The third season of Stranger Things had a lot to live up to–and for some, a lot to make up for after a rocky second outing. Could the show justify its return once again, or was this destined to be a show with a stellar first season and a string of disappointing follow-ups?
Your mileage will vary, of course, but Stranger Things 3 certainly felt like a return to form, choosing to narrow in on the characters already in rotation instead of introducing too many new faces. (There are exceptions, of course, one of which we’ll get to on this list.) That decision to look inward is part of the success of season three, an 8-episode arc that deepens preexisting relationships and explores new, refreshing dynamics.
Arguably the most exciting thing about Stranger Things 3 is how expertly it reinvents its core female characters. From Eleven’s journey of self-actualization to Nancy’s career-driven quest for the truth, the girls of Hawkins, Indiana really stepped to the forefront this time around. Here’s a breakdown of every major female character in Stranger Things 3 and how her journey felt earned, empowering, and totally correct for this season.
Eleven has always been our central heroine, but in Stranger Things 3, she fully comes into her own. Her romantic relationship with Mike is both satisfying and restricting, putting her at odds with Hopper and causing near-constant friction. As she blossoms into a young woman, she gradually starts to realize that her life is comprised largely of the choices of others. All of that changes thanks to her budding friendship with Max, who helps Eleven realize that Mike and Hopper are stifling her during what should be a formative time of self-exploration in her life. This culminates in a delightful sequence at the Starcourt Mall in episode two, where El gets a taste for what it’s like to be a normal teenage girl, free from Hopper’s grueling rules. She finds a bold-patterned outfit at the Gap that makes her feel good, and–in a moment of pure empowerment–dumps Mike when she runs into him in the parking lot, catching him in a lie.
The whole season tests El’s powers and dedication to the people she loves, and for the first time, the trauma and peril thrust upon her feels fretfully palpable. As El grows into herself, it makes those horrifying bits more real. This all comes to a head when Billy sacrifices himself to save El and when Hopper “dies” as he wards off the Russians trying to re-open the wound of the Upside Down. El once again experiences horrific tragedy, but she gains something from their selflessness. She seems to have a new appreciation for life, and she ends the season with a mother figure in Joyce and a new family in the Byers. It will be interesting to see what effect Joyce has on El going forward, and how the loss of Hopper might shape her development; luckily, Stranger Things 3 laid the groundwork for a more fruitful next chapter.
While Max is more of an accessory in El’s story this season, she’s still a vital part of the main group. Her relationship with Lucas is full of hilarious bickering, with take-no-prisoners Max fully in control. Her street smarts and no-bullshit attitude come in handy when it comes to helping Eleven learn how to exist beyond the men in her life. She’s also the one who takes El to the mall and shows her what it means to let clothes express your personality. “You just try things on until you find something that feels like you. Not Hopper, not Mike… you.” It’s simple advice, but it makes a huge difference in El’s world. After two seasons of mostly male-female relationships, it’s thrilling to finally see a female friendship explored this way. And though the season puts Max through the wringer, it doesn’t seem to phase her all that much. She’s a tough cookie, and the show is better with her in it.
Nancy has spent her last few seasons tangled in romantic plots that ultimately overshadowed her personality, which is a shame because she’s always been an intelligent, dedicated character willing to risk her life to save the people she loves and harness the truth. Luckily, she finally gets to really shine in Stranger Things 3, which finds her taking charge of her career and leading the search for the evil thing plaguing Hawkins. Her journalistic skills take the forefront as her relationship with Jonathan–while still strong–recedes into the background a bit. It’s exciting to see Nancy fully activated after all this time. She’s a pure joy this time around.
While she doesn’t ultimately get that much to do, Karen does leave a strong impression on the season, and it’s not just her feathered hair or truly excellent two-toned bathing suit and glittery eyeshadow. Though she’s tempted into an affair with Billy, her will wins out after she spots her daughter and husband in a tender moment and realizes what she has to lose. It’s a brief moment, but a meaningful one that avoids the trope that often traps women in the role of dangerous sexpot. Additionally, Karen finally shares a full scene with her daughter Nancy, consoling her after she’s fired from her internship for pursuing her truth. Again, it sticks out because it reminds how seldom the show has mined female relationships in the past. Her support of her daughter and re-commitment to her family make Karen a quiet MVP of Stranger Things 3.
Poor Joyce has spent the past two seasons in a state of pure anxiety thanks to the disappearance and possession of her son Will, and the loss of her boyfriend Bob. It seemed like Stranger Things 3 might once again be setting her up for a season of grief, but that’s almost immediately subverted when Joyce becomes the first person to notice the issues with magnetics happening in Hawkins. This sends her on a wild goose chase with Hopper, and though f eelings develop between the two, Joyce never submits to them without a healthy amount of questioning and self-reflection. The season brings them closer together but still lets Joyce come into it on her own terms. Meanwhile, she’s feistier and more authoritative than ever, barking orders and remaining steadfast as she helps uncover the mysteries of the Russian infiltration of Hawkins and the secrets that lay in the Starcourt Mall. She’s never been more fierce or fun, and it’s great to see the show finally utilizing all of Winona Ryder’s talents.
She’s our new girl, but she’s already a fast favorite. Steve’s ice-cream-scooping coworker Robin made a huge impression this season. Though she initially comes off as an awkward foil to Steve’s bravado, her layers are quickly revealed. Not only is she whip-smart–she’s the one who translates and decodes the Russian transmission–but she’s also brave, helping hatch the plan to sneak into the secret bunker at the mall. In a moment of vulnerability, she also confesses to Steve that she’s gay, a scene that plays out with such heart and sincerity that it’s an immediate highlight of the entire series. Robin’s friendship, smarts, and tenderness make her an excellent addition to the cast and one of the best parts of Stranger Things 3, period.
Lucas’s bratty sister was a highlight of season two, and she’s even more wonderful this time around. What could have been an easy integration into the main group is instead natural and surprising. After Steve, Robin, and Dustin recruit her into helping infiltrate the Russian bunker, she gets trapped on their mission, and every single line out of her mouth is hilarious and insightful. She proves her math smarts (“you’re a nerd!”) and saves everyone’s ass, and she does it without breaking a sweat. Like Robin and Max, it’s hard to imagine the show without Erica at this point. She’s another example of a character adding depth and vision to a series without overwhelming the spotlight.
What did you think of Stranger Things 3? Join us for theories, breakdowns, and more in our spoiler discussion post!