“We are all time travelers, if you think about it,” our newly minted California Girl Eleven writes to Mike Wheeler as she waxes on about how the 185 days it’s been since she and the Byers family left Hawkins, Indiana, feel more like ten years to her. Emotions can make time seem so much slower than it is, she says. Now, if that’s the case, these past three (!) Years have felt like an entire lifetime for those who have been dying for the next chapter in the Stranger Things saga. It’s been so long! I have so many more gray hairs than I did back in 2019. And if the two scenes that bookend this premiere episode are any indication, I’m about to get a lot more. The Duffer brothers promised a darker version of Stranger Things now that the kids are a little older (we find them in March 1986, first-year students in high school) and, buddies, they aren’t lying.
Let’s just dive right into that opening sequence, shall we? It’s September 8, 1979, and we’re back at Hawkins Lab. Dr. Brenner is going about his typical morning, heading into work to perform experiments on children that he creepily makes call him Pope. But then something goes wrong. There’s screaming. Brenner finds a trail of blood and bodies. Everyone, including all of the kids, have been brutally murdered. Brenner walks into the Rainbow Room and standing over all the horror and death, there’s our little Eleven, her hospital gown covered in blood, with more of it pouring out of her eyes. “What have you done?” Brenner yells at her, horrified. Now, listen. LISTEN. I find it very hard to believe that four seasons into this story, we’re getting a twist that Eleven is some psychotic, sociopathic mass murderer. Is she a little off? Yes. Has she broken people’s necks with the flick of her head? Also, sure, yes, but in her defense, it’s really only been to protect the people she cares about or herself. I just can’t believe she’s evil. I’m sure we’re not getting the whole picture here, which means this flashback is something we’ll most likely be revisiting throughout the season. Still – that is one hell of a way to welcome us all back to Hawkins. So, yes, yes, I think this season will be much darker.
But we get no answers in 1979, so let’s be the good little time travelers El says we are and head to 1986 to get reacclimated to where everything stands in Stranger Things. There’s a lot to catch up on! You’ll recall that season three ended with an epic battle at Starcourt Mall in which the Mind Flayer – now less of a Shadow Monster and more of a “Covered in the Melted Flesh and Bones of Hawkins Citizens” Monster – was foiled in its mission to kill Eleven before eradicating every living thing in our dimension when Billy sacrificed himself and Joyce and Hopper were able to blow up that Russian laser beam those guys were using to open a gate to the Upside Down. You remember all of that, right? Then you’ll also remember that Dr. Owens and the “Department of Energy” covered up that battle with the story of a tragic mall fire and that while everyone thinks Hopper is tragically dead, we know he’s alive and currently being held in a Soviet prison. Where there’s also a Demogorgon. No biggie! Oh, and because of everything that went down with the Mind Flayer, Eleven lost her powers. So, yeah, just like a lot of terrible stuff to process there.
So what’s everyone in Hawkins up to six months after the Battle of Starcourt Mall? Things are a little different without Eleven and the Byers family, but mostly people are trying to move forward. It’s easier for some than others. The Party, as we once knew it, is in shambles. And it’s not just because Will the Wise is gone. The boys are getting older and there are some growing pains. Lucas is sick of being bullied and feeling like a loser and wanted things to change in high school. That’s why he joined the school basketball team. He thought that’s what Mike and Dustin wanted too, but they don’t – they’re perfectly happy being the nerds that they are. That’s especially true since they’ve found people who love Dungeons & Dragons as much as they do within the school’s Hellfire Club, led by three-time senior Eddie Munson.
What an addition to the Stranger Things universe! Eddie loves playing heavy metal, has the hair to prove it, and he loves D&D. He’s the local drug dealer and into denim vests, but he is surprisingly sweet? He also has no time for excuses when Mike and Dustin inform him that Lucas can’t be part of the final night of Eddie’s big Vecna Campaign for the Hellfire Club because it’s the same night as the big championship basketball game. The boys try to convince Lucas to ask his coach to reschedule the game – honestly, bless these nerds – but basketball is now Lucas’s priority. He seems to really buy into team captain Jason’s big speech at the pep rally about winning this game for all the Hawkins people lost in that fire – he name-checks Billy and even Hopper. Jason has that all-American jock vibe, and for some reason I’d really like to punch his face, so if you were rolling your eyes along with Mike and Dustin, you’re not alone! Anyway, Lucas might be a benchwarmer, but he so badly wants to be a part of this team and it is causing a major rift among the friends.
Faring worse is Max. The only person Max is really talking to these days is the school guidance counselor, and that’s because she has to. She isn’t sleeping, has headaches, and sees Billy’s death over and over in her nightmares. She dumped Lucas, her stepdad left after Billy died, and she and her mother, who is now drinking a lot, moved into a trailer park. She would rather spend her days listening to her Kate Bush tape than anything else, and really, who could blame her? Surprisingly, Max does run into one other student having a tougher time than she is: Chrissy Cunningham.
