The Duffer Brothers should’ve known they’d made a mistake when they found themselves using Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) exactly the same way they did in Season 2: stepping between a bickering couple to add much-needed comic relief and much-needed insistence to shut up, stop fighting, and have sex already. Murray had the same conversation in “Stranger Things 2” with Nancy and Jonathan, who were a black hole for chemistry then and remain one today, ably serving as the audience surrogate. But unlike in other areas, the Duffers don’t learn from their mistakes. It takes way too long (again) for Murray to call out the annoying couple for being annoying, and despite Murray’s lovable quirk (and Gelman’s measured turn), the comments are still very much on-the-nose.
All of this leads to the ultimate problem — and here’s where I issue another spoiler warning just in case you’ve read this far without seeing the ending — Hopper’s “death.” First of all, I don’t buy for one single second that Hopper is dead. I didn’t buy it when he nodded at Joyce to flip the switches and short-circuit the machine. I didn’t buy it when she looked at the platform where he stood, and he’s not there anymore. I didn’t buy it when Eleven started crying or she moved out of Hawkins with the Byers family. And I definitely didn’t buy it during the mid-credits scene where the Russians feed one of their own to a Demogorgon instead of “the American.”
Whether you believe he got through the portal to the Upside Down or otherwise survived the blast, there’s a reason the Duffers dwell on the fried corpses when the machine goes haywire in the premiere episode, while there’s no sizzling chunk of Hopper left behind for proof he’s dead in the finale. Hopper is alive — or they at least want to keep open that possibility.
But, setting aside the annoying trend of pretending to kill off fan favorite characters in a season finale only to bring them back next season, “Stranger Things” fans should still feel something when Hopper’s absence hits home for the rest of the characters. Instead, after a season of watching him try to trick Joyce into dating him, scream at kids, and generally bumble his way through life with a drunken air of angry dad energy, it’s a relief to spend 20 minutes in a Hopper-less Hawkins. What might the show be like with Joyce as the primary hero, instead of playing deputy to Hopper’s chief? Would that much really change without him? No more forced romance, no more irate outbursts, no more sitcom dad — does that sound so bad? ’80s TV comedies may have needed a father figure, but “Stranger Things” would be just fine with Joyce parenting Eleven, sans some guy trying to wedge his way into the picture.
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– Aside from Hopper head-fake death, Eleven losing her powers seems to be the most significant cliffhanger heading into Season 4. While this is a well-covered twist in superhero stories, and the Duffers very well could just repeat the arcs of “Superman II” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I like it if only so we can get a break from Eleven’s nosebleeds. Watching the young girl strain so hard to move things, be it tossing a jalopy across the middle of a mall or scooting a few child’s toys over the carpet, that she bleeds from her brain is a bit much. I gotta side with Mike (which I can’t believe I’m saying) and urge caution. Young people do dumb things because they think they’re immortal all the time — how will Eleven change when she knows she’s not?
– OK, if Hopper is dead (which he’s not), let’s just say Joyce really knows how to pick ’em.
– I feel the “Never-Ending Story” sing-a-long will be somewhat divisive, if only for how long it goes on, but I land firmly on the “pro” side. This is a ridiculous show and taking a moment to acknowledge and enjoy its ridiculousness, even with such an obvious nostalgia ploy and even during the climax of the season, just works. An ideal dose of silly to counteract the self-seriousness, which brings me to…
– …Erica. Last year’s scene-stealing breakout got bumped up to a more prominent role in Season 3, joining Dustin, Steve, and Robin to carry a B-plot with A-level entertainment. This group makes zero sense — a wide array of ages (when you’re that young, even a grade or two difference feels like decades), zero romantic attraction (thanks to Robin’s late reveal), and complimentary personalities (meaning they get along just well enough to make their disputes entertaining, like when Dustin yells at Steve to “touch my butt, I don’t care” while trying to climb through a too-small ventilation shaft). Is Erica trying a little too hard to be the Queen of Sass? Yes. Did she lose her top ranking to Robin? Absolutely. Is she still a valuable piece of this spinoff-worthy group? For sure.
– So the product placement is a serious problem here, as anyone who notices these kind of things will be so overloaded with consumerist triggers they may have to take extra breaks in binge-viewing to avoid binge-eating at Burger King. But what could be easily overlooked in all these onscreen ads is how beautifully lit, decorated, and shot the season is overall. Starcourt Mall feels all too real — considering so many malls like it are dying out — and the look of everything from pre-movie ads at the multiplex to glass-laden storefronts filled with (Sam) goodies of yesteryear captures the essence of hanging out at the one-stop mega-shop. The Duffers also do a good job balancing shadows and incorporating neon. The closing fireworks are a nice touch, but the looming presence of the new monster is well-established in the dark depths of an abandoned factory. These elements are easy to overlook with so much else going on, yet they’re critical in making “Stranger Things” easy to watch.
– OK, now that “Stranger Things” is over, go watch “The Blob” (1958), “The Thing from Another World” (1951), and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). Each has sequels and remakes, but these are the ones to start with, if you can handle them.
“Stranger Things 3” is streaming now on Netflix.