Stranger Things is back! Almost three years since we last visited Hawkins, Indiana, and we're back in the thick of it on May 27 as cliffhangers are resolved, mysteries are uncovered and we're buried beneath an avalanche of 80s pop culture nostalgia.
That in mind, we got a sneak preview at the first four episodes of Stranger Things Season 4, Volume 1 [i.e. just enough to not be dogged endlessly by shadowy government agencies] to get an idea of exactly what's going on in the Upside Down, American Midwest and beyond.
We won't be going too deep on the plot beyond what has already been covered in the recent teaser trailers, but if you're planning on going in completely blind you might want to hold off reading as mild spoilers ensue...
1. The cast are all grown up
When we first met Stranger Things core cast they were precocious pre-teens, effectively The Goonies dropped into the middle of a Stephen King novel. Six years on, they've now hit high school with all the trials and tribulations that entails.
It also marks a big shift in tone - there's a stronger emphasis on drink and drugs than we've had in the past, tackling of psychological trauma (which, given everything they've been through the past few seasons is hardly surprising) and societal divides.
2. The world is bigger than ever
While we might have occasional field-trip to other dimensions (as with the Upside Down) or locations (as with the divisive trip to Chicago in Season 2's The Lost Sister), by and large, Stranger Things has been rooted in its core setting of Hawkins, Indiana.
Season 4 up-ends this, however. After the events of Season 3 the Byers family and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) moved to California, while a February 2020 teaser trailer revealed that Hopper (David Harbour) was alive and imprisoned in Russia. These new settings are given their own unique character and tone, fleshing the wider world out through a use of colour and soundtrack to really expand the Stranger Things universe.
3. Stranger Things still has one of the best TV soundtracks
Stranger Things' synth-heavy theme might have become iconic in its own right, but the rest of the soundtrack continues to shine with a selection of pop and rock gems. From KISS's Detroit Rock City to Extreme's Play With Me, there's a couple of great rock'n'roll moments in there, while the inclusion of everything from Beach Boys' rendition of California Dreamin' to Dead Or Alive's You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) really helps to flesh out the world around the show.
4. There are more brilliant characters to love (or loathe)
Stranger Things has always been an ensemble affair, but that hasn't stopped The Duffer Brothers from introducing new characters each season (even if some are there only to get dispatched in gruesome ways - supernatural or otherwise).
Some of Season 3's new additions make a very welcome return in the form of Robin (Maya Hawke) and Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson), but two of the best new additions to the cast this time out are exuberant metalhead and D&D master Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) and stoner pizza delivery boy Argyle (Eduardo Franco), who makes Cheech and Chong look like Aristotle.
There are also some excellent villainous turns; while we won't divulge too much about this season's core villain Vecna, the look alone is enough to ensure it'll be as iconic as the Demogorgons or Mind Flayer before it, while a inclusion of classic 80s bully archetypes ticks the "love to hate" boxes nicely, making us yearn for Carrie style payback.
The Duffer Brothers have always shown a real flair for characterisation, introducing stereotypes and then completely picking them apart to craft dynamic, engaging characters and thankfully that remains true.
5. The horror themes are more prevalent than ever
Stranger Things has always set a balance between horror, mystery and dark fantasy, but Season 4 seems to skew more than ever in favour of its horror elements.
The horror sequences in the latest season feel especially gruesome, taking away some of the ambiguity of past seasons for out-and-out body horror.
Some of the scenes could easily have been lifted from the likes of Stephen King's IT or A Nightmare On Elm Street, while John Carpenter's slasher classic Halloween gets a direct shout-out before the show introduces a psychiatric asylum complete with its own Donald Pleasence/Doctor Loomis homage in Doctor Hatch. Combined, that makes it feel like a love letter to horror classics without losing its own sense of identity, while the inclusion of Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger himself) adds an extra sense of horror pedigree.
6. Pop culture references fly thick and fast
Stranger Things hasn't exactly been shy with exploring its influences, paying homage to everything from E.T. and Alien to Cujo and Escape From New York. Sometimes these things are extremely overt, other times buried deep for uber-fans to dig out.
Among the ones we caught were some prime 80s computer hacking hi-jinks a la Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the aforementioned Doctor Loomis knock-off and, perhaps most subtly, a character we reckon might have been named after A Nightmare On Elm Street's Christina Gray.
7. The 80s satanic panic is creeping in
Dungeons and Dragons has always been a key facet of the show, with many of its "Big Bads" named for creatures from the game. The latest season also explores the media panic around the role playing game in the mid-80s however, using it as a backdrop to also explore how fringe groups are scapegoated for society's wider problems. Which brings us to...
8. Eddie Munson might be one of the best portrayals of metalheads on TV
As we've already said, the Duffer Brothers have a keen eye for taking stereotypes and flipping them on their head. Joseph Quinn's Eddie Munson is a key example of this; head of the school D&D club (The Hellfire Club) and a horn-throwing, 'SATAN'-snarling metalhead, Munson fits the same mold as countless other on-screen metalheads, not least Hunter from this year's Metal Lords.
A sequence between Munson and popular cheerleader Chrissy early on in Season 4 highlights the extra depth lurking behind the character, however. While he might subscribe to some of the clichés of on-screen metalheads (see: shouting 'SATAN' at the jocks, being a bit of an elitist dickhead at times), he's also a charming and funny addition to the cast, all-too aware of how society sees him but determined to be himself regardless. It's endearing and promotes the well-worn saying about not judging a book by its cover.
9. The show is clearly gearing up for its endgame
Each season of Stranger Things has introduced new layers of mystery and intrigue into the show's lore whilst still building an engaging world. In turn, that has prompted a heap of fan theories and speculation about various elements of the show, meaning it has to walk a tightrope between answering existing questions whilst not completely losing the plot altogether.
With the announcement that the show will end with Season 5 however, the showrunners have clearly decided to start filling in the blanks. From showing more of Eleven's past to exploring the how's and why's of the Upside Down, the show is closing its open threads and seemingly building to something massive for its final season.
10. Stranger Things Season 4 is epic (in every sense of the word)
Stranger Things Season 4 has been split into two volumes, with seven episodes released on May 27 and the remaining 2 due for release on July 1. While the show has always felt like a multi-part blockbuster, Season 4 really drives that sense home. Some of its episodes run as long as feature-length movies (meaning if you're planning on binge-watching, you'll want the whole weekend set aside), a necessity when it comes to giving screen-time to its ever-expanding cast.
Amazingly, it doesn't hurt the pacing of the show at all however, and with so much lore to uncover there isn't much throwaway content, everything feeding either character or plot development. The amount of time we spend with these characters really sets the stakes too, the audience caring just as much for a newer character like Robin (Maya Hawke) as they do for perennial favourites Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) or Will (Noah Schnapp).
By this point, Stranger Things has evolved into a pop culture phenomenon in its own right. But unlike other series that failed to stick the landing where their conclusions were concerned (Lost, Game Of Thrones anyone?), Stranger Things seems to be tying off its loose ends so that the final season can be as epic as the show deserves, continuing to raise the bar for TV excellence.
Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 1 is out on Netflix May 27. Volume 2 is due July 1.