It’s been almost three years since the last season of Stranger Things ended with some shattering consequences, leaving the characters to pick up the fallen pieces. Hopper (David Harbour) is presumed dead by most of the characters — though various teasers and post-credits scenes have revealed that he is alive, albeit in a Russian prison. Max’s (Sadie Sink) older brother Billy is dead, for realsies. Joyce (Winona Ryder) decided to move her family, along with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), out of Hawkins, meaning that the core friend group will be split up for the first time. With everyone scattered and grappling with these big changes, the show has much more to work with when the next season, which after some delays, finally premieres on Netflix in May — well, part one at least.
Polygon virtually visited the Stranger Things set last June, at the very start of filming, and got a chance to sit down with the cast and crew to talk about some of these big developments. And though season 4 will be broken into two parts this summer (the second comes in July) there certainly seems to be enough promise to fill a season that promises to be the darkest and funniest yet.
For one, the setting is not just limited to Hawkins, Indiana. The Byers and Eleven are now in Southern California — a stark and sunny departure from moody Hawkins, allowing the production and set team to expand their references to make sure the geographic distance is really felt. The town of Lenora is more hip to 1986 than Hawkins, which lags behind in time. It’s more beachy tones and a richer color palette, along with a smattering of surfer culture. And with the Byers now in Lenora, that means that Eleven and Mike (Finn Wolfhard), as well as Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are now attempting long-distance relationships.
Of course, across the sea, Hopper is being held in a mysterious Soviet prison — somewhere Joyce and conspiracy theorist Murray (Brett Gelman) will eventually trek to for a rescue mission.
“A lot of it feels very like Indiana Jones to me,” Gelman says during the virtual set visit, describing his character’s upcoming arc. “The way that it’s constantly balancing the tension of the adventure with humor.” He particularly loved getting to work extensively with Winona Ryder this season. “I really love my relationship to Joyce this season. We kind of become a little bit of a comedy duo.”
The gang back in Hawkins goes hasn’t strayed too far from the show’s horror roots, as they investigate the mysteries of a haunted house. Known as the Creel house, the dilapidated abode is somehow related to the Upside Down, and Nancy, in particular, is drawn in to explore that connection. She won’t be alone, of course. In addition to the rest of the Hawkins cast, legendary horror actor Robert Englund — who brought slasher icon Freddy Kreuger to life in the Nightmare On Elm Street series — will portray the enigmatic Victor Creel, who lived in the house years ago and was imprisoned for a gruesome murder in the 1950s.
With that anchoring the season’s arc, season 4 is set to be the scariest one yet, fully indulging horror tropes and not shying away from Englund’s nightmare roots. But as Wolfhard told Polygon, it is also the funniest season. Each subsequent season of Stranger Things has allowed the show to up the emotional ante across the board.
“I think inherently it becomes darker every season,” says Wolfhard. “It gets funnier, gets scarier, gets more dramatic. And I think that just comes with all of us growing up and getting older. We’re not all going to be in like mop top wigs, and we’re like, 40 years old, like screaming about like, demogorgons and stuff.
“I think this is like a very good example of the Duffers really treating our characters like their ages. And I like to compare it to Harry Potter — like Harry Potter as those movies went on, the darker they went. And that’s kind of where we’re at now. It’s a perfect progression in my opinion.”
“I’m reading the script, and I see Finn and some of the other characters having such a fun time,” says Brown. “And you get to see Eleven in the darkest state she’s ever been. This has definitely been the hardest season I’ve ever filmed. And there have been some of the scariest, scariest things that I’ve ever seen as a human.”
To balance out the scares and the heavy focus on Eleven’s dark past, Stranger Things brings in two new characters to bring the comedy. Played by Joseph Quinn and Eduardo Franco they embody different quintessential ’80s subcultures. Quinn plays Eddie, a metalhead and leader of the Hellfire Club — aka Hawkins High School’s official Dungeons and Dragons Club — who befriends Mike and Dustin, and finds himself embroiled in the Creel house mystery with the rest of the Hawkins gang. If you were wondering if that D&D reference is actually paying off, pay attention to Quinn’s character. Niko Zahlten, the prop master, revealed Eddie has a whole character sheet for Vecna, while prosthetics designer Barrie Gower talked at length about creating the character’s look, based on the fact that he’s been trapped in the Upside Down.
On the California end of things, Franco joins the cast as Argyle, a pizza-delivering stoner with a beloved Winnebago, who ends up becoming friends with Jonathan. Jumping into the show’s already established dynamics and backstory was intimidating for Franco, but he says it was really satisfying to bring some classic stoner levity to the darkness.
“But once you get on, everybody’s so sweet, so cool,” he says. “At least for me, to be able to play like a funny dude, especially knowing the history of the show, like what they go through and stuff. It’s all very crazy and so hectic. But then I’m over here being stupid. It feels like a breath of fresh air, I guess. I hope that’s what it’s perceived as. I hope that that’s how people look at it is like, Oh, that’s cool.”
Stranger Things has always balanced the terror of supernatural adventures with more interpersonal, emotional moments between the cast. This season will be no exception. The more human scenes where the characters interact without demogorgons and monsters chasing them ground the show and make the stakes even higher. And they’re also some of the most challenging and satisfying bits for the actors to dig into.
“Last season, I think back to when we were in the grocery store,” says Wolfhard. “I’m like, trying to explain what love is. To me, that’s the most fun thing to do for the show.”
“We’ve grown up together,” adds Brown. “We’ve done this for nearly seven years. And it almost is like a relationship that we always come back to after however long we’re filming. And we’re like, OK, this is where the characters are now. We can grow and do the scenes together. And we usually improv a lot too, with those types of stuff. So yeah, it’s been really nice doing it with the same person for that long.”
“It’s much more comfortable,” laughs Wolfhard. “It would suck if it was like a soap and we were constantly changing girlfriends and boyfriends.”
The first part of Stranger Things season 4 will hit Netflix on May 27.