a last resort rather than a conscious choice. Eleven is portrayed as independent, but it is not at all clear what choices she makes in the story beyond dumping Mike. To be fair to the Duffers, however, Eleven does eventually come into conflict with something.
It’s safe to say that Eleven is overpowered. Overpowered characters are a common problem in fiction, but it does have an easy solution: shift the character’s conflicts from being physical in nature to something intangible. Superman is invincible, so his conflicts are primarily about making moral decisions. One-Punch Man’s Saitama is equally invincible, which leads to him struggling to find any meaning or enjoyment in his heroism. That’s exactly what the Duffers did for the first two seasons, by making Eleven physically powerful but mentally vulnerable.
Eleven is consistently portrayed as fearful and isolated, but the third season opens with all her emotional needs being fulfilled. She’s confident and badass. On top of that, it’s established in the second season that she can tap into her anger when using her powers, so she can now call upon immense power at will. By the third season, she’s throwing her opponents around like a rag dolls. She has almost no weaknesses. With her both physically powerful and mentally strong, the Duffers needed a way to give her a flaw. They recognized this and took away Eleven’s powers. The only problem with this is that they waited until the end of the last episode to do it.
In a conventional character arc, the problems that motivate a character are resolved by the end of the story after they are introduced in the beginning. That structure was reversed here, and it made Eleven’s arc fall flat.
Bad character development isn’t the only thing wrong with Eleven: part of what made her, as well as many elements of the show, compelling in the first place was their ambiguous nature.
CHAPTER THREE: STRANGER THINGS AND THE WEIRD
As author J.F. Martel writes in his article for the journal Metapsychosis:
“In art and literature, absolute strangeness is called the Weird. Weird things aren’t things I don’t yet understand but will understand when I know more about them. They are things that elude all possible explanation because they are rooted in unreason.”¹
The brand of the Weird most people are familiar with is H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. It plays on the fear of the unknown to the highest degree by rendering the entities he writes about impossible to understand, let alone explain. Within individual stories such as At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft never explains the nature of the entities his characters encounter. Just looking at entities like Dagon of The Shadow Over Innsmouth so thoroughly blows the minds of Lovecraft’s protagonists, they go insane.
Martel never calls the show capital-W Weird, but he points out that ambiguity is a fundamental aspect of many elements of the show.¹ I argue that ambiguity was present in Eleven, the monsters and even Hawkins Lab. Part of the reason the show has gone down in quality is because it has lost much of its ambiguity this season, starting with Eleven.
Like any good movie monster, Eleven is a walking paradox. Zombies defy the line between alive and dead, werewolves the line between human and animal, and Eleven the line between harmless and harmful, friend and foe, human and weapon.
Her characterization and powers are ambiguous and otherworldly. As a character, she’s just as much a product of Hawkins Lab as the gate to the Upside Down. She seems innocent and helpless, at one moment refusing to harm a cat, but quickly switches to coldly killing without remorse when she is threatened. She’s an outsider who exhibits strange behavior and hides her intentions, guiding the boys at one point and misleading them at another without explanation. But fairly early on, Eleven is slowly humanized.
Eleven defending Mike and Dustin from the bullies is an important development for her, but now we know for sure where her loyalties lie. Her storyline in season two gave her a heartbreaking backstory, but now we know where exactly she and her powers came from. With those ambiguities cleared up, the only ambiguity left to explore in season three is her powers.
In seasons one and two, her powers are unpredictable. She’s normally only shown shutting doors and crushing soda cans, but can do everything from break bones to move train cars when pushed. She consistently accomplishes greater and greater feats, but often expresses fear and doubt that she will be strong enough to face off against the series’ monsters. Her strength is unknown, and therefore so is her level of weakness.