Chrissy, who Eddie at one point refers to as “the queen of Hawkins High,” seemsingly has a perfect life: She’s a pretty cheerleader dating Jason, the captain of the basketball team. Everyone loves her. But there’s something up with Chrissy. Max spots her leaving the guidance counselor’s office distraught and then finds her later throwing up and crying in a bathroom stall. Max doesn’t push it when Chrissy tells her to get out, but we stay with Chrissy, and things get weird. Chrissy starts to hear her mother knocking on the bathroom stall, but suddenly her voice changes, and her “mother” screams at her that she’s a fat pig. The voice grows more alarming as it tries to open the stall door. Chrissy screams until suddenly, she is alone again in the bathroom.
But Chrissy’s hallucinations don’t end there. Later, she heads out into the woods behind the school alone (never a good idea!) To meet Eddie to buy some weed. Before he gets there, she hears the ticking of a clock and then actually sees a grandfather clock lodged in a tree. You might think, Hmmm, that’s cool and not scary, it’s just a clock. But that clock bursts open with spiders, so, sorry, that clock is decidedly not cool. Grow up! This hallucination stops when Eddie shows up, but you can see that Chrissy is completely losing her shit. Eddie, dear Eddie, is so nice to her, you can almost imagine that in another town, in another show, these two could have some unlikely romance. Chrissy decides she needs something stronger than weed – but it’ll have to wait until after the game.
And by game, I mean both the big basketball game, which Hawkins wins thanks to a buzzer-beater from none other than Lucas Sinclair, and the big D&D one, in which the Hellfire Club successfully defeats Vecna thanks to Mike and Dustin’s ringer, none other than Erica Sinclair. It’s victories all around, but it’s not so sweet for Lucas, who realizes that not only did his best friends not come support him, but they replaced him with his little sister. The boys are growing further and further apart.
But these very human, very coming-of-age problems will have to wait because we have some nonhuman problems to deal with. After the game, Max is at home and she sees her trailer-park neighbor Eddie Munson pull up in his van with Chrissy Cunningham. A strange thing, sure, but it’s about to get much stranger. Chrissy’s there to finish that drug exchange. Eddie has some ketamine for her, but has to rummage around to find it. When he comes back into the living room, he finds Chrissy in a trancelike state. She looks just like Will did in season two, when they found him on the field and the Shadow Monster possessed him, so we already know that whatever is happening to Chrissy isn’t good, per se.
She’s trapped in some bizarre world that looks like her house, but her mom has a demon face, and her dad’s eyes and lips are sewn shut. That monster from the bathroom is there – his creepy long fingers and the fact that he’s stalking Chrissy in some nightmare scenario (all that food on the table covered in mold and bugs is him taunting her with her eating disorder) gives some real Nightmare on Elm Street vibes – this is our new big bad, our Vecna. He follows her around until she’s trapped. He tells her that he wants to end her suffering, and he puts those creepy long fingers over her head.
In the outside world, Eddie is freaking out. He’s trying to wake Chrissy up, but nothing can break the trance. Suddenly, she’s levitating off the ground and she flies up against the ceiling. All of her bones begin to break at truly ungodly angles. And then, finally, her eyes seem to explode into the back of her head. It is absolutely horrifying, but that’s Hawkins, Indiana, for ya.
• We’ve met a lot of monsters on this show, but are any as awful and terrifying as Angela, Eleven’s high-school bully ?? I’d like to send her to the Upside Down – and know that I do not say that lightly !!
• Eleven is having all sorts of trouble at school, even if she paints a rosier picture in her letters to Mike, but while her classmates don’t appreciate her “Hero” presentation about Hop – complete with a diorama of their cabin and a little Hopper figurines – I do! She calls her dad her hero! I’m already tearing up thinking about their eventual reunion!
• Aw, Argyle! Jonathan’s new BFF is just a sweet pothead with long, silky hair who drives a pizza out around and calls Jonathan things like “Mopey Dick” when he’s now sack over Nancy, now editor of the school paper, not coming to visit during spring break . He is too precious for this world! Don’t drag him into your Stranger Things shenanigans, Jonathan!
• What a perfect callback to have Tammy Thompson sing the national anthem at the basketball game. Tammy, of course, is the girl Robin talked about when she came out to Steve in season three, the girl Steve thinks sounds like a Muppet. Very glad to see these two are still best buds and that Steve, who has found his mojo and is dating seemingly all available women in Hawkins, is trying to help Robin with her new crush on bandmate Vickie.
• One episode in and Dustin already gets a Han Solo moment with his Empire Strikes Back “Never tell me the odds!” line. We love this.
• “You were wearing a Weird Al T-shirt, which I thought was brave.”
• And what of Joyce? She may have just started her new encyclopedia-sales job, but something tells me she’ll be pretty busy with other matters soon. She receives a mysterious package from Russia with a doll inside of it – inside the doll is what looks to be some sort of ransom note. The first line? “Hop is alive.” Hop is alive, baby! Now, let’s go get our guy.