After three years between seasons, “Stranger Things” returns with an older cast and a new threat: adulthood.
“Stranger Things 4” is set in 1986, six months on television since the Hawkins, Indiana gang defeated the Spider Monster in the Starcourt Mall food court and foiled a Soviet plot in the basement of the mall. El, Will, Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Sam are past their silly phase. Now they’re uncomfortably awkward, like a humiliating collection of photos from your 10th grade yearbook coming to life: uber-awkward teenagers so socially inept compared to their high school peers that they’re teetering on the precipice of inappreciability. (Hair is especially bad. Even for the 80s.)
The brilliance of “Stranger Things 4” is that rather than covering up the unpleasantness, it leans heavily into their awkward and painful transition. While the alienation and shame of bullied high school students is a much harder sell for a beloved sci-fi series than the painful pornography of young adult dramas like “13 Reasons Why” or “Euphoria,” “Stranger Things” channels that darkness into a new narrative that’s as much an ode to horror films of the “Hellraiser” era as it is to growing pains.
Series creators, writers and directors Matt and Ross Duffer have always looked to films, shows and references from the Reagan years to set the tone for each season. Goofy nostalgia odes to ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Goonies’ worked when the gang was younger, then nods to ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’, mall culture and adventure Indiana Jones style as they got older. But high school misery calls for horror, naturally: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “It” miniseries are some of the callbacks to Season 4, and the terror is as much psychological as it is physical.
The social strata and high school dating are as confusing and perilous for the boys as the alternate dimension below the surface of their city known as the Upside Down. Once-confident girls who had little problem expressing their anger have now stifled it, leaving them helpless and depressed. “Satanic panic” gripped the nation, Hawkins included. The new wave of supernatural tragedy gripping the community is being blamed on devil worship, meaning anyone who plays Dungeons & Dragons or listens to hard rock. Did we mention that Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is now in a hard rock band? The true source of murderous evil is Vecna, a macabre man/creature who resides in the Upside Down and thrives on destroying the inhabitants within. Pain and mining regrets are his thing, and he’s got a lot going for him among the teenagers of Hawkins.
In the first seven episodes of the penultimate season, all of which are now available to stream on Netflix (the final two drop July 1), old friends are scattered across the country and the world. Terminally ill Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) lives in California with her sons Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Will (Noah Schnapp) and her proxy daughter Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is there too, visiting El during spring break, leaving his sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and friends Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin, Max (Sadie Sink), Robin (Maya Hawke) and Steve (Joe Keery) behind at Hawkins. Hopper (David Harbour), presumed dead last season, resurfaces in a Soviet prison. Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) teams up with Joyce to free him. Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo), Dustin’s awesome girlfriend, returns and the scene in her Mormon home is one of the best. And thank goodness for Erica (Priah Ferguson). Lucas’ 11-year-old sister isn’t as emotionally bruised as the older kids, so she comes across as a sharp weapon against Vecna.
Metalhead and Dungeons & Dragons master “Hellfire Club” Eddie Munson is new to the party (Joseph Quinn). He is accused of having committed a series of heinous murders around Hawkins. The long-haired pariah argues that “forced conformity [is] the real monster”, and he’s not entirely wrong. There’s plenty of fun to be had in “Stranger Things 4,” which both celebrates and parodies a decade that pushed for conformity, conservatism, and questionable style. There are lots of headbands and side ponytails held up by scrunchies. Lucas sports a Kid ‘n Play hairstyle. Joyce now yells at people through a cordless phone bigger than her head. The music includes speed metal from Extreme, “Detroit Rock City”, stoner anthems from Musical Youth, hit wonders Dead or Alive and Falco. And of course, “Running Up that Hill” by Kate Bush, which sets the tone for an emotional sequence with Max.
But “Stranger Things” doesn’t rely on 1980s sentimentality this time around. The series casts aside the high-powered Halcyon lens it used in the past and allows high school to be the torturous thing it used to be, at least for those of us who didn’t fit in. It’s heartbreaking when El realizes she never will be. accepted by her peers: “I am different. I don’t belong. Everyone looks at me like I’m a monster.
Season 5 will be the last, and we know what’s coming. The end of high school, and with it, the possible dissolution of this tight-knit group. Or not. Because perhaps the strangest thing about “Stranger Things” is its ability to keep surprising us. Like his characters, he continues to grow, even if the journey is not photogenic.
When: At any time; Season 4, Volume 1, from Friday; volume 2 from July 1
Evaluation: TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under 14)