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Read this before you see Stranger Things season 3

Fans of Hawkins, Indiana and the Upside Down will finally get to revisit their favorite characters when Stranger Things returns for its much-anticipated third season on Netflix on July 4th, 2019. Like the show's second season, much of the third round of episodes remains shrouded in secrecy, but that doesn't mean we can't lay out everything we know so far to get a sense of what's to come.

Season 3 will obviously bring some new supernatural challenges for our favorite Hawkins kids, but that's far from all we can expect. We can also look forward to meeting some new characters, getting to know some old favorites a little better, digging into a couple of romantic subplots, and of course wondering if Hopper and Joyce will ever just get together. Oh, and because it's a show set in the '80s, we'll finally spend a little bit of time at a mall.

Whether you're a longtime fan or a relative newcomer, be sure to read this before you watch Stranger Things season 3, starting July 4 on Netflix.

The plot so far

As with season 2, most of the details of the third season of Stranger Things are being kept under wrap, which means all the pieces of the puzzle won't really come together until the season airs. We do know a few things to expect from the new season already, though.

For one thing, we'll get to see the kids hanging out together in summer for the first time, which means no more battling monsters in between classes and instead battling monsters between visits to the community pool and the new mall (more on that later). We don't yet know what the new threat will be exactly, but we also don't know if the Mind Flayer from season 2 is completely out of the picture yet, so keep a lookout for that. The town of Hawkins will also definitely have issues of its own beyond the creatures from the Upside Down, in the form of the apparently corrupt Mayor Kline (Cary Elwes).

In terms of where the characters will be when the new season starts, we know from the most recent trailer that Dustin has just returned from summer camp. We also know that several relationships from season 2 will carry over, including the father-daughter dynamic between Hopper and Eleven and the romantic ties between Eleven and Mike and Lucas and Max. We also know from the most recent trailer that all of our favorite Hawkins kids are struggling with growing up in new ways.

When is it set?

The first season of Stranger Things is set in November of 1983, while the second season picks up nearly a year later, kicking things off in Halloween of 1984. That kind of jump through time allows the show to play with different pop culture references and developments with each new season, but it's also a necessity for a series that stars rapidly aging young actors, as co-creator Matt Duffer explained.

"Even if we wanted to hop into the action faster, we couldn't. Our kids are aging. We can only write and produce the show so fast. They're going to be almost a year older by the time we start shooting season three. It provides certain challenges. You can't start right after season two ended. It forces you to do a time jump. But what I like is that it makes you evolve the show. It forces the show to evolve and change, because the kids are changing."

With that in mind, season 3 will time jump yet again by nearly a year, anchoring its story in the summer of 1985, nearly two years after the beginning of the series.

Returning stars

Each season of Stranger Things provides the opportunity for characters who were previously perhaps kept a bit more in the background (like Steve in season 1, for example) to begin to shine brighter, setting up more involved stories for them in the future (like Steve in season 2). That means the Stranger Things family keeps expanding, and the main cast gets larger.

With all that in mind, quite a few stars will be back for the third season. The original five kids from season 1 — Finn Wolfhard as Mike, Noah Schnapp as Will, Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas, Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin, and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven — will all return, along with season 1 mainstays Winona Ryder as Joyce, David Harbour as Hopper, Natalia Dyer as Nancy, Charlie Heaton as Jonathan, and Joe Keery as Steve.

Several season 2 additions will also be back, including Sadie Sink as Max, Dacre Montgomery as her older brother Billy, and Priah Ferguson (who's been given an expanded role) as Lucas' little sister Erica. With such a large cast and continuing danger in Hawkins, Indiana, perhaps the biggest question going into Season 3 is how many of these fan favorites will survive.

New stars

As with Season 2, season 3 of Stranger Things will also introduce several new pieces of the show's ensemble in both kid and adult roles. We might not know all about their stories yet, but we can at least tell you who to watch for.

Another icon of 1980s cinema will join the show this year, as Cary Elwes steps up to play Mayor Kline, a "classic '80s politician — more concerned with his own image than with the people of the small town he governs." Jake Busey will also join the show as a new major player in the Hawkins company, playing Bruce, "a journalist for the Hawkins Post, with questionable morals and a sick sense of humor."

