Stranger Things 3 Recap: Action, Laughs, Terror and Tears

Summer 1985 is the summer of love for the kids of Hawkins, Indiana. When we return to the small town with big monster problems at the heart of Stranger Things, Mike and Eleven are kissing behind semi-closed doors, much to Hopper’s chagrin. Max and Lucas are still being cute, if not as obnoxiously romantic as Mike and Eleven. Surprising everyone, Dustin has returned from camp with a long-distance girlfriend. And Nancy and Jonathan are still going strong. Poor Will seems to be the only one not dating. But at least he still has his friends, right? 

Erm, about that…

Before any baddies have the chance to wreak havoc on our pint-size heroes (and don’t worry, they will), the hormonal friends themselves start to push one another away, because apparently dating is more fun than D&D. (Hard disagree.) Although school is over, the sun is out and a fancy new mall has just opened, what should be the best summer ever is instead full of broken hearts and friendships—to say nothing of a familiar terror lurking just around the corner. 

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Stranger Things 3

(Image credit: Netflix)

Due to Mike and Eleven’s nonstop spit-swapping, Hopper uses some creative means to force a breakup, which may or may not have involved physical threats to Mike’s person. After El “dumps his ass,” the group splits into boys versus girls, sending the characters on separate adventures for most of the season. While Mike and Lucas deal with the breakup by literally and figuratively farting around, Max and Eleven go shopping, have a fun sleepover and use Eleven’s powers to spy on people in their neighborhood. 

When Eleven hears Mike make a whiny, offhand comment about girls being “another species,” she chooses to focus on herself instead, exploring different fashions and spending more time with Max. So much of her journey so far has been influenced by the men in her life—the clothes she wears, the friends she sees, the powers she uses—that it’s nice to see her finally get the opportunity to discover herself without Mike, Hopper or the other boys around. 

This theme touches every storyline, reinforcing the fact that girls rule and boys drool no matter how old you are. Nancy, now working at the Hawkins Post as an intern, approaches the all-male writing staff with a story pitch relating to strange occurrences in the town, but she’s teased and laughed out of the room. 

Ever the intrepid wannabe reporter, Nancy and a hesitant Jonathan continue to chase the story, discovering a resident of Hawkins snacking on fertilizer like popcorn. The blowback from the Post is brutal, with both Nancy and Jonathan being fired despite Nancy’s thinking that would never happen. Feeling defeated, she turns to Jonathan for support and comfort, but even he lets her down, citing her privilege and lack of evidence as reasons not to continue pursuing the story. Only her mom can convince her to follow through, and of course, Nancy ends up being right about it all.

The Boys Are Back in Town

Dustin returns from a science/computer camp called Camp Know Where, looking forward to reuniting with his best buds. After a surprise Welcome Back gone wrong (Dustin accidentally maces Lucas with hair spray), the group embarks on a journey to reach the highest point of Hawkins so Dustin can radio his new girlfriend, Suzie. But similarly girl-crazy, Mike and Lucas quickly bail on their friend and fail to keep in touch afterward.

So distracted by their on-again off-again romances, Mike and Lucas seemingly forget all about Dustin being back, and only Will mentioning his name seems to make them acknowledge his existence. Will hopes a game of D&D will distract the boys from their girl troubles and bring them closer, but an especially emo Mike derails the game with endless whining about his breakup with Eleven. He and Will get in a brutal argument, ending with Mike shouting, “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls!”

Not cool, Mike. Not cool at all. 

(Image credit: Netflix)

In his rage, Mike could have simply implied that Will hasn’t matured from playing childish board games, but it pulls double burn duty by possibly outing Will as not identifying as heterosexual, as some fans have speculated since season one. In a now-deleted Instagram post from way back in 2016, Noah Schnapp, who plays Will, addressed his character’s sexuality: "Will being gay or not is beside the point,” Schnapp wrote. “Stranger Things is a show about a bunch of kids who are outsiders and find each other because they have been bullied in some way or are different." While true, it seems like creators the Duffer brothers are still interested in exploring this side of Will, and this season poses the question: What happens when the friends you cherish become the bullies you’ve tried to avoid? 

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I’ve always felt a special connection to Will more than the other boys. Growing up, I was also the shy, quiet, nerdy kid who found comfort in books and games. As my friends got older and started dating, I was nowhere close to even understanding my own sexuality, so I clung to science fiction and make-believe stories as my friends naturally outgrew those things. So to see Will destroy Castle Byers, tear up his drawing of Will the Wise and rip up the picture of him and his friends, it felt especially painful. I wanted to reach through the screen and shake him, tell him the things that make him different and “weird” are what make him truly special. And based on the actions of everyone else around him this season, he might just be the most grown up of them all. 