In the third season, despite all her screaming, the Mind Flayer clearly doesn’t stand a chance against her for the most part. As mentioned before, a potentially interesting moment happens when her powers begin to falter. This would be a perfect opportunity to introduce more ambiguity and mystery. Are her powers failing because she developed some sort of mental block? Is the Mind Flayer resistant to her attacks now? Is she becoming reluctant to use her powers and hiding it from everyone?
Well no, actually. She’s just tired. There was no prior establishment that she could get tired, but this season isn’t big on explanation anyway.
To the Duffers’ credit, they did leave us with a cliffhanger this season that promises to make the show more interesting. There are serious doubts that Eleven will be strong enough to face off against the series monster next season. Hopefully, it stays that way and introduces some much-needed mystery into this show, because the third season largely gives us nothing to speculate about. This is true of the monsters as well as Eleven.
In the first two seasons, the monsters were depicted as inhuman and ambiguous. The Demogorgon was only shown in glimpses, and when we did see it, it was too strange to categorize. It is humanoid, but also hunts like an animal and has a mouth like a flower. The Mind Flayer is normally shown in the far distance, later revealed to be something like a living tendril of smoke. It is simultaneously immaterial but able to influence the environment. Like Eleven, the monsters of the show were walking contradictions.
There was eventually an explanation for what the Mind Flayer does, but never how or why. Is it just a predatory force of nature, like the Demogorgon, or is there intention behind its actions? The mystery made it compelling. But no, in season three we get a full-on explanation of the Mind Flayer as a conscious, articulate being that explains exactly why it wants what it wants.
Woohoo, another mystery solved, except I neither wanted to solve it, nor did I just want the answer to be handed to me rather than have the characters figure it out. Even the depiction of the weirdest monster of the series, the Mind Flayer, is robbed of its mystery in season three. For one, we already saw the Mind Flayer in season two, albeit in a different form. For another, the version of it that we see in season three in more tangible, more earthly, if disgusting. It no longer looms in the background, affecting the world in mysterious, unknowable ways. It’s a simple physical threat that the characters can understand and react to with no issues. This season is not bad television by any means, but it is lacking in the department of what made it a good mystery-horror series in the first place.
In spite of all my complaints, there is something that the Duffers handled better than any modern popular media that I know of: growing up. And that’s exactly why the show should end.
CHAPTER FOUR: A THEMATIC SHIFT
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
Season three has the most heartbreaking ending of any season: not long after Eleven finds a father in Hopper, he (allegedly) dies in his efforts to shut down the machine keeping the gate to the Upside Down open. While Hopper initially came off as controlling and antagonistic when he split up Mike and Eleven, she later reads a letter where he not only apologizes and opens up about how he feels, but also admits his flaws.
When Hopper lost his daughter, he fell into a deep depression where he suppressed his emotions. When Eleven entered his life, he felt himself leaving it. As she grew up, however, she grew closer to Mike and further from him. As he states in the letter from the final episode:
“I miss playing board games every night, making triple-decker Eggo extravaganzas at sunrise, watching Westerns together before we doze off.”
Hopper realizes that he wasn’t trying to be protective when he drove Mike off: what he was really trying to do was keep Eleven from growing up. To sate his fear of change.
In the aftermath of Hopper’s death, Joyce Byers adopts Eleven. Joyce, however, had long since decided to move away from the town that put her through so much; away from Mike. In one fell swoop, Eleven is once again separated from the two people she loved most.
That’s how stories work in television. If new conflicts weren’t always arising, there would be no season 4. There would be no change. And change happens to be part of what this season is about. What’s interesting is how this is a deviation from the themes of the season that brought the show its success.
In a video about the original series, the philosophy-entertainment YouTube channel Wisecrack posits that the show is trying to say something about children: namely, that while many of the stories that the show was based on, such as IT and Stand By Me, show children overcoming obstacles by growing up, the kids of Stranger Things shows them succeeding just by being kids. The show does this particularly through the symbolism of toys.
