More than the previous seasons, Stranger Things 3 feels much more cohesive at this point. Every episode appears to pick up right where the previous episode left off; the Duffer Brothers clearly taking advantage of the binge-worthy quality of the show by seamlessly blending the episodes together. I’m enjoying this aspect of this season a lot, because it feels like an 8-hour film helpfully split up into chunks than a season of a TV show.
Max and Elle continue their friendship development with a fun and firmly in-character scene for the two of them. We return to Elle’s visions – sequences that take heavy inspiration from the dark, murder room we return to over and over in 2013’s mind-boggling Scarlett Johanssen vehicle Under the Skin – and they’re used in ways teenage girls would absolutely use them for; spying on people. They spy on the boys that discuss their girl troubles and compare burp and fart ability. Then, a little sooner than I’d like, the visions take a firm right turn onto Plot Development Avenue as Elle tries to see what The Cougar Hunter is up to.
We come back to Elle’s visions a few times in this episode; one could argue it’s a convenient plot device the writers have given themselves, but I got the impression this episode had the majority of visions we’ll experience this year. It’s better to get it all out of the way at once, because by the end of the episode, all of our various plot strands have been moved into position and pointed towards their next goal, with a few curveballs thrown into the mix for good measure. The visions are well-shot and well-orchestrated, one of which resulting in the first major scare of the season with the bathtub jump scare. It’s quick, it’s effective, and it’s extremely well-paced. Beyond the efficacy of the scene, I’m a big fan of the small world-building development it created; when Elle stumbles upon Upside Down Billy in the Steel Mill, Upside Down Billy was aware of her, suggesting her vision room is in fact connected directly to the Upside Down.
Elle’s powers do remain something of a mystery in the show; we know she was experimented on as a child along with many other children her age, but the actual source of her power has never been explained. This points us towards an expected but necessary direction for Elle’s development – is she from the Upside Down? I hope the show explores this further through the season.
Dustin and Steve continue their absolute domination of Stranger Things 3 by being a partnership to die for. Their respective child-like curiosity and liability to jump to conclusions are on show once more here with one of my favourite joint lines in the show to date – “Sunglasses.” “Duffel bag.” “Evil Russians!” Connecting the fact that a man is wearing sunglasses and carrying a duffel bag to him being an Evil Russian connected to the mysterious tape they’ve been steadily decoding is exactly what you’d expect from Dustin and Steve; the resolution of this being the “Evil Russian” is just a yoga instructor was the icing on the cake.
Meanwhile, the brains of Dustin and Steve’s operation, Robin, is hard at work and cracks the Russian message. She figures out that every line of the message, from the silver cat to the blue and yellow in the east, is linked to The Starcourt. Even though this segment of the show feels somewhat removed from the main Sentient Slime mystery, the interaction between these three characters is impossible not to enjoy and I look forward to these sections every week.
Every group this episode is undertaking some form of investigation; Max and Elle investigating what’s up with Billy; Dustin, Steve, and Robin following some secret Russian imports into the mall; Joyce and Hopper investigating why the magnets aren’t working; Nancy and Jonathan investigating the missing rats. Wait, who was that? Nancy and Jonathan?
Those of you who have been reading my reviews so far might have noticed a conspicuous lack of Nancy and Jonathan. The truth is, 3 episodes in, I’ve felt nothing interesting to write about them. After 3 episodes, their story doesn’t appear to have any momentum or purpose other than showcasing misogyny in the workplace in mid-1980’s America – shocker! It feels very much like Nancy and Jonathan have been given something to keep them occupied while the more interesting stories this year take centre stage. Even though they’re linked directly to the Sentient Slime of it all, I’m struggling to understand their purpose in this season up to now.
Someone needs to give poor Will Byers a hug. I’ve never been too connected with Will before this season because he’s largely been used as a portal into the Upside Down; hell, in Season 1 he was missing for literally the entire time. This year, we’re really exploring the PTSD side of Will’s life so far as he feels as much an odd-one-out as ever. Mike and Elle were together all summer, Lucas and Max are the most secure relationship in the entire show, Dustin is off galavanting with Steve, and then we have Will. He’s struggling to find his place in the world, which is unsurprising given he was yanked from it a mere couple of years ago. Mike and Will’s frank and all-too-honest argument this episode is a reminder that the group, whether they like it or not, is growing apart. While it may feel to Will that only he can see that, Mike and certainly Dustin feel that too.
Stranger Things 3 is going from strength to strength. While we’re getting important plot developments – an intense storm sequence is an extremely well-done exposition scene that sets up the major conflict with Upside Down Billy and the others for the rest of the season – Stranger Things 3 continues its hot streak of placing value in its characters first. Good characters help an audience invest in its story, and this strategy is working a treat.