WarningMight contain spoilers.

An unmistakable improvement on previous seasons that displays much more sophisticated filmmaking, yet fundamentally unnecessary. Inexcusably long, too, with at least one completely superfluous story and an absurd amount of repetition in many forms. Sadly, the younger members of the cast have lost all their charm at this point (except Dustin, to some extent), something already visible in previous seasons but more obvious here. Finn Wolfhard is especially difficult to watch.

Fortunately, Joe Keery has lost not one bit of his appeal as Steve. He continues to be ridiculously likable and charming, and the evolution of his relationship with Dustin is a joy. I laughed very hard at the latter scolding him: Do you have to be told everything? You’re not a child. I’m also glad it worked out for the always-pleasant Robin with Vickie, even if it wasn’t a big, dramatic story.

Jonathan’s reunion with Nancy in the finale is painfully dull after a season of her being paired with Steve. The only saving grace in his story is the incredibly funny Argyle (a gem of a character): the dinner at the Byers’ is a fantastic balancing act between a stoned Argyle and Jonathan, the always-paranoid Murray, and the separate trio of Will, Mike, and Eleven dealing with the aftermath of her having assaulted Angela.

I otherwise deeply dislike Eleven’s story. Her relationship with Mike is boring, including Will resenting him for not reciprocating his feelings (still implicitly, despite a misleading sequence in the van) and Mike’s cavalier treatment of him. Her training is tedious. The appearance of her younger self in her memories is subtly offputting. It’s mystifying how her mother was able to reach her inside the facility but was caught immediately upon seeing her.

Most annoying of all, if Jane’s not crying uselessly over being bullied by caricatures in school, she’s crying uselessly over being bullied by caricatures in her memories in a risibly over-the-top Carrie-inspired mess:

And then there's Eleven's disproportionate response after being humiliated in front of a visiting Mike at the local roller skating rink: she breaks Angela's nose with a roller skate in a fit of rage. This is very out of character and seems to have been shoe-horned in for purposes of the plot. Eleven has only ever killed in self defense, and in the past would humiliate but not harm high school bullies. Plus, there are no real consequences or lessons learned. She is briefly arrested, but is soon whisked off to another secret government lab. There's a world that needs saving, and she needs to recover her powers. Who cares if a high school bully got her nose broken?

I’m relieved, at least, that she doesn’t absolve Papa of his many, many sins as he dies. What’s more, her appearance in Max’s head to fight Vecna in the finale—while Will inexplicably stands around telling Mike he’s the heart, making me giggle—is undeniably a triumphant moment.

Lucas mostly doesn’t justify his inclusion, either individually or with Max. The others might be overreacting to his joining the basketball team, but he shows a repulsive spinelessness when he leads the team to Eddie. He does improve after that, and his futile struggle to reach Max in the finale as Jason throttles him is shattering.

I was completely unprepared for his failure. I’ll admit Max’s previous experience with Vecna lulled me into a sense of false security. Her state when the process is interrupted at last is almost worse than if she had outright died.

Jason is bland at the start, but Mason Dyer makes him a true villain at the town hall—I appreciated the clever incorporation of Dungeons & Dragons hysteria—and his surprising Nancy at the gun store is a memorably tense scene, though one that feels distasteful in the wake of several high-profile mass shootings around the time. So does the repeated image of a mob of angry white men hunting someone. Regardless, it’s puzzling that Jason’s rabble-rousing ultimately has no significant effect on the story. Even his own actions are pivotal but quickly over.

Joseph Quinn is terrific as Eddie Munson, my favourite of the new characters, who’s suffocated in the end by the weight of the plot. He might not have Billy’s charisma, but on the other hand, he’s not an abusive monster (which no amount of pretending will make me forget about). Ignoring the unforgettable Metallica cover atop the trailer, his death is not just devastating but frustratingly meaningless. Dustin’s conversation with Mr. Munson at the end brought tears to my eyes.

Jamie Campbell Bower, too, is a delight as One. I recognized his face early on but had trouble placing him in this completely distinct avatar. I found him much less compelling as Vecna, between the strange voice, the silly makeup, and the odd cadence. While the revelation of his identity (courtesy his detailed explanation to Nancy) came as a delicious surprise, he falls short next to the villains of previous seasons, most obviously the Demogorgon.

Entering Vecna’s lair and understanding what he does renders him repellent rather than fearsome. All the sinister menace that One exudes dissipates in his transformation; the ticking clock goes from eldritch horror to pedestrian manifestation. To be fair, even the Demogorgon was only at its best in the first season. Indeed, its disappointingly neutered appearance here is no more than a device for producing gore in Hopper’s story, which brings me to the biggest problem with the season.

I would have said his return cheapened Hopper’s sacrifice, but of course, that was taken care of by the post-credits scene in the last season. I thoroughly detested the story here: oppressive, nonsensical, monotonous, and filled to the brim with torture and violence. Joyce and Murray make for an amusing pair and Yuri adds an enjoyable dimension, but I can only wish Hopper had stayed dead. Instead, every single episode has an extra third dragging it down and Murray is pushed to the periphery after a point. Moreover, as Film School Rejects notes, the characters have regressed:

Most frustratingly, some of the characters whose progress fans have been most invested in for years–namely Eleven, Hopper (David Harbour), and Will (Noah Schnapp)–seem to be going backward.

The season’s bloated runtime does little to help on these fronts. Hopper, who promotional materials have revealed is actually alive in Russia, languishes in his icy purgatory for scene after disconnected scene. Meanwhile, Will, who has been queer-coded since the show’s beginning, languishes in an awkward, stymied semi-silence for much of the seven episodes available for review. The sweet, sensitive character seemed poised to emerge from the Upside Down post-season one as one of the show’s strongest heroes, but now it seems like he might be trapped in a poorly-written closet. Eleven’s alienating and glacially-paced plot is even worse. Despite spending two seasons demonstrating the importance of her normal adolescence, the new season seems to want her back the way she once was: scared, nearly wordless, and at the mercy of powerful men.

The show displays a disturbing taste for the aforementioned torture. There’s One and Two being tortured in Eleven’s past, Hopper being tortured repeatedly in Russia, the surviving agent from the shootout at the Byers’ being tortured, even Dr. Owens getting roughed up… hardly an episode goes by without some brutality and violence, and not a single one goes by without highlighting one gory image or another.

On a happier note, whereas I never understood all the fuss about Matthew Modine as Papa and Paul Reiser as Dr. Owens before, I’m now a believer. Each of them steps into the story as a fully-formed person, and effortlessly draws one in with a complex, nuanced portrayal, even if, in Papa’s case, that sometimes involves stepping out from behind an object. I liked the timely little line from Dr. Owens about how this thing is like a virus.

There is some deft direction on display. Take the shootout I mentioned, or the incredible, fleeting glimpses of Robin and Nancy as they assault Vecna in person (Natalie Dyer and Maya Hawke must do an action movie together). ‘Chapter Three: The Monster and the Superhero’ builds to a gripping climax: Dr. Owens tracking down Eleven, Max and the others putting together the pieces as Vecna starts calling to her, and Lucas running away from where he led Jason and the others to Eddie. The second episode and the finale are good too, but that one was my favourite.

That said, there are also questionable decisions, like turning the effective, atmospheric yellow-tinted images of the gang reaching Vecna’s house into a music video with ‘Separate Ways’ (particularly strange coming as it does after a reunion). The season starts with everyone apparently in separate shows, and later practically locks Mike, Will, and Jonathan out of the main plot until they make a call to impart information that everyone already knows.

And then there are… the silly choices, in both writing and direction. Small things like 20 seconds of Joyce reciting a phone number. The amount of walking and talking or sitting and talking. Jarring, momentum-robbing single-person shots, perhaps due to Covid-19 restrictions. The image of Vecna being raised by tentacles that resembles a reversed version of him being lowered at the end of the previous episode. (Perhaps one of the things the Duffer Brothers were working on late into the night of release.) The penultimate episode with not one but two false endings.

It’s mildly amusing when Murray worries about someone tracing Joyce over the phone after they’ve sent a package to her home address, but it’s infuriating when the gang reach Vecna’s house, split into pairs for safety, then abandon that idea and follow the light individually only to end up in the same place. It’s incomprehensible enough when the army men slowly realize the sniper hasn’t taken the shot and decide to check, but the way they watch the large pizza van trundle away while the military jeeps stand idle next to them is stupefying.

The music is less impressive than before. The opening theme is as good as ever but the rest is sub-par in comparison. I’m always happy to hear Kate Bush, though. ‘Running Up That Hill’ is an excellent anchor for the soundtrack, and I like the allusions to its melody at various points.

Finally, as I mentioned before,[1] this is a season of repetition, immediate and delayed: Eleven reliving her memories and relearning her powers; Dr. Brenner and Dr. Owens returning; Hopper escaping from prison multiple times; Americans being abducted by the K.G.B.; Vecna killing his victims; Vecna attacking Max; Eleven being bullied; Nancy and Steve’s unresolved feelings; Eleven being kidnapped; Eleven going into people’s minds; Eleven crying; Eleven learning to fight Vecna twice; Hopper fighting the Demogorgon a second time; and, lest I forget, Papa making dramatic entrances.

I must say, if Nancy intends to pursue a career in journalism, I hope she learns to be less obnoxiously cheerful around people who’ve suffered major trauma.

  1. I make no apologies.