Dustin and Steve Reunited: And It Feels So Good

Stranger Things 3

(Image credit: Netflix)

Meanwhile, during a mission to crack a mysterious Russian code Dustin intercepts while trying to contact new girlfriend Suzie via radio, Dustin relentlessly encourages Steve to pursue his cute, smart and nerdy new coworker Robin, but Steve is too busy checking out other ladies, claiming Robin’s not his type. Steve’s also sort of in the doldrums because as cool as his hair is (and it is cool), he couldn’t get into any colleges, leaving him working at the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop.

While Steve and Dustin go patrolling the new Starcourt Mall for evil Russians, Robin proves to be a talented ally, using her knowledge of French and Spanish to crack the code. She even manages to recruit Erica, Lucas’ younger sister, to the cause with the promise of free ice cream for life. And just like that, Project Child Endangerment is a go, y’all. 

As Steve, Dustin and Robin discover, the mall turns out to be somewhat of a front for an underground Russian base, established with help from Hawkins mayor Larry Kline (Stranger Things newcomer Cary Elwes). It’s the perfect dichotomy of bright, shiny capitalism above and dark Soviet communism below. It’s all very Red Dawn, as the kids go deeper and deeper into the compound, outsmarting the Russians at nearly every turn. 

After Steve and Robin recover from being drugged by the Russian, Steven finally realizes he does have a crush on Robin, but she reveals that she’s had a crush on a girl in their class, not him. YES, STEVE, YOUR HAIR IS GREAT, BUT CHECK THAT NARCISSISM, SIR. 

To have a chance at a happy post-supernatural-monster-fighting life, it’s clear that the boys of Hawkins have a lot of inner monsters to battle as well. Speaking of...

Hopper and Joyce: It’s Complicated

Hopper and Joyce

(Image credit: Netflix)

Now that El’s love life is on hold, Hopper can focus on his own. That means he can awkwardly pursue his unspoken crush on Will and Jonathan’s mom, Joyce Byers. It might even be a good idea, if she weren’t clearly still dealing with the death of Bob last season via demodog. No one ever said Hopper was the sharpest tool in the shed, but you kinda want these kids to work regardless of his brutishness...kinda. 

After noticing that magnets have suddenly and inexplicably stopped working in her home and around town, Joyce goes to see Will’s teacher for an explanation—which would have been cool, if she hadn’t been asked out by Hopper on a not-a-date date and ghosted him. Hopper, in his Magnum P.I. finery, goes into a drunken self-destructive spiral after realizing Joyce isn’t coming, but still accompanies her to the Hawkins lab to prove there’s no funny business going on.

There, they encounter who is best described as a Russian Terminator, a beefy Schwarzenegger type who’s light on words but heavy on punches, kicks and bullets. Hopper gets knocked unconscious in a scuffle with Russianator, but Joyce mends him back to health. Thanks to Joyce’s detective work, they manage to track down and kidnap a Russian scientist named Alexei (or Smirnoff, according to Hopper) who defects and ends up helping the team plot to shut down the reactor under Starcourt Mall that’s attempting to reopen a gate into the Upside Down. Alexei and Murray, Hopper’s paranoid P.I. friend, end up hitting it off, even teasing Hopper and Joyce for not having hooked up yet. But at a 4th of July fair, the Russianator guns down Alexei, calling him a traitor, much to Murray’s dismay. 

Flayed Another Day

The kids of Hawkins aren’t the only ones growing up fast. Remember Mr. Mind Flayer from season two? Turns out after he was exorcised from Will, he didn’t exactly die when Eleven closed the gate to the Upside Down. No, he’s just been chillin’ in an abandoned building, slowly regaining his energy and waiting for the perfect new host. And that new host arrives in the form of resident cougar chaser and hunky troubled lifeguard Billy, who happens to be Max’s older stepbrother. 

Stranger Things has had a Billy problem since his introduction last season. He never really meshed with any other characters, and despite hints of a troubled past, it was hard to like him in more than a lusty, quintessential ‘80s bad-boy way (Mrs. Wheeler knows). But this season doubles down on his unlikeability by very quickly making him the primary antagonist by way of Mind Flayer—and boy does Dacre Montgomery play a great villain. 

With menacing stares and an imposing physicality, it’s hard to imagine him being brought into the show for any other reason than this role. Even the way he whispers into the ears of the about-to-be Flayed—”Don’t be afraid. Just stay very still.”—is supremely creepy. Interestingly enough, it also allows us to see his character at his most vulnerable. I mean, it’s hard to root against the guy when he’s grappling with a supernatural monster controlling him, not to mention his own raging inner demons. 

