A long and winding road: three years on, Stranger Things returns

·7-min read
Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas, Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin and Sadie Sink as Max in Stranger Things Season 4
Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas, Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin and Sadie Sink as Max in Stranger Things Season 4

When Stranger Things creators Ross and Matt Duffer announced in February that season four would finally air in two ‘volumes’ in May and July, they did it in a form appropriate to the smash sci-fi show’s 1980s setting and style – a typewritten letter to the fans, folded, tatty and creased, which opened with the line: “Hi nerds! Do you copy? It’s been a little while …”.

Nerds? You bet. First up, the word describes the show’s lead characters perfectly. More appropriately, it applies also to the fans and to the way they relate to that band of misfits and outsiders. Away from the series itself, the world of Stranger Things geekdom ranges from sixteen inch figurines of the Demogorgon, a monster which haunts an alternate reality world known as the Upside Down, to special Nike trainers available in the green and orange of the show’s fictional Hawkins High School. It has even found its way onto the catwalk – Louis Vuitton designer Nicolas Ghesquière once sent his models down the runway in Stranger Things t-shirts – and been worked into a Spotify algorithm by the music streaming platform’s own in-house tech nerds. Since 2017, when season two aired, users have been able to activate a Stranger Things viewing mode which replicates the trademark visual effects used in the Upside Down.

The Duffer brothers weren’t wrong about the time lag either. It certainly has been “a little while”, as they put it, since we last saw the gang of teenage monster-battlers at the heart of the story. But it seems that absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Although season three of Stranger Things aired nearly three years ago and the pandemic-induced delay in filming season four has proved a frustration for cast, crew and writers, it’s safe to say appetites have been well and truly whetted among fans of the show – particularly given season three’s post-finale teaser, which hinted that irascible police chief Jim Hopper, surrogate father to Millie Bobby Brown’s super-power wielding Eleven, was not dead after all.

HeraldScotland:
HeraldScotland:

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things Season 1

If all that means little to you, here’s a recap. Opening in 1983 in the town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things introduces us to nerdy, Dungeons & Dragons-loving pre-teen friends Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, played by Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin and Noah Schnapp respectively. David Harbour is Jim Hopper and Winona Ryder, star of iconic 1980s high school black comedy Heathers, plays Will’s mother, Joyce.

Season one also features another 1980s star, Matthew Modine. He plays Martin Brenner, the scientist in charge of a secret government laboratory just outside Hawkins. It’s from this establishment that the girl known only as Eleven escapes, revealing her extraordinary powers of psychokinesis by flipping over the cars of pursuers. Meanwhile, Will disappears on his way back from Mike’s house, imprisoned in the Upside Down by forces unknown. Is there a connection between his capture and Eleven’s escape? When she befriends Mike, Dustin and Lucas, they set out together to save Will and to try to solve the puzzle of her origins and the reason for her extraordinary powers.

HeraldScotland:
HeraldScotland:

From left, Sadie Sink, Noah Schnapp, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard and Caleb McLaughlin in Stranger Things Season 3

Further seasons added new threats, new interests (Girls! Boys! Fashion!) and foregrounded new characters in the form of Sadie Sink as Max, Joe Keery as Steve and Maya Hawke, daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, as Robin. And as season three ended, with Hopper’s apparent death and a climactic battle against Russian agents (in a mall of all places), Joyce, Will and Eleven headed for a new life in California leaving the others back in the mid-west. Which is where season four begins, with everyone scattered to the winds and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives six months later.

This latest instalment is a long overdue return to business for the Duffer brothers, who had the story arc mapped out by season two. It’s also a solid way marker to season five, which they have said will definitely be the last (though happily they haven’t ruled out some form of spin-off).

For Netflix, however, it’s even more significant because in many ways the company’s rise to its current position as the go-to platform for original content begins with the debut of Stranger Things in July 2016. It was the glowing reviews for the show’s canny casting, strong visuals, ace theme tune and loving mash-up of 1980s influences – comedy-horror classic The Goonies was a huge influence – which allowed Netflix to pull ahead of its several competitors in the then-nascent streaming market. As subscribers joined in their millions, the cash generated was ploughed into more and more original drama, which in turn led to increased subscriptions. This year for the first time Netflix has seen a substantial fall in those numbers. But the fact they were so high in the first place is in no small way related to the show which twin brothers Ross and Matt Duffer created out of their love of all things 1980s.

STRANGER THINGS 4 REVIEWED

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HeraldScotland:

Jane/Eleven feels the burn in Stranger Things Season 4

From writer-creators the Duffer brothers to young stars Millie Bobby Brown and Noah Schnapp, everyone associated with Stranger Things has promised that season four of the Netflix sci-fi smash will be bigger, longer and infinitely darker than anything which has preceded it.

They weren’t wrong. They could have added too that it would also be more expensive: this latest series is reported to have cost $30 million (£24 million), but as the glowing reviews roll in the streaming giant will doubtless judge it worth both the money and the three year wait.

Volume One of season four, seven episodes in all, debuted on Friday, and will be followed by Volume Two on July 1. Episode one runs to 76 minutes, while the season finale is reported to clock in at 120 minutes plus.

As for the dialled up darkness and ramped up horror, it’s evident from the first minutes of episode one in a brutal opening sequence set in 1979 in the mysterious government facility in which Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) was once incarcerated.

Our young heroes are now three years older and split between Indiana and California. Joyce has headed west, taking sons Will and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) with her, as well as Eleven. She’s now known as Jane Hopper and is being bullied by the It Girls at her new school. Oh, and she has lost her ability to flip over cars and best Demogorgons. Meanwhile Will has taken up painting and Joyce is working telesales – or she is until a knock on the door delivers a mysterious parcel covered in Soviet stamps.

HeraldScotland:
HeraldScotland:

Robert Eglund as Victor Creel in Stranger Things Season 4

Back in Hawkins, Lucas has turned jock and joined the basketball team leaving Dustin and Mike to fly the flag for all things nerdy. Max has a darker storyline: plagued by nightmares and trying to deal with an alcoholic mother, she brushes away offers of help from the kindly school counsellor. Darker still, we’re treated to our first view of a new monster – Vecna – and a hint or two that the peace which has fallen on Hawkins after the tumultuous events of six months previously is soon going to be broken in spectacular style.

There are a slew of new characters – pick of the bunch is pot-dealing, Dungeons & Dragons-loving metal-head Eddie (Joseph Quinn), founder of the school’s Hellfire Club – and a welcome return for conspiracy nut Murray (Fleabag’s Brett Gelman). Eagle-eyed viewers of a certain age will recognise the name Robert Englund in the credits. He plays Victor Creel, a notorious 1950s murderer whose eyes have been gouged out and stitched shut, however he’s better known as Freddy Kreuger from the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise, an acknowledged influence on this new season.

Verdict? A triumphant return for an engrossing drama which clearly still has places to go and stories to tell.

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