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The surprising ‘Stranger Things’ season you need to rewatch before Season 4


Your favorite monster-hunting Midwestern youngsters are back in Stranger Things Season 4. Now far older than they were when The Upside Down first began to plague Hawkins, the teens are still just as confused as ever about friendship and flattering hairstyles while juggling the supernatural forces and Cold War undercurrents that shroud their adolescence.

The Duffer Brothers were particularly perceptive when producing Season 4. You can tell that they took critique from seasoned reviewers and Netflix audiences to heart, choosing to build on what made the show a binge-worthy phenom. Stranger Things gave the Demogorgon-kiss-of-life to the tried-and-true formula of many ‘80s cult classics: pairing tweens and teens with malevolent entities.

Season 4 circles back to Season 1, tying up several loose ends from El’s (Millie Bobby Brown) superhero origins that never seemed to resolve in Seasons 2 or 3 and probing deeper into storylines established in Season 1. Stylistically, Season 4 also looks more like Season 1 in aesthetics, pacing, and transitions but on a far broader scale, given its impressive $30-million-per-episode budget (nearly 3x more than the final episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones) and in minutes-per-episode (Season 4 will almost be twice as long as Season 1).

Simply put, Season 4 is an amplified Season 1, which is good news for fans who felt the show had lost its spark in Seasons 2 and 3. As such, we argue that Season 4 makes these middle installments seem relatively unimportant to the series’ final narrative stretch. We break down all of the major moments from Season 1 — and a few from the second and third seasons — that are worth revisiting to better understand everything that goes down in Volume 1. Minor spoilers ahead for Stranger Things 4.

Stranger Things Season 1, revisited

Netflix

The Season 4 Volume 1 ending — a whopping 98-minute episode! — goes full circle to the events that occurred in Season 1. This narrative loop renders much of what happens to our daring, Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed kiddos of Stranger Things in Seasons 2 and 3 as “filler” — B-plots compared to the greater scheme that the show ambitiously began to tell in Season 1.

When doing your Season 1 rewatch, you should pay closer attention to what “Papa” (Dr. Martin Brenner, portrayed by Matthew Modine) has El doing at Hawkins National Laboratory — and it is far more than just teaching the heroine to hone her psionic skillset to make contact with the creepy-crawlers of The Upside Down.

In fact, the sensation deprivation tank trials that make a comeback in Season 4 were first introduced in Season 1, wherein El is encouraged to spy on Russian agents before she encounters the Demogorgon in Episodes 5 and 6.

Viewers should also listen intently to the few remarks made by Lucas about Pennhurst Mental Hospital in Season 1 Episode 5, as it takes on a significant role in Season 4. In Episodes 3 and 6, it’s also worth noting tidbits on Project MKUltra (what essentially led to the creation of El), a CIA operation that took place in real life and in the lore of Stranger Things.

Netflix

Last but certainly not least, The Duffer Brothers listened to the cries of fans demanding justice for Barb, Shannon Purser’s ill-fated Season 1 character. BFF to Nancy, Barb dies a gruesome, violent death at the bottom of a parallel-dimension pool in Episodes 2 and 3 before we get to know her as anything more than a Velma Dinkley cliché.

By the end of Volume 1, reparations aren’t necessarily made for Barb, but there is at least more closure to her disappearance from Hawkins. This reminder of how she ends up slipping to The Upside Down and how her death haunts Nancy throughout the first two seasons makes Season 1 required watching.

Recalling Stranger Things 2 & 3

Netflix

Season 4 alludes to much of what needs to be remembered from Seasons 2 and 3 via dialogue or flashbacks. While the season picks up six months after the events of Season 3, this installment feels like a new chapter for the show, with a few exceptions.

First, Season 4 quickly establishes everyone’s relationship statuses between Seasons 1 and 3, with the following couples going long-distance:

  • Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and El
  • Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer)
  • Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo)

Even Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and Jim Hopper (David Harbour) are separated by distance, with Joyce’s feelings becoming far more pronounced in Season 4. The lead-up to these amorous links doesn’t carry much significance in Season 4, but the challenges to their current status — some of which are entrenched way back in Season 1 — do.

The other important bits to recall from Season 3 are the inclusion of Maya Hawke’s Robin Buckley, Jim Hopper’s mysterious incarceration in Kamchatka, Russia, and El and the Byers’ move to Lenora Hills, California. Joyce goes West with her two kids (Jonathan and Will, played by Noah Schnapp) and her adopted daughter in the hopes of escaping all their Stephen King-inspired drama and for a chance to start anew in a fictitious town with more economic opportunities.

Netflix

But if there’s one thing from Season 3 that affects the events of Season 4 the most, it’s Max Mayfield’s (Sadie Sink) storyline. Max starts this latest season tormented by her step-brother, Billy’s (Dacre Montgomery) sacrifice at Starcourt Mall. At the end of Season 3, Billy puts himself between her and The Mind Flayer, the supreme ruler of Hawkins’ sinister Upside Down.

Max’s trauma becomes a primary focus in Stranger Things 4: Volume 1, but the details that led to said trauma are not as paramount as the aftermath. Max’s self-imposed isolation from her loyal pals and