Warning: “Stranger Things” Season 3 spoilers below.
At the start of the new season of “Stranger Things,” we see Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) being treated unfairly at her summer internship with The Hawkins Post. The newsroom is full of authoritarian male figures who bark lunch orders at her and insult her when she tries to get a word in.
“I think I got something even spicier,” Jake Busey, who plays a reporter, tells Nancy when she pitches a story about the death of small-town America. “It’s about the missing mustard on my hamburger. You think you can follow the clues and solve the case of the missing condiment, Nancy Drew?”
At first, a workplace inequality storyline is a welcome sight. It’s eye-opening to watch the power dynamic between Nancy and her editors and see what it was like for a young woman to try to climb the corporate ladder in a male-centric field in the 1980s. But just as that storyline heats up, more important plot points concerning the ever-evolving “Stranger Things” monster, the Mind Flayer, are at the forefront. A gun-wielding Nancy is left to fight off Hawkins’ biggest threat, and she becomes a damsel in distress in the process. That whole workplace strife was apparently just a fleeting issue.
Yes, “Stranger Things” is as bingeable as ever with its beloved characters, nonstop nostalgia and thrilling sequences. But what’s frustrating about the otherwise enjoyable Season 3 is that its important issues aren’t meaningful to the overall story. The show seemingly aims to get positive Twitter reactions for certain scenarios ― workplace equality, LGBTQ representation, a Trump-like political figure — even if said scenarios do not service the plot.
On Nancy’s job frustrations: mid-season, she has a wonderful discussion with her mom, Karen (Cara Buono), about the anxiety of being a woman in a man’s world. It’s a conversation that no doubt resonates with fans and leaves us hopeful for her future as a working woman. And yet, by the end of the season, we have no clue if Nancy sticks with her newsroom gig, or if she even tries to fight to be more than just an errand girl. Two senior editors were flayed by the monster, so positions surely opened up! Nancy’s story never comes full circle, and we’re just left to believe it was all for nothing, just a socially conscious aside to please audiences.
So, do congratulatory tweets ― “we stan a queen,” “a gay icon is born,” “Stranger Things S3 > trump’s 4th july shit” ― mean more to the Duffer Brothers and Netflix than good reviews or satisfying storylines?
This tactic seems to be a trend among tentpole shows of late, as studios know that fan reaction on social media generates the buzz that matters. The final season of “Game of Thrones,” for example, was heavily tweeted about, despite being panned by critics and viewers alike who couldn’t get over its fast-paced storytelling. But even though the end game was rushed and the dialogue half-baked, HBO knew meme-able, fan service-y moments would counteract any bad reviews and keep chatter going. (That’s probably one reason why “Game of Thrones” Season 8, Episode 3, “The Long Night,” became the most tweeted-about episode in scripted TV with nearly 8 million tweets.)
“Stranger Things” is seemingly looking to emulate that kind of success (although its episode dump format makes it difficult to know when exactly certain scenes will trend.) Even if the Season 3 storyline is more gripping than Season 2′s lackluster run, Netflix perhaps knows it needs to feature situations that will get Twitter tweeting. Workplace inequality? Check. Major coming-out moment? Check. Trumpian politician? Check.
All of these are solid subjects to bring up in a plot, sure, but “Stranger Things” evidently makes Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes) resemble President Donald Trump to garner response rather than further the story. (Although Elwes claims otherwise.) Kline’s shady business dealings with the Russian government, as well as his signage and cocky demeanor only enhance the show’s apparent goal of creating a back-and-forth on social media.
One of the Season 3 storylines that stood out for viewers was that of Scoops Ahoy co-workers Robin (Maya Hawke) and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). Dressed in their ridiculous nautical uniforms all season long, the pair banter while serving ice cream to the shoppers of Starcourt Mall. Their quippy one-liners and unabashed on-screen chemistry delight Netflix subscribers. But just as you begin to ’ship them as a couple, Robin comes out as gay to Steve in an important moment that’s unfortunately diminished by a previous piece of deceptive dialogue:
“It didn’t matter that you were an ass, I was still obsessed with you,” Robin tells Steve when they’re held hostage in the underground Russian lab. “Even though all of us losers pretend to be above it all, we still just want to be popular, accepted, normal.”
The show makes it clear something romantic could be brewing between Robin and Steve, only to stall the momentum an episode later when Robin tells him she’s not into guys. The only reason she was “obsessed” with Steve was because she was actually in love with a girl who couldn’t stop looking at him. Now, including a queer character who’s pivotal to the story is applaudable and in stark contrast to what other major franchises, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have done. But, because of that aforementioned tease, her coming out is treated as a twist rather than a triumph. Like Nancy’s newsroom battle, Robin’s sexuality is just an aside meant to get a reaction — and it’s never revisited in any of the closing scenes of the season.
Despite these add-ins, “Stranger Things 3” has a lot going for it. The series has always succeeded when it makes bold statements about the human condition amid the chaos of supernatural destruction, which it does enough in the latest installment.
We discover that Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) heartbreaking childhood influenced his bullying nature, which ultimately made him vulnerable to the Flayer’s possession. And we see an angry Hopper (David Harbour), fully understanding Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) kinetic powers, try to parent her as he would any rebellious teenager with a new boyfriend.
These subtle nuances are both story-friendly and worthy of Twitter praise, which is to say that the more substance there is to a story, the more positive reaction it will receive. Creators shouldn’t just be woke for woke’s sake, or set a goal of getting people to go rah-rah on social media. The focus should always be on substantive storytelling and the impact it can have on audiences when it’s done right.