After production delays, a new Domino’s commercial, and three Upside Down–ass years, the Stranger Things kids—err, young adults—are back this Friday as Season 4, Volume 1 debuts on Netflix. Viewers were left with many questions at the end of Season 3—as with every other edition of Stranger Things—and although the Duffer brothers mostly resolved an all-time cliff-hanger, there’s still plenty to discuss as the series enters its penultimate season.
Because those four-minute Netflix refreshers never quite do the trick, it’s time to reflect on the bread crumbs left in the basement of the Starcourt Mall during the summer of 1985. The kids may be back, but with a new big bad in the mix and a superhero lacking her superpowers, the same question remains: What the hell is going on in Hawkins, Indiana?
Where We Left Off
As luck—or a hidden bunker, wormhole, or Upside Down portal—would have it, Jim Hopper managed to escape the explosion at the end of “The Battle of Starcourt” only to wind up in a Soviet prison camp. The good news is that the Mind Flayer is gone and Hopper is alive; the bad news is that he presumably spends most of his days constructing a railroad and engaging in cage matches with a Demogorgon. In the first Season 4 trailer, Hopper says he’s convinced he wound up in Russia for a specific reason, and that he hopes he can still help the cause in Hawkins, “even if it’s the last thing I do.”
That’s pretty cryptic language, and it leads me to wonder whether Season 4 will finish what Season 3 started. After all, that season’s theme was accepting change, and Hopper’s near death and heartfelt letter to Eleven embodied that message. But the former police chief has had plenty of narrow escapes in the past, so we can’t count him out just yet.
With Hopper presumed dead, Eleven is under the care of Joyce Byers, who at the end of Season 3 finally decided to move her family from Hawkins—because her 12-year-old son being trapped in an alien underworld for the majority of Season 1 apparently didn’t move the needle enough. As the Byers crew readied to leave town, Eleven and Mike shared a kiss and made plans to meet over Thanksgiving, although in a Season 4 teaser we see them preparing to reunite for what Eleven claims will be “the best spring break ever.” Non-Monopoly spoiler alert: They most certainly will not have the best spring break ever.
Based on the “Welcome to California” teaser, Eleven is having a miserable time on the West Coast despite claiming in a letter to Mike that she “likes school now” and has “made lots of friends.” On top of losing her father figure and her special powers (we still have no idea what happened there or whether she’ll get them back), it seems like she’s getting spitballs to the face and side-eyes from classmates on a regular basis. She’s also being recruited to fight with the U.S. military, as Dr. Owens tells her that a war is coming, her friends in Hawkins are “very much in the eye of the storm,” and that without her, the country (or humanity?) won’t prevail. She’s a 15-year-old with the weight of the world on her shoulders, and that’s before standardized tests, AP classes, and college applications. Pray for this child.
As for the rest of the Byers clan, Jonathan gives off major dumped, dazed, and confused vibes in the teaser that was released in November, and it doesn’t help that the only footage of Nancy comes opposite dreamy ex Steve Harrington. Big W for Steve if he’s back in business with Nancy, especially since the last time we saw him he was getting rejected from a job at Family Video before being bailed out by Robin—who we can only assume went on to own multiple Blockbuster franchises later in life—during the interview.
Jonathan’s little brother Will spent the early part of Season 3 as the group’s clear social outcast and never quite found his footing, floundering in the awkward space between childhood and adolescence while the rest of his friends wifed up or branched out into new groups. (I guess that’s what happens when someone spends a week in the Upside Down.) Noah Schnapp’s character has lurked on the periphery for much of the series, but the tingle on the back of his neck in the Season 3 finale foreshadows a major role moving forward.
Back in Hawkins, Mike is still perpetually brooding, and Max is definitely not all right, which makes sense given that her stepbrother was impaled multiple times by the Mind Flayer after breaking good at the conclusion of Season 3. “Ever since you left, everything’s been a total disaster,” she says in one of the trailers, sitting cross-legged in front of Billy’s grave. “For a while we tried to be happy, normal. But I know that’s impossible.” Later in the clip she’s seen levitating in the same space while Lucas, Steve, and Dustin collectively freak out, which suggests she’s developed special powers and/or is somehow tethered to the Upside Down.
Max’s former arcade rival Dustin doesn’t have a ton of notable screen time in the teasers, but based on some early production stills, it seems like the show’s producers will double down on his delightful bromance with Steve. Outside of that pairing, I’m curious to see whether Gaten Matarazzo’s character will continue to foster new friendships, as he did in Season 3 when he spent much of his time deflecting Erica’s one-liners and trying to convince Steve that his girlfriend was real. Speaking of Sing-along Suzie, I think it’s safe to assume she and Dusty Bun have maintained the long-distance relationship to the best of their abilities, but as a former card-holding member of the she-doesn’t-go-to-our-school club, I’m bearish on their long-term prospects.
Entering Season 4, the only member of the main crew who appears to be thriving is Lucas, who joined the Hawkins basketball team and may have passed Steve on this season’s 1980s hair power rankings.
