The 1980s youngsters of Netflix’s horror-tinged hit series “Stranger Things” have a nasty supernatural threat to face in the show’s fourth season. Of course they do.
A new villain just seems like piling on, though, for a crew also wrestling with fresh obstacles such as competing high school social circles, mean-girl bullies and long-distance relationships.
“You always want to shake it up,” says Matt Duffer, who created “Stranger Things” with his brother, Ross. And for Season 4 (first seven episodes streaming now; super-size final two July 1), that meant separating the heroes geographically, across America and the globe.
Back in Hawkins, Indiana, old friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) enter high school, but the fourth member of their crew – Will (Noah Schnapp) – has moved to California with his mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder); his brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton); and Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown).
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Eleven, a teen girl with telekinetic abilities, helped save Hawkins from the dark forces of the alternate-reality Upside Down, but doesn’t have her powers anymore, and her adoptive cop dad, Hopper (David Harbour), presumed dead after the explosive Battle of Starcourt Mall (see: Season 3), is rotting in a Russian gulag. Which isn’t great when terrifying things start happening in Hawkins due to the arrival of Vecna, a mysterious figure killing Hawkins teens in extraordinarily gnarly fashion.
For Brown, the creepy terror goes hand in hand with kid characters “who have different spirits and energies” finding their identity in the world. “You don't have to conform to the peers around you,” she says. The series excels at “showing kids that you are who you are, and we accept you for who you are.”
The “Stranger Things” cast breaks down what fans can expect as Season 4 starts:
A jock/nerd divide hits the Hawkins teens
Freshman year in 1986 finds old pals in new cliques: Mike and Dustin play “Dungeons & Dragons” with the Hellfire Club, but Lucas is focused more on shooting hoops with the basketball team. Matarazzo calls it a “great dynamic.”
McLaughlin says it’s an experience “every teenager could relate to. A lot of people say, ‘Your true friends are out of high school’ (and) that's the test for the Hawkins gang.”
Eleven and Will try to find their Cali groove
On the West Coast, Eleven struggles to find her bearings without Hopper, and gets picked on for her social awkwardness. “I’ve really enjoyed having a real-life problem to deal with in the show,” Brown says. “It’s really nice for 'Stranger Things' to shine a light on, especially young girls feeling like they're not in a place of safety in their schools.”
Meanwhile, Will “struggles with his own identity and with himself” in this new environment, Schnapp says, hinting that his “pretty dry” romantic life could pick up. “It's just up to the audience interpretation to assume what could be going on with that.”
Max grapples with grief (and the supernatural)
With her ever-present Walkman, Sadie Sink’s character is a full-fledged member of the Hawkins gang, yet she's rocked to her core by the death of her brother, Billy, and is now haunted by a mysterious presence. “I was really excited to have the opportunity to touch on just how the trauma is affecting these characters,” Sink says. “Playing Max is so fun,” and Season 4 showcases “a very different side of her. She's in a real place.”
Love life troubles abound with the dudes
Mike finds it tough having a relationship with Eleven so far away. “The interpersonal stuff is the stuff that really gets him,” Wolfhard says. “He can help fight monsters all day, but when it comes to helping himself, he's not very good.”
Same goes with Jonathan, who made a promise with his girlfriend, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), back in Hawkins that they'd stay together. “The reality of that is kind of different,” Heaton says. “It's sometimes easier to push someone away when you feel like you are about to be pushed away yourself.”
Steve’s still the best babysitter ever
Joe Keery’s well-coiffed fan favorite has evolved from an unlikable jerk in Season 1 to one of the most loyal heroes around, protecting his BFF Dustin and the youngsters when they need him most. “It’s about feeling a certain amount of responsibility for these kids,” Keery says. “There's nothing that will bind people together more than shared trauma, especially of the supernatural ilk. Definitely a part of him enjoys that.”
Nancy and Robin form their own girl squad
Outside of their Steve connection – Nancy’s his ex, and Robin (Maya Hawke) his lesbian co-worker – the two high school seniors don’t really know each other, but they share a fun side mission this season. “It’s that opposites-attract thing: they fill in what the other might not see or have. They challenge each other. They're both intelligent females and work well together,” Dyer says.
Hawke adds the pair have “a couple really beautiful moments.”
A couple of new guys add some 'Stranger' spice
Joseph Quinn joins the cast in Season 4 as Eddie Munson, the metalhead leader of the Hellfire Club. “He brings a kind of quiet, manic, questionably dressed energy that I don't think people have seen in the show yet,” Quinn says.
And Eduardo Franco says his Surfer Boy Pizza driver Argyle, Jonathan's funny Cali friend, offers “an escape from all the darkness and the spookiness."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Stranger Things': Young heroes tackle drama and trauma in Season 4