High school bullying, new cliques, grief, an ominous clock, and (of course) a new monster are the latest troubles the teenagers of Hawkins, Indiana are experiencing in Stranger Things 4, the next installment of Netflix’s 80s throwback sci-fi horror series. The new season picks up in 1986, months after the showdown at the Starcourt Mall that left telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) powerless. The gang is separated for the first time and a new threat surfaces, presenting a gruesome mystery that, if solved, might finally put an end to the horrors of the Upside Down.
“I cry a lot this season,” said Brown at the show’s world premiere in Brooklyn on Saturday night at Netflix’s new 170,000-square-foot production studio. “This is the most emotional season for Eleven. She’s powerless and trying to fit in at a new school and she’s trying to understand who she is and where she came from. She’s struggling with her identity and this is the darkest state she’s ever been in. She’s sad and I had to cry a lot. It was extremely difficult for me to cry so much!”
Season four, which will be released in two volumes on Netflix—the first dropping May 27, the second on July 1—takes place in three different locations with various groups of characters driving forward three different narratives. Perennially worried mother Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) has moved her sons Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), as well as Eleven, out of Hawkins to a desert city in California. Eleven finally gets to experience everyday life as a teenager, but faces severe bullying at her new school.
“We are shining a light on what some kids go through in high school. It’s not an easy time for Eleven. She really doesn’t fit in. Portraying that storyline for me was important because it is influential and powerful,” said Brown. “I want to show fans how horrible it feels to be bullied and hope some may stop doing it. Also, I love El’s perseverance. She’s sad, but never gives up. I think we can all learn from her.”
In past seasons of Stranger Things, Will and Eleven haven’t shared the screen much. But this time around, “you’re going to see more of a non-supernatural side of Will and Eleven together,” said Schnapp. “This season I probably worked with Millie the most, and we shared some emotional scenes at school together. I think fans will really connect to it. Our characters will continue to change and learn new things about themselves.”
The one thing that remains constant for Will is his unfortunate but period-accurate hairstyle. “I get asked about the bowl cut all the time and have seen the memes and jokes online,” laughed Schnapp. “Every season he has a new bowl cut and in season four, he has another different one. I saw a Change.org petition from fans requesting to get rid of the bowl cut for the next season, and I signed it!”
Another main storyline focuses on the original core group of friends in Hawkins. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) has joined the basketball team; Max (Sadie Sink) is grieving the loss of her brother Billy, who was tragically killed by the Mind Flayer last season; Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is trying to figure out his calling at school and maintain his long distance relationship with Eleven, and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) begins to adjust to navigating the hellish hallways of high school.
“Dustin is finding his sense of confidence and his sense of self. He’s finding new cool friends and he’s feeling accepted by the Hellfire Club, Hawkins High’s Dungeons & Dragons crew. But he’s sad because his main crew is starting to fracture,” said Matarazzo about his character’s arc this season. “Will has already moved away to California, and other people in the group are starting to find new interests and new friends. It’s a part of life and a part of high school. It’s rough to see. We’re a separated crew and to me togetherness is a big theme this season because when you’re not together, things get really hard.”
Each episode of the new season is double the length of a typical Stranger Things installment, running an hour or longer. Shawn Levy, the show’s director and executive producer, promises more action, but remains focused on the characters. “This show has always been an anthem to the outcasts,” said Levy, whose next project is directing Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool 3. “Whether you were the popular kid in high school or the one on the margin, everyone knows what it is to feel on the outside looking in. And Stranger Things in many ways is about the ensemble of characters who share that experience. It’s about the struggles, but also the strength that comes from struggles.”
Meanwhile, Hawkins chief of police Jim Hopper (David Harbour)—who appeared to have died by sacrificing himself to close the gate to the Upside Down at the end of last season—is alive, but imprisoned in Kamchatka, Russia, at a secret facility.
“Hooper is a brutal guy now who no longer is that big guy on the couch eating chips and salsa,” said Harbour, wearing a custom blazer featuring Stranger Things characters. “This season is a whole new layer of Hopper that we get to peel back. It was really exciting for me, and I hope it’s exciting for audiences to see Hopper as a brutal warrior that he has now become. You’ll see him as this guy who knows how to survive and fight against evil. I did the best I could in terms of changing my body, which also changes your mind and how you think. It was really fun, but also a challenge.”
Stranger Things has seen demogorgons, demodogs, Russian operatives, and a giant Mind Flayer terrorize the town of Hawkins. The new horror that awaits in season four is Vecna, a demo-monster that slithers out of the Upside Down.
“There is a humanoid aspect to Vecna, and he is more formidable than any big bad monster we’ve had so far,” teased Levy.
“I was very, very, scared and very nervous when I first saw it,” added Brown about Vecna. “No one has seen anything like it, especially how it was played. It’s amazing and fans will be scared.”
“Vecna is a psychological horror that I don’t think we’ve really seen,” said Harbour. “It’s very calculating and psychologically evil, making it the show’s most dangerous monster. But there may be more than one monster. I don’t directly deal with Vecna. There’s a Demogorgon in a Russian prison that I got to deal with. There’s a lot more evil going on this season.”