I tore through the third season of Stranger Things with an abandon that, if nothing else, shows quite how much the show’s formula of 1980s nostalgia, knowing pop culture references and humor continues to work on me. But even as I was on the edge of my seat watching Eleven et al face down The Flayed, the nagging thought at the back of my head kept saying, There isn’t really a lot here this time, is there?
Perhaps it’s a metatextual conceit that the third season feels so much like a retread of the second; that doesn’t seem outside of the realm of possibility at all, to me, although I admit that the metatextual reader in me would have preferred it to be a copy of the first season, as commentary of the way that Return of the Jedi pulled so much from the original Star Wars. But as I watched Nancy and Jonathan circle around the kids as they prepared for a showdown, weapons in hand, I thought, I’ve seen this before, and just a year or so ago. What else does this show have?
That’s not to say there’s nothing new in the third season — Robin is wonderful, and I genuinely loved the Red Dawn meets Terminator riff that is the Russian enforcer. (For that matter, expanding the mythology outside of Hawkins is a move that, in retrospect, was essential even as it seemed surprising at first blush.) Even the corrupt mayor is fun enough. It’s just that the central threat, the final showdown, all of that, seemed overfamiliar and as if the Duffer Brothers were running out of ideas and hoping to fill the gaps with knowing references: “Sure, we did the Mind Flayer last time, but this time it’s people and by the way, look, it’s Back to the Future, everyone!”
I’m overthinking it, of course. The season did its job, and I got sucked it, mainlining the whole thing in a weekend finally. (Comic-Con prep meant I got to it three weeks after release, which made it feel almost passé.) It was fun, thrilling and throwaway, just as everyone involved intended. To want it to be more, perhaps, might just be selfish.