Biggest Unanswered Questions
In the interest of time and attention spans, I’ll limit this section to three or four topics, beginning with the eerie grandfather clock that appears throughout Season 4’s promotional releases. In the “Creel House” teaser, the clock’s glass is shown cracking as spooky music plays in the background. And in the first Season 4 trailer, we see the timepiece submerged in the wall of a dark Hawkins High School hallway while Max looks on. Series cocreator Ross Duffer referred to the clock as “a core part of the mystery” that the Hawkins kids are trying to solve and said it plays a “very, very important role moving forward.” Could it be a portal to the Upside Down? Is it some type of time-travel device? The Duffer brothers won’t say, but Matt Duffer did suggest the clock is quite the bad omen.
“You don’t want to see the clock,” he said. “If you see the clock, it’s not great.”
Mark it down: We’ll be seeing a lot of the clock. Oh, and while we’re on the topic of scary things we don’t want to see, check out this guy:
Meet Vecna. Who is Vecna? He’s just like you and me, in the sense that he has a head and thoughts and hopes and dreams. Sometimes, when he’s angry, Vecna says things like, “You’ve broken everything,” and, “Your suffering is almost at an end.” He’s unquestionably the show’s newest villain, and while we don’t know much about him outside of Dungeons & Dragons lore, producer and director Shawn Levy has said the humanoid has “more depth, more dimension, and far more evil” than any opponent Hawkins has seen before. In a conversation with Variety, actor David Harbour echoed that sentiment, calling Vecna “calculatedly, psychologically evil.”
Like the Mind Flayer before him, Vecna will probably commission some outside help, perhaps in the form of a willing host. It’s a total dart throw, but I can’t be the only person suspicious of this new Eddie Munson guy, right? I mean, sure, he’s supposedly the leader of the Hawkins Hellfire Club that our protagonists participate in. But really, what is his deal?
If Munson’s merely an innocent, RPG-obsessed high school kid, maybe we’ll see something nefarious from Pennhurst Mental Hospital patient Victor Creel (played by Robert Englund, the OG Freddy Krueger), whose appearance and Jack Torrance–like backstory single-handedly give the show more horror punch than it’s had since its first season. Creel was seemingly once a normal, happy family man, but during the late 1950s, he was imprisoned for the murder of his wife and kids. Although his role this season is unknown, Creel has been described as a “disturbed and intimidating man,” which certainly fits the profile of a villain. (Or perhaps he’s just another misunderstood soul who’s been wronged by the goblins and ghouls of Hawkins.)
While questions naturally arise with the introduction of new cast members, the most burning carryover mystery centers on Russia’s involvement in what appears to be an Upside Down space race with the U.S. Though its clandestine Starcourt operation was foiled, Russia is clearly still committed to studying and perhaps weaponizing the underworld playground that’s filled with spores, Demobats, and other creepy crawlers. The U.S. and Russia may view controlling the alternate dimension as a Cold War pissing contest, but it seems both sides could soon be doomed if they don’t open communication and begin working toward a greater good.
I could go on here—what happened to Eleven’s powers? Is Dr. Brenner alive? What exactly is the Upside Down?—but to wrap, let’s focus on a question that fans have been asking since 2017’s bottle episode: When will we see more of Eleven’s sister? After introducing Kali (a.k.a. no. 008) in Season 2’s “MADMAX” and bringing her back more fully in “The Lost Sister,” the show’s producers bailed on the potentially compelling subplot for the entirety of Season 3. In the eight-minute sneak peek of this season’s premiere, we get a glimpse into life at the Hawkins Lab for Brenner and his young test subjects in September 1979 before some type of massacre occurs (not too long after 3 p.m., for what it’s worth). Does that foreshadow more appearances by Dr. B and what’s left of his “children,” including Kali? Signs point to yes.
What Do We Know About This Season’s Structure?
Short answer: not much. Schedule-wise, Season 4 is broken into two volumes consisting of nine chapters total, with seven episodes being released Friday and the final two coming out July 1. The running times range from 75 minutes to a whopping 150 for the finale, and each reportedly had a $30 million budget.
As far as the plot is concerned, we know that part of the squad is in California, part of the squad is in Indiana (Upside Down California), it’s about to be spring break, and there’s a kick-ass roller rink. It also appears, based on the first trailer, that Joyce and Murray go on a Hopper rescue mission to Russia, and that Eleven heads to some sort of prison, perhaps one where the U.S. government plans to reinstate her powers.
Hopper, meanwhile, will apparently explore the darkness of his daughter Sara’s death, and Harbour said his character “goes through the most brutal form of therapy imaginable” this season.
So, yeah, things look somewhat bleak for everyone involved, which tracks with reports that the fourth season will be the darkest one yet and return Stranger Things to its horror roots. Here’s hoping it’s been worth the wait and that the Duffer brothers set the series up for a smooth conclusion—but without killing off any fan favorites in the process.