The boys understand the Upside Down, the Demogorgon and even their own friendship through Dungeons and Dragons. They communicate through toy walkie-talkies and fight the Demogorgon with a slingshot. Will Byers ultimately survives his trip to the Upside Down by taking shelter in Castle Byers, a fort he built in his backyard. The teenagers of the show ultimately defeat the Demogorgon through toys, fighting it off with a baseball bat and a series of Home Alone-style booby traps. Even Joyce Byers’ iconic Christmas light wall through which she communicates with Will looks a lot like a Ouija board. The characters of Stranger Things don’t succeed by growing up, but by being kids. At least, that’s how the first season goes.
By the third season, the characters have grown from kids to teenagers. A notable exception is Will Byers. Unlike his friends, he had less time to grow up. He spends an entire episode begging to play D&D, for things to go back to the way they were. But as his friends grow up around him, he’s forced to confront adulthood. After they lose interest in D&D and get girlfriends, Will feels abandoned and ignored. In the third chapter, he and Mike argue after he angrily storms out of a D&D session:
MIKE: “I’m not trying to be a jerk, okay? But we’re not kids anymore. I mean, what did you think, really? That we were never going to get girlfriends? That we’re just going to sit in my basement all day and play games the rest of our lives?”
WILL: “Yeah. I guess I did.”
Will rides off home in the pouring rain to take shelter in Castle Byers, reminiscing on the childhood he lost. In a powerful scene, he destroys the fort he built in his backyard out of anger and despair, the very symbol of childhood that kept him alive in season 1.
In that moment, Will Byers grew up.
By the third chapter of the third season, the Duffer Brothers removed all doubt of their thematic turn. Unlike the first season, being a child is no longer a powerful tool of survival. While it may have held Will up at one point, he no longer needs it and must abandon it. This thematic change has philosophical implications beyond the story of the show itself.
Regardless of how good the show is beyond it, the show’s success was partially built upon nostalgia. An audience of adults who grew up in that era initially gravitated towards it because it was premised on recreating the pop culture of the 80’s. While the Duffers have a clear love of the era of their childhoods, I argue that the evocation of childhood has a more transcendental, timeless aspect; this show could be about any other era and it would hold the same appeal for the way it regards the condition of being a preteen. As the characters of the show grow into teenagers, however, themes of leaving childhood behind eclipsed this. Hopper’s letter cements this:
“… I know you’re getting older, growing, changing. I guess, if I’m being really honest, that’s what scares me. I don’t want things to change. So I think maybe that’s why I came in here, to try and stop that change. To turn back the clock. To make things go back to how they were. But I know that’s naive. It’s just not how life works. It’s moving, always moving, whether you like it or not. And yeah, sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s sad. And sometimes, it’s surprising. Happy.
So you know what? Keep on growing up kid. Don’t let me stop you. Make mistakes, learn from ’em. When life hurts you, because it will, remember the hurt. The hurt is good.”
While the message of the third season does not contradict the celebration of childhood in the first, this is simply no longer a show about celebrating childhood. This is now a show about the pain of growing up. Despite all the negative ways the show has changed, I deeply respect the shift in the Duffers’ portrayal of adolescence.
For many, childhood was not all fun and games. Growing up and leaving the things you love behind is natural, but painful. By leaning into those themes this season, Stranger Things has boldly departed from the themes of the season that brought it its success. And with adulthood closing in on the kids in both the story and its themes, it’s nearing the time for this story to end.
I’m not saying it should end on the third season. It still needs one, or maybe even two more to wrap up its story, but the show has changed in both good and bad ways that indicate its time is coming. Otherwise, it could suffer a fate that it doesn’t deserve: not ending on a high note.
- Martel, J.F., and J.F. Martel. 2016. “Reality Is Analog: Philosophizing With Stranger Things / Part One”. Metapsychosis. Accessed July 18 2019. https://www.metapsychosis.com/reality-is-analog-philosophizing-with-stranger-things-part-one/.