**This review of Stranger Things 3 will remain spoiler-free, but I will be talking about the broad strokes of what happened in season 2.**
Most people in America use the Fourth of July to celebrate the birthday of the U.S. with fireworks and red-white-and-blue regalia. I use this time to binge watch a Netflix show in a different country. I won’t judge your personal forms of celebration if you won’t judge mine. The third season of this coming-of-age sci-fi horror show was released on the streaming service Netflix on July 4th, 2019. Highly anticipated, the streaming service claims to have scored astronomical views from customers all over the world. However, since the company never publicly discloses their numbers, there’s no telling how well it’s actually doing. But given the huge established fanbase and the positive critical reviews that it’s received from major outlets, it’s safe to say that a fourth season is all but guaranteed. After the big, if somewhat cool success of the second season in 2017, creators Matt and Ross Duffer took a brief break to figure out the next few steps for the show. Netflix had originally desired for the third and fourth seasons to be written and shot back-to-back, but the brothers opted to just focus solely on this next chapter instead. Although initial reports have suggested that this is the penultimate season for the hit show, Netflix and the Duffer Brothers have been mum on whether the next season will be the last or not. Set about six months after the last confrontation, the main kids in Hawkins, Indiana have settled back into normality once more, with Milly Bobby Brown’s Eleven fully integrated into normal civilian life. Many of the characters are indulging much of their summer vacation in the newly opened Starcourt Mall, which has also stirred up controversy with the town’s self-righteous mayor. Soon, it becomes clear that the Mind-Flayer, the primary antagonist from last season is still alive and well, hoping to slowly indoctrinate humanity into their will. On top of all that, a handful of residents stumble upon a conspiracy involving the Russian government wanting to reopen a gateway to The Upside Down. It’s been kind of incredible to see the sheer self-made phenomenon that Stranger Things has become. Like many who got hooked on the show, I’d hardly heard anything about it before finding it on Netflix, and immediately told everyone I knew to start watching it as well. And now, it’s become arguably the streaming service’s biggest flagship show. Because of this, seasons 2 and 3 have a bit of an unfair obstacle to overcome, as fan expectations were sky-high for both of them. The second one was mostly able to meet them, even with a few stumbles in the road that didn’t quite work in the way the showrunners wanted. And now with season 3, Stranger Things has focused up on what works best and gives use easily my favorite season yet. With just 8 episodes now instead of 9, there is less room for unnecessary fat, allowing them to keep the action on the central characters and relationships. With new developments for the ones from last season and spotlights on the brand new ones, the characters all feel the most nuanced, most relevant, and most human they’ve ever been. And even though the mythology and lore surrounding is expanded upon in really intriguing ways, the relationships almost always come first. That has always been one of the biggest strengths of Stranger Things, not just all of the nostalgia-inducing references to 80s pop culture. Sure, there is LOTS of product placement for Coca-Cola throughout and greatly improved visual effects, but that’s not the point of the show. And seeing that the Duffers haven’t lost sight of that is very encouraging for what the future may hold. All of the kids have grown up and evolved with this show in beautiful ways. Just look at how far Lucas, Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and Will have come since the first season; the actors have all grown naturally with their characters. Of particular mention is Joe Keery as bad boy-turned caring pseudo-adoptive father Steve Harrington. His character arc has always been one of the most engaging, as we watch him gradually evolve throughout the show in a positive way. Case in point, his new partner this season is Maya Hawke’s Robin, easily my favorite character of the new season. She’s funny, quick-witted, thinks on her feet, and never misses an opportunity to poke fun at her co-worker. But as the season progresses, she gradually lets her guard down, culminating in a revelation of a bathroom scene that virtually everyone has been talking about. The other big scene-stealer of the season is Priah Ferguson as Lucas’ little sister Erica, upgraded from the previous season. Although she clearly holds her brother’s friends in contempt, her bouncing off of Dustin is one of the most beautiful things the showrunners have come up with. She’s sassy, but also smart and resourceful and always manages to get some clever jabs at her companions every chance she gets. And technically speaking, Stranger Things has never looked so good or polished than here. The trademark cinematography is back with all the controlled movements and expert blending of practical and special effects. For this season, however, they’ve added brighter, more neon-tinged colors that really go well with the 4th of July setting. Whether it’s inside the Starcourt Mall or at the town’s Independence Day fair, there are many colors meshed together in a really cool way. And the pacing of this season is elevated by the editing department, which bounces from one storyline to the next. I was worried that one character or arc would overtake the rest, but I was thankfully wrong; they’re all intercut very well. As always, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band Survive provide the musical score, and as always, they deliver a great soundtrack. Like the last two times, the soundtrack is composed largely of synthesizers and Theremins as an homage to old-school sci-fi flicks. But the most memorable track comes for the third episode, which mixes the Upside Down’s leitmotif with unique sound effects. With a heartbeat keeping tempo and noises that sound like squishing meat, it sounds deeply terrifying and disgusting. Other notable songs from the era used include an excerpt from Philip Glass’s Satyagraha Act II: Tagore for the end of the sixth episode and a wholly unexpected sequence involving the theme from The Neverending Story. Whereas the former created an extreme amount of tension as the villain’s plan comes into play, the latter is joyous and puts a smile on my face. Stranger Things 3 is a highly entertaining and neon-soaked continuation that pushes the series ever forward. By focusing and improving on what’s made the show great in the past and changing the formula up a little, the Duffer Brothers have delivered the best season of the show yet. And after finishing it all, I can honestly say that I hope rumors about it only lasting four or five seasons is true. Better to go out in a blaze of glory than fizzle out for decades.