In terms of new young actors joining the series, we have two big names to add there as well, the first being Maya Hawke, the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. Hawke will play new series regular Robin, an "alternative girl who is equal parts sharp and playful," who works with Steve at Starcourt Mall and whose life is changed when she discovers a dark secret. Haters Back Off star Francesca Reale has also joined the series in a recurring role as Heather, a lifeguard at the local pool who "will become the centerpiece of a dark mystery."

New threats

Perhaps the biggest mystery we've yet to learn much about in Stranger Things 3 is exactly who or what the Big Bad will be this time around. Season 1 introduced us to the horrors of the lab that created Eleven and ultimately gave us access to the Upside Down and its signature monster, the Demogorgon. Season 2 gave us the Demodogs on its way to revealing the terrifying power and size of the Mind Flayer. As we've already discussed, that final shot in season 2 seems to suggest the Mind Flayer is not entirely done with Hawkins yet, but that doesn't mean it will be back right away.

In the Season 3 trailer, we get a look at two entirely new threats that we can definitely say look like enemies. Most obviously, there's that hideous, asymmetrical new monster roaring in a hallway. It certainly looks like another resident of the Upside Down has broken free to terrorize Hawkins, but what exactly is it, and how is it different from what we've seen before. Remember that in previous seasons the monsters were all named by the kids as they looked through their Dungeons & Dragons books for a creature to compare them to. What will they call this one?

Oh, and the trailer also revealed a rather unpleasant-looking man armed with a silenced pistol, wandering through a hall of mirrors. Who is this guy? A government assassin? A privately contracted hitman? We have no way of knowing just yet.

New locations

Stranger Things is a show very much steeped in the atmosphere of what it was like to be a kid in the 1980s, so it was bound to get around to mall culture eventually, and in season 3 that time has come at last. As the show revealed via teasers last year, 1985 is the year Hawkins, Indiana finally gets a shopping center. The Starcourt Mall is the newest local attraction, drawing kids and adults alike to hang out in the food court or visit the Waldenbooks and Sam Goody. Steve works there, the new trailer shows the kids spending a lot of time there, and the trailer also hints that many Hawkins residents aren't too happy with Mayor Kline for bringing the mall to town in the first place.

Apart from the mall, since summer's in full bloom we'll also get a look at the Hawkins community pool, where the trailer reveals Billy is working as a lifeguard (along with new character Heather) and where the show's history with pools tells us something awful will quite possibly happen. Then there's the Hawkins Post, the town newspaper where new character Bruce works and where Nancy and Jonathan might end up for one reason or another.

Mysterious episode titles

Because Stranger Things is a famously secretive series, any information we can get about the new season at all is valuable, and that includes things that arrive out of context. That's why it was so exciting for fans earlier this year when Netflix dropped a brief teaser which revealed all eight episode titles for the third season. In case you missed those when they arrived, here they are in the order they were revealed:

"Suzie, Do You Copy?"

"The Mall Rats"

"The Case of the Missing Lifeguard"

"The Sauna Test"

"The Source"

"The Birthday"

"The Bite"

"The Battle of Starcourt"

Of course, this still doesn't give us all that much to go on. References to "Mall Rats" point to a lot of time at Starcourt, and the season finale title points to a major confrontation there, perhaps centered around that big new monster from the trailer. The "missing lifeguard" in Episode 3's title is very likely the new girl, Heather, since her character details place her at the center of a new mystery. Other than that, there's not much to go on here. We don't know whose birthday it is, or who Suzie is, or who bites who. In true Stranger Things fashion, all will be revealed in time. We just have to try to be patient.

Read while you wait

The wait between seasons of Stranger Things has been a long one, but that doesn't mean the franchise has just completely shut down in the time since we last saw the kids from Hawkins. In fact, the world of Stranger Things has only expanded in the time since the last new episode was released, and that means if you're really missing this world and its characters, you can dig into some tie-in reading right now.

In the world of prose, we now have an official Stranger Things companion book, Worlds Turned Upside Down, along with two tie-in novels: Suspicious Minds, which tells the story of Eleven's mother and the experiments that were done on her, and Darkness on the Edge of Town, which will tell the story of Hopper's time as a cop in New York City in the 1970s.

