Three major developments happen towards the end of Stranger Things‘ third season:
1. Eleven appears to lose her powers as a result of being bitten by a piece of the Mind Flayer.
2. Jim Hopper appears to die in the explosion Joyce sets off to again seal off the rift between our world and the Upside Down.
3. Joyce, Jonathan, and Will leave town to find a new community with fewer monsters, and they take Eleven with them.
(Billy also dies, sacrificing himself to save Eleven. But he wasn’t nearly as important in the grand scheme of things, even if Season Three made him the human face of the Mind Flayer.)
Any one of those things would be a huge grenade — or, if Lucas has his way, collection of fireworks — tossed into the middle of the series. That all three happen around the same time suggests the Duffer Brothers understand that Stranger Things, as fun as it almost always is, has also gotten very repetitive. A necessary shakeup is coming.
Or is it?
What makes the conclusion to the season feel so seismic is that all those things happen around the same time. Taken individually, all are fairly traditional cliffhangers of the type deployed over and over on other series, whether they involve teenagers or creatures from other dimensions. And they’re the type of “big” changes that television shows have been known to undo in a hurry in their relentless quest to reestablish the old status quo.
One of these bells already seems in the process of being unrung before the season finishes. In a mid-credits sequence, we cut to a Soviet facility where prisoners are periodically fed to the Russians’ new pet Demogorgon. Right before the latest victim is pulled screaming from his cell, one of the guards mentions that another cell contains an American. We don’t see this prisoner’s face, but he could easily be good ol’ Sheriff Hopper, whose death in the explosion is implied but never specifically shown. It gives the Duffers and David Harbour plausible deniability if they want to pretend that Hopper is gone forever(*), but it’s also easy to begin Season Four with him rotting in a cell, his trademark mustache transformed into a full, unruly beard.
(*) I’m writing this before the holiday. For all I know, the internet is already full of interviews with the creators or their adult male lead where they either claim he’s never coming back or they try to play coy. But if they act like Hopper’s definitely dead for sure, no take-backsies, just remember that Game of Thrones insisted the same about Jon Snow.
Eleven’s powers feel nearly as easy to restore. Throughout the finale, she tries and fails to access them, but the words “I feel better” are all that are needed to justify her having a well-timed nosebleed right when her friends need her the most. And the fact that she and the Byers clan have moved away seems much less of an obstacle than at the start of the series. Stranger Things has evolved into a show where the bulk of each season involves subsets of characters having parallel adventures — this season, Dustin, Steve, Robin, and Erica are at the mall, while Nancy and Jonathan are working at the newspaper — that only converge at the very end. So it’s easy to imagine Eleven and Joyce running into trouble in their new town that brings them back to Hawkins (or to the USSR to rescue Hopper) by the finale.
Still, even the illusion of change feels necessary for Stranger Things. There’s a formulaic nature to most ongoing series, but this one can feel particularly lather-rinse-repeat with its key elements. Joyce fixates on a different household oddity each season (this year, it was refrigerator magnets losing their charge), but it’s inevitable that it will happen, just as the rift has to get closed again and again, just as Eleven will almost always swoop in to save the day when the boys most desperately need her to. Season Three made many valiant stabs at shaking things up. The action moved from fall to summer, the Mike/Eleven and Lucas/Max romances shook up the larger dynamic among the kids, and the Mind Flayer’s latest plan echoed Invasion of the Body Snatchers more than some of the series’ previous horror touchstones. But the larger architecture feels the same, even if the climax is at the mall rather than the middle school.
The cosmetic changes do less to cover for the repetition than the smart ways the show explores and mixes and matches the characters, and periodically adds fun new ones like Robin or Mayor Kline. As I wrote in my review, the best parts of this season involved Hopper melting down over Mike and Eleven’s relationship, or the teasing friendship between Steve and Robin. (And in an impressively unpredictable moment on a predictable show, those two don’t couple off, as Robin turns out to be gay and Steve turns out to be very cool about it for a teenage boy in 1985.) The special effects budget is bigger, but the most delightful moment of the finale was Dustin and his long-distance girlfriend Suzie belting out the theme to The NeverEnding Story over ham radio to help everyone else save the world.
So even if the inevitable Stranger Things 4 leans hard on the reset button, the show can still be very entertaining so long as it understands its other strengths. But it might be nice to have a new supernatural enemy to face next time.
Some other thoughts:
* Billy was all hype and no delivery in Season Two. This year was a much better use of our resident teen bully, who got to swagger around the pool, flirt heavily with Mrs. Wheeler (whose love of family ultimately overcame her lust for this hot young thing), be the avatar for the big bad, and nobly save Eleven after she un-brainwashes him with talk about his beloved mom. A good showcase for Dacre Montgomery throughout. Max seemed a bit too well-adjusted in the final scenes, though, given what she witnessed happening to her brother.
* I know this is set decades before the plague that befell newspapers, but Hawkins’ local daily still seems shockingly well-staffed even for the period.
* Joyce and Robin don’t really interact, but it’s funny to think about Winona Ryder being in the same cast as Ethan Hawke’s daughter, given the Reality Bites connection.
* I’m not proud of how happy I felt whenever the Midnight Run soundalike score played as Hopper began stealing cars and doing other shady things during his brief stint as a fugitive from justice. That said, the Terminator-esque Soviet agent paraphrasing Die Hard (“You are policeman. Policemen have rules.”) feels like the most shameless of this year’s pop-culture winks. (It’s that, or Dustin outright name-checking Red Dawn upon finding out there’s a Soviet base under the mall.)
* Now that Erica has justly been promoted to the main group (a reward for Priah Ferguson being so funny in limited screen time last season), which minor player do we want to see in the circle of trust next? It may just be ongoing Mad Men loyalty, but I’d have to vote for Karen Wheeler. Cara Buono definitely had fun playing Karen’s crush on Billy, but it would also shake things up if another parent knew about the insanely dangerous antics the kids have been getting up to.