“The Battle of Starcourt” is not just the end of Stranger Things 3‘s wildly uneven third season: it intentionally marks the end of an era for the series: with the Russians cemented as part of the larger narrative, and the Joyce family moving out of Hawkins, it feels like the end of the small town, suburbia-in-a-snow-globe storytelling the very show it built on. The mall is destroyed, the mayor disgraced, and Dustin gave up the group’s Dungeons & Dragons books to Erica – and yet, on the precipice of great change, the end of Stranger Things 3 feels like an underwhelming conclusion of the story so far, and a less-than-intriguing tease of where the series may head.
For all its loud, dramatic moments and expensive special effects, “The Battle of Starcourt” feels like a lumpy, undercooked conclusion to Stranger Things 3.
Part of the problem is the inconsistent crescendo to Stranger Things 3: many of the stories teased in early episodes – the slow dissolution of the group, Mike and Hopper’s emotional maturity, the effect of the mall on Hawkins – are simply waved away as the season continues on, and begins to drill down on the Mind Flayer 2.0 Meets Vague Russian Subplot that compromises the central story. Though it only takes place across the space of a week, many of these beats are completely forgotten by the end – especially when it comes to non-El females, like Nancy’s interest in journalism, Max’s familial conflicts, or Karen Wheeler’s mid-life crisis.
It also didn’t help that so many of these stories felt undeniably familiar: El struggling to find her identity outside of her powers, Joyce chasing threads down rabbit holes, and the Mind Flayer hanging on the edges of the narrative all felt like repeats of what came before: which would be interesting, if there was some sign Stranger Things 3 really wanted to push its characters.
What becomes clear across “The Battle of Starcourt” is that Stranger Things 3 is not really a definitive season of the series: taken as a whole, it feels more like an intermission, barely able to register any of its external dramas as something meaningful. The closing montage about Hawkins and its changed identity is the most potent of these: a series of newspaper stories (not written by Nancy, of course) detailing the fallout of the Flayer/Russian presence are about as close as Stranger Things 3 gets to offering something intriguing (a brief shot of Paul Reiser reprising his role from last season is another, but fades when it means the oppressive American institutes from early on are bound to return in a big way next season).
All of this makes “The Battle of Starcourt,” for its loud, dramatic moments and expensive special effects, feel like a lumpy, undercooked conclusion to this third season. Save from the (obviously fake) “death” of Hopper and the Joyce family leaving Hawkins, Stranger Things 3 carries no weight in its final episode, hoping the adrenaline rush from the very busy scenes of its titular setting can obfuscate the absolute lack of depth at the heart of its story.
Look at characters like Max and Jonathan, who leave season three as husks of the people they once were: Max is seemingly unaffected by her brother’s death, and Jonathan mopes from scene to scene, his only speaking dialogue coming when he needs to tell Nancy that everything’s going to be ok (I could probably count the number of lines he spoke to non-Nancy characters this season on one hand). These characters existed in this season as empty vessels of plot – for a story that really goes nowhere, strangely refusing to sit in the aftermath of the big event it spent all season building to.
That’s not to say “The Battle of Starcourt” is a completely empty 75 minutes: be it Curtis’s latest heroic moment, Joyce’s strength under pressure, or the resilience displayed by everyone when Eleven’s life was on the line, “The Battle of Starcourt” utilizes its grand showdown well, as an effective barometer for how much these characters mean to the audience. But it is clearly running on fumes by the time it gets there, only able to repeat itself (Will rubs his neck, El fights through pain, Curtis saves the day, Hopper survives a fight, etc.) rather than deliver something exciting, and different.
Stranger Things 3 posited itself as a story of maturity, of diving into the complications of personal, professional, and societal evolution: and it effectively delivered on none of those promises. It’s really a deft little trick it pulls: it introduces ideas it never intends to develop, pushing characters away from each other until the very last minute, when it’s too loud and too late for anyone to notice the rug’s being pulled from underneath them.
That may be a slightly incendiary phrase to use for a perfectly competent season of television: but that fear or disinterest in engaging with the most powerful moments of conflict it presented – those that would come after the dust settles from the monster’s attack and Billy’s death – it completely skips over, in favor of setting up the next set of extremely-familiar mysteries, the most interesting of which (El with no powers) is easily the most predictable move Stranger Things could’ve made.
Admittedly, I’d held out hope Stranger Things would finally be able to take its insanely gorgeous production values, and marry them with some developed storytelling and character work: but Stranger Things 3 just wants to be popcorn entertainment, which makes its suggestions of being something more nuanced (and ultimately rewarding) even more disappointing, in a way. The miscalculation of my expectations aside, it’s hard to see how anyone could find “The Battle of Starcourt” a satisfying conclusion to this season – or more importantly, as a culmination of the entire Hawkins arc across 25 episodes, which effectively comes to an end when the Joyce family leaves town, and the post-credits scene moves to a prison in Russia.
Where Stranger Things goes in its already-confirmed fourth season is an absolute mystery: but as its eyes get larger, “The Battle of Starcourt” proves that its stomach is not necessarily up to the task. While I’d love to see this show morph into a Steve/Robin buddy comedy, that’s just not what Stranger Things is, or wants to be: unfortunately, what it reveals itself to be in its season finale is much smaller, and more superficial.
Stranger Things 3 is a classic case of story first, character second: on a series that took such painstaking care in early episodes to reverse this formula, it makes these eight episodes particularly disappointing. Especially because the building blocks are right there: look beyond the thin plotting and annoying brand synergy (hey, New Coke again!), and there are hints of a really strong coming-of-age series.
Those threads, unfortunately, feel lost by the end of “The Battle of Starcourt,” which plays a Paul Simon cover while the gang says goodbye to the Joyce family, and we get a particularly empty, self-serving monologue of Hopper reading a speech he never delivered (more about him in the observations below). It pulls at the heart strings, yes – but for characters and friendships we’ve seen backgrounded in season three, with its multiple mysteries chasing down Russian translations, electromagnetic manuals, and Starcourt blueprints. Somewhere along the way, Stranger Things lost a bit of its soul in “The Battle of Starcourt” – and I’m not sure whether it’ll be able to find it again, in the rubble left behind from this explosive finale.
- Ok, so Hopper’s disappearance is obviously being played, and an obvious thread for season four to pull. To which I say: who fucking cares. I don’t believe Joyce really wanted to go on a date with him at the end of the season, and the whole “I’m just a rugged guy out of touch with my feelings” letter we heard the text from was pandering, at best. I’m just about over Hopper’s self-destructive tendencies, and his incessant asshole-ishness.
- Boy, Billy’s character really didn’t pay off in any way possible (and his death feels so utterly weightless by the time the credits roll). Such a waste of an enigmatic personality, and easily the most affecting introduction of a character into the narrative.
- Mike can’t express his feelings to El: he does not deserve the sendoff he gets.
- My hot take on the whole Neverending Story thing? It is Stranger Things in a nutshell: drama undercut by the need to poke the audience to say “HOLY SHIT – REMEMBER THIS?”
- Nancy and Jonathan should be the show’s most important couple: but their characters were both completely wasted this season.
- that’s a wrap on Stranger Things 3! Thanks to everyone who watched, read along, complimented, and complained.