‘Stranger Things 3’: What’s next for the Netflix smash?

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In an increasingly fractionalized television market, “Stranger Things” is one of the few shows we can all agree on. Premiering on Netflix in July 2016, the show—about a group of kids and their families in early ‘80s Indiana who face a series of extra-dimensional threats—synthesized horror, humor, and heart like nothing else before it. “Stranger Things” was a sudden and surprising success, becoming one of Netflix’s breakout hits.

“Stranger Things 2” premiered in the fall of 2017 and after a year off, “Stranger Things 3″ debuted in the U.S. on July 4. The break didn’t dim enthusiasm: According to Netflix, over 40 million households streamed the show in its first four days of release, with nearly half already binging all eight episodes.

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“Stranger Things” remains one of television’s most compulsively watchable shows; as much as any title, it’s responsible for the rise in binge-watching television. Now that most of us have had time to gorge on the third season of the show, let’s dive into the details of what makes “Stranger Things” so popular and look ahead to what’s next for the residents of Hawkins, Indiana.

Binge and You’re Hooked

One of the most unique—and game-changing—features of the Netflix model of streaming television is the ability to watch an entire season of a show at your own pace. In contrast to the “appointment viewing” TV model, where new episodes are released individually on a specific date, Netflix drops the entirety of its seasons upon release, allowing viewers to watch multiple episodes in one sitting. 

Rather than committing to a story that will be played out over the course of several weeks or months, viewers can decide if they want to stick with the show as soon as one episode ends. And according to Netflix, viewers commit to “Stranger Things” like a marriage: A 2016 report from Netflix found that 70 percent of viewers who watched the first two episodes of “Stranger Things” went on to finish the first season (for comparison, shows like “Master of None” and “American Horror Story” didn’t “hook” viewers until their fourth episode). 

Given that close to 20 million Netflix accounts had watched all of “Stranger Things 3” within four days of its release, it’s safe to say the show remains one of the most addictive on television today. But quality and popularity are two different things. To put it bluntly: After three seasons, is “Stranger Things” still actually good?

Critical Consensus

Of course “Stranger Things” is still good (why else would you be reading this?). According to Rotten Tomatoes, “Stranger Things 3” is certified fresh at 89 percent (meaning 89 percent of the 108 reviews aggregated gave it a positive review). However, that number is slightly lower than the scores for previous seasons: “Stranger Things 2” came in at 94 percent while the first season had 96 percent positive reviews

Rotten Tomatoes’ audience scores—which recently have come under scrutiny for trolling campaigns—follow a similar trajectory, coming in at 96, 90 and 85 percent for seasons 1-3, respectively. The most common criticism of the latest season is that it has become, to quote Ed Power of The Telegraph, “plodding and predictable.”

Other fans have taken issue with the ending of the season and the surprise death of one of “Stranger Things’” most beloved characters. We obviously can’t talk about this without getting into SPOILERS, so here’s your warning to bail if you still haven’t finished the season (and if not, what are you waiting for?). 

Fail to the Chief

In the finale of “Stranger Things 3,” Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) appears to sacrifice himself when Joyce Byer (Wynonna Ryder) destroys the laser creating the portal between our world and The Upside Down. The issue, however, has less to do with Hopper’s untimely fate (which we’ll get to shortly) than the surliness of his character in season 3. 

“Why is Hopper Such a Jerk-Ass in Stranger Things 3?” Vulture asked in a recent headline. Actress Evan Rachel Wood cautioned her fans that “you should never date a guy” with a temperament like his. The A.V. Club put it bluntly in their article “Stranger Things season 3 ruined Hopper.”

While these criticisms have some merit, others had a different take. A Nerdist piece defending his character pointed out that Hopper has suffered through the trauma of losing a child and the breakup of his marriage, making his anger all the more understandable. Regardless of your own feelings about the character, Hopper’s death was one of the more shocking moments of the season. And given the importance of his character (plus the impermanence of death in the realm of science fiction storytelling), many are wondering if we’ve really seen the last of Hopper.

Welcome Back, Hopper

In fact, there may be hints about Hopper’s future at the end of “Stranger Things 3.” The post-credits scene—a first for the show—is set in a Russian prison where a pair of guards pick a prisoner to be sacrificed to a Demogorgon. When one of the guards stops at a cell, the other intervenes, telling him, “No, not the American,” and directing him to move on. The specificity of the prisoner’s American nationality has many wondering if this particular Yankee might be a certain small-town police chief.

Then there are the clues planted by Harbour himself. Following the season 3 premiere, he began changing his Instagram profile each day to a different number. This eventually spelled out 618-625-8313, the phone number of conspiracy theorist and Russian translator Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman). You can actually call this number, which reads the following message:

Hi, you have reached the residence of Murray Bauman. Mom, if this is you, please hang up and call me between the hours of 5 and 6 p.m. as previously discussed, okay? If this is Joyce, Joyce, thank you for calling, I have been trying to reach ya. I have an update. It’s about, well, it’s probably best if we speak in person. It’s not good or bad, but it’s something… 

It’s definitely something. Still, when it comes to substantive news about a fourth season of “Stranger Things,” details are sparse.

Leave Us ‘Hanging on the Upside Down’?

Even one of the show’s stars, Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Lucas, doesn’t know anything about the show’s future. 

“Maybe they want to stop now. Maybe they don’t want to give anyone another season,” he told Entertainment Weekly in regards to the show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers. “Maybe they just want to leave you guys hanging like that. I talk to people about this all the time, we can literally leave you guys hanging on the Upside Down.”

His kidding betrays the point: “Stranger Things” will definitely be back for a fourth season, if not more. As the aforementioned numbers suggest, “Stranger Things” is Netflix’s most popular show. The post-credits scene teased the return of the monster from season 1. Hopper didn’t die on screen. Perhaps most pertinent (for Netflix at least), Disney Plus is launching this fall, with additional streaming services to come

All this is to say, Netflix isn’t going to ax its most popular and successful property. And “Stranger Things” isn’t going to kill off one of its most popular (if suddenly divisive) characters.

As with “Back to the Future,” a movie repeatedly referenced in season 3, this story is very much, “To Be Continued…”