Enlarge / Perhaps teen romance can split 'em up temporarily, but you can't keep the gang apart for long if evil lurks around Hawkins.Netflix

Warning: This story contains some spoilers for episodes 1-4 of Stranger Things' third season. You can read our non-spoiler preview of the new season here, or catch up on what's come before with past Ars stories on season one and season two.

Russians. It always had to be Russians.

Maybe it should be called Gorbachev's Law, but put any kind of get-the-gang-together action story into the 1980s, and eventually modern democracy's favorite villain must rear its head. And in Stranger Things 3, the show wastes no time—this go-around may be once again centered in Hawkins, but S3's very first scene shows there's no going back after the events of the show's first two seasons. The scope and scale of evil facing our favorite now-teenage heroes grows simultaneously as they do.

Of course, precisely how the larger number of baddies—the Russians, the shady Starcourt Mall employees, the supernatural Upside Down forces that seemingly watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version obviously, this being 1985) since last season—intersect, what they're working toward, and why they choose to prey upon the already unfortunately victimized town of Hawkins remains a mystery for Stranger Things 3's second half. But if the first four episodes of Netflix's current flagship have shown us anything, it's that the Duffer Bros. recognized their show's familiar, nostalgic formula needed to change. And luckily for those of us raptly watching, they appear to have a story in mind that can accommodate such evolution.

  • Perhaps Stranger Things 3's real MVPs: The Duffer Bros. (Matt Duffer left, Ross right) and Priah Ferguson, who plays Lucas' little sister, Erica. Tina Rowden/Netflix
  • Will the Wise is no longer constantly possessed, but he's still very much figuring out his place in his new teen world. Netflix
  • Joyce and Hopper remain a satisfying detective duo in S3. Netflix
  • We have a Scott Clarke sighting! Netflix
  • Any Steve and Dustin adventures remain gold in S3, and once again their comedic side quests appear to not be so tangential. Netflix
  • Girl power is pretty dang effective and enjoyable in Stranger Things 3's first half. Netflix
  • Billy, once a normal jerk, now perhaps a much more dangerous wolf in jerk's clothing. Netflix
  • Mrs. Wheeler, hear us out, this is not a good idea on many levels (even if it's an amusing bit for the elder fans). Netflix
  • Uh, thanks Heather. We'll pass for now. Netflix
  • The more we learn about Cary Elwes' Mayor Kline, the less we like the guy. Netflix
  • And the award for best addition to the S3 cast so far goes to… Netflix

Growing up is hard to do (the show makes it look easy)

The most striking thing from the first half of Stranger Things S3 is how grown up the show has become. Yes, physically our kid heroes have become teen heroes. But rather than struggling with that (and, say, rushing to produce as much as possible before actors age and look implausibly out of middle/high school), the story has grown in logical ways to accommodate how life as an early teen is different from life as an almost teen—and it neatly ties this coming-of-age material to the series' usual dark-and-eerie fun.

What doesnt work in S3 so far

I'm hopeful this changes, because Nancy and Jonathan played pivotal roles and surprised viewers in the first two seasons, but The Hawkins Post editorial board would surely shoot down their storyline for S3 thus far. While all the other main character pairings seem to have a distinct string to pull at—Hopper and Joyce have the shady mall owners, the kids have the Mind Flayer, the Scoops Ahoy team has Russia—it's not yet clear what distinct purpose Nancy and Jonathan's journalistic adventures serve. At least Episode 4 gave reason to hope: the best moment of this storyline by far came when Mrs. Wheeler had a heart-to-heart with Nancy and encouraged her to remain confident in herself as the (chauvinistic, dismissive, and now possessed) hierarchy around her keeps putting her down. As much as we'd want a Hawkins Post tee in a vacuum, we'll covet Lucas' cycling cap instead and root for an Indianapolis Star appearance in the second half of the season.

Initially, the thing that most occupies and complicates life for Mike, Eleven, and the gang isn't another demon prince, it's the demands of puberty. The group has coupled off to an extent—Mike with Eleven, Lucas with Max, Will with dying dreams of another round of D&D—and struggles to define a new normal. Never mind larger group dynamics, what does healthy dating look like for never-been-kissed Mike Wheeler and never-been-out-of-the-lab Eleven? New (again) dad Jim Hopper certainly doesn't think he's seeing it, as most nights at the household involve Mike and El kissing the night away, and the fallout from this has ripple effects for the series early on. So far, the only time we see all the kids together may be when Read More – Source

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