How 'Stranger Things' Season 4 gets 1980s teen culture right
After three years between seasons, "Stranger Things" is back with an older cast and a new threat: adulthood.
"Stranger Things 4" is set in 1986, six months in TV-time since the gang from Hawkins, Indiana, defeated the Spider Monster in the food court of the Starcourt Mall and thwarted a Soviet plot in the shopping center's basement. El, Will, Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Sam have outgrown their dorky-cute phase. Now they're uncomfortably awkward, like a collection of humiliating photos from your 10th grade yearbook come to life: uber-gawky teens so socially inept in comparison to their high school peers that they teeter on the precipice of unlikable. (The hair is particularly bad. Even for the '80s.)
The brilliance of "Stranger Things 4" is that rather than gloss over the unpleasantry, it leans hard into their clumsy, painful transition. Though the alienation and shame of bullied high schoolers is a much tougher sell for a beloved sci-fi series than the pain porn of young adult dramas like "13 Reasons Why" or "Euphoria," "Stranger Things" channels that darkness into a fresh narrative that's as much an ode to "Hellraiser"-era horror films as it is to growing pains.
Series creators, writers and directors Matt and Ross Duffer have always turned to films, shows and references from the Reagan years to set the tone for each season. Odes to the goofy nostalgia of "Ghostbusters" and "Goonies" worked when the gang was younger, then nods to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," mall culture and "Indiana Jones"-style adventure as they aged.
But the misery of high school calls for horror, naturally: "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and the "It" miniseries are a few of the callbacks in Season 4, and the terror is as much psychological as it is physical.
High school social strata and dating are as confusing and perilous to the boys as the alternate dimension beneath the surface of their town known as the Upside Down. Formerly confident girls who had few issues expressing their anger have now stuffed it down, rendering them powerless and depressed. "Satanic panic" has gripped the nation, Hawkins included. The new wave of supernatural tragedy gripping the community is being blamed on devil worship, i.e. anyone who plays Dungeons and Dragons or listens to hard rock. Did we mention that Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is now in a hard rock band?
The true source of the murderous evil is Vecna, a ghoulish man/creature who resides in the Upside Down and thrives on destroying the residents from the inside out. Mining suffering and regret is his thing, and he has plenty to work with among the teens 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), the old friends are scattered across the country and the globe. The terminally worried Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) lives in California with sons Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Will (Noah Schnapp) and daughter-by-proxy Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is there too, visiting El over 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 in Hawkins.
Hopper (David Harbour), who was presumed dead last season, resurfaces in a Soviet prison. Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) joins forces with Joyce to free him. Dustin's genius gal pal Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo) returns, and the scene in her Mormon household is one of the best. And thank goodness for Erica (Priah Ferguson). Lucas' mouthy 11-year-old sister is not as emotionally battered as the older kids, so she emerges as a sharp weapon against Vecna.
New to the party is metalhead and Dungeons & Dragons "Hellfire Club" master Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn). He's accused of committing a string of heinous murders around Hawkins. The long-haired outcast contends that "Forced conformity [is] the real monster," and he's not entirely wrong.
There is plenty of fun to be had in "Stranger Things 4," which both celebrates and parodies a decade that pushed conformity, conservatism and questionable style. There are plenty of headbands and sideways ponytails held up by Scrunchies. Lucas sports a Kid 'n Play hairdo. Joyce now yells at folks through a cordless phone that's bigger than her head. The music includes speed metal by Extreme, some "Detroit Rock City," stoner anthems by Musical Youth, one-hit wonders Dead or Alive and Falco. And of course, Kate Bush's "Running Up that Hill," which sets the tone for a moving sequence with Max.
But "Stranger Things" does not rely on 1980s sentimentality this time around. The series sets aside the high-powered halcyon lens it used in the past and allows high school to be the torturous thing that it was, at least for those of us who did not fit in. It's heartbreaking when El realizes she's never going to be accepted by her peers: "I am different. I do not 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 potential disbanding of this tightknit group. Or not. Because the oddest thing about "Stranger Things" might be its capacity to keep surprising us. Like its characters, it's still growing — no matter how un-photogenic the journey.
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
How to watch: Season 4, Volume 1, is now streaming on Netflix; Volume 2 premieres July 1