Billy's got a problem

(Image credit: Netflix)

While it’s a bit of a disappointment to realize the Mind Flayer is the Big Bad again, the Duffer brothers do a good job of ramping up the horror to make it feel more threatening than in season two. It’s clear they were inspired by John Carpenter and movies like The Thing when designing the look and mannerisms of the Flayer: its fleshy, heavy body and the squishy sounds it makes are ripped straight from a PG-13 ‘80s flick. References to even older movies, like The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, run rampant throughout the season as well. Rats explode, the Flayer oozes under doors and through vents and at one point, all the Flayed under the Mind Flayer’s control line up and explode in a puddle of goo to help him grow, which is Stranger Things at its darkest yet. 

During the final Battle of Starcourt, when all the kids and adults have finally reconciled and reunited to defeat the Mind Flayer as a team, one of the Flayer’s tendrils latches onto El’s leg, injuring her. She’s forced to use her powers to remove the piece of the monster from her leg, but after she successfully gets it out, her powers seem to disappear. Meanwhile, the other kids go to rescue Dustin and his crew, proving that they haven’t truly forgotten about him and do still deeply care.

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Eleven uses her powers to try to reach Billy and sees flashes of his childhood memories. We see his dad assault his mom and verbally abuse him, but the memory that keeps coming back to Billy is one of him and his mom on the beach. We’re led to believe this is one of his last good memories of being a child—heck, maybe the last good memory of his life. 

So Eleven reminds Billy of this moment to break the Mind Flayer’s hold on him. It works, and Billy, back as himself, sacrifices himself to protect the kids, including his sister, Max. 

I wish we’d gotten to know non–Mind Flayer Billy a little more, but his redemptive arc, albeit rushed, allows him to at least go out as a hero. Not to mention his death is sure to give Max a lot more emotional conflict to work through next season. 

Sometimes They Come Back...Again?

Of course, Billy’s death isn’t the last—or most tearful—of the season. While he’s busy sacrificing himself, Joyce and Hopper infiltrate the Russian lab hidden below Starcourt in order to shut down the Upside Down–reopening reactor. Joyce prepares to turn the failsafe keys, but Hopper is sidelined next to the reactor by the Russianator. Unable to wait for him to get out of the way of the reactor, Joyce turns the keys, blasting Hopper into space dust. 

Or blasting him somewhere...else…? Hopper’s “death” is reminiscent of Eleven’s at the end of season one in that we’re not entirely sure if he is, indeed, dead (if there’s no body, there’s no proof!). And we know how the Upside Down loves to claim people. 

The loss of Hopper is the final straw for Joyce and her family, so after they finish kicking monster butt, they prepare to move out of Hawkins. Joyce brings Eleven with them, giving her the gift of having a mother figure in her life, which will be interesting to see play out next season. Once again, the friends are split up, but this time there’s no fighting or drama—just tears and sadness. 

As the Byers and Eleven drive out of Hawkins into a new, hopefully monsterless future, a mid-credits scene cuts to a prison in Kamchatka, Russia, where we see Russian guards feed a prisoner to...a demogorgon?! Uh, what the heck is a demogorgon doing in Russia? I guess we’ll just have to wait to see in season four. 

Worst mall trip ever?

(Image credit: Netflix)

Most interestingly, though, the guards pass over a room before choosing which prisoner to feed to the monster. “Not the American,” one says. 

Hmmm. Could that be our thought-to-be-dear-departed Hopper? Unlikely. My guess is on Dr. Brenner, the creepo scientist who experimented on Eleven. 

The teaser is enough to keep us speculating about and excited for season four, which, honestly, I hope is the show’s last. I know, I know, we want to live in Hawkins for as long as possible, but hear me out. With the reemergence of season one’s iconic monster and the possibility of Hopper being sent to and trapped in the Upside Down, it could make for an epic final mission to rescue him that also hearkens to season one’s set pieces in a very cool, cyclical way. The residents of Hawkins deserve happy endings after all they’ve been through, and they can’t fight monsters forever, right? With Eleven’s powers seemingly gone, it would also be one of the biggest challenges yet, making for an epic finale. Maybe Kali could even join the fray, giving us an X-Men–style powerspalooza featuring all of Elevens’ “siblings.” 

Regardless of what happens next, it’ll be exciting to see how the show outdoes itself after this dark, emotional roller coaster of a season. 

Daniel Toy is a Tom's Guide contributing writer who covers television, film and all things pop culture. When he's not arguing about the best and worst series finales of all time, he's flipping through his LCBS's dollar bin or chugging through his Switch backlog. His other writing and editing credits include BuzzFeed, Marvel, Scholastic, Callisto, Breadcrumbs and Syndicated, and he strongly believes The Truth Is, indeed, Out There.