In the comics world, there are also new stories to dig into. In the fall of 2018, Dark Horse Comics launched Stranger Things, a four-issue miniseries that tells the story of what happened to Will Byers during the time he was stuck in the Upside Down. The company has announced Stranger Things: Six, another new miniseries set to tell the story of a different girl experimented on at the Hawkins lab. If you've been missing out on these stories, it's time to get reading.

New pop culture influences

Stranger Things is a show which proudly and earnestly wears its influences on its sleeve, in part because of the blend of genre stories that inspired it (Stephen King meets Steven Spielberg) and in part because it's the story of a group of kids who are nerds at heart and steep themselves in the pop culture which surrounds them. That's how we get the main characters dressed up like Ghostbusters and all the various comic book references Dustin and Lucas share.

Season 3 will be no different in this regard. Since it's set in 1985, we can expect certain influences to play out in real time, including the box office success of Back to the Future and The Goonies, but those are are far from the only films we should look to as an inspiration for the new season. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer teased John Carpenter's The Thing as one major inspiration, along with the films of David Cronenberg and George A. Romero. Meanwhile, star David Harbour has teased that the new season will also draw inspiration from the Chevy Chase comedy Fletch.

"The Duffers are so specific each year with the movies," he said. "And Fletch is one movie we get to play around and have some fun with this season, which you wouldn't expect from Stranger Things and you wouldn't expect from the Spielberg universe and you certainly wouldn't expect from a darker season."

The tone

We've already talked about the few story details we do know from what's come out about season 3 so far, but those details of course avoid telling us what Stranger Things fans really want to know: What's the major threat this time around, and how does the Hawkins gang deal with it? This is information that the show won't be revealing until it's time to watch the new episodes, but we can at least do our best to piece together a sense of the tone.

For one thing, though we've already seen plenty of disgusting Upside Down monsters in the past two seasons, we should expect things to get just a little more nasty this time. "While it's our most fun season, it also turns out to be our grossest season," co-creator Ross Duffer said.

Duffer also promised that having all of the kids on summer vacation will add "a sense of fun and joy" to everything, but that doesn't mean there won't be danger. Natalia Dyer, who plays Nancy, has teased that the new season is "bigger, darker, scarier" than what's come before, while Noah Schnapp, who plays Will, played up the still-mysterious new threat.

"Oh, yeah, the threat is… it's brutal. It gets bad. It's very big," Schnapp said. "I feel like every season it kinda gets more — like it's taking over Hawkins."

Why the long wait?

It took 15 months for Stranger Things to return for its second season after the first season became a hit for Netflix. For some fans, that seemed like an eternity, but that wait time has already been overtaken by the delay between season 2 and season 3, which will stretch to nearly two years. Though we didn't know exactly how long we'd be waiting after season 2 ended, executive producer Shawn Levy seemed to predict this stretch of time in January 2018, when he acknowledged that even though the storylines for season 3 were planned out, it might be a while before we see the episodes.

"If we could make it [return] faster, then we would," Levy said. "But we're going to make it well. We're going to do it right."

The delay between seasons stretched on into 2018 with no real updates, until Netflix vice president of original programming Cindy Holland made it clear last summer that we'd be waiting a little while, and that Netflix was fine with that. "It's a hand-crafted show," Holland said. "The Duffer brothers and Shawn Levy work really hard and they understand the stakes are high. They want to deliver something bigger and better than what they did last year."

We're betting season 3 will be worth the wait.

Will there be a season 4?

Now that season 3 of Stranger Things is finally almost upon us after a very long wait, it's time to once again ask the question of how much longer the show will go on. Will we get a fourth season, or a fifth, or a sixth? This is something the Duffer brothers and executive producer Shawn Levy have addressed before, and the answer seems to be that the shortest run we'll get at this point is four seasons of the show. At one point the Duffer brothers were considering wrapping things up with Season 4 for sure, but now they're considering an expansion.

"Hearts were heard breaking in Netflix headquarters when the brothers made four seasons sound like an official end, and I was suddenly getting phone calls from our actors' agents," Levy said. "The truth is we're definitely going four seasons and there's very much the possibility of a fifth. Beyond that, it becomes I think very unlikely."

So while we may have to mourn the loss of the Hawkins gang sometime in the not too distant future, we can watch Stranger Things season 3 secure in the knowledge that more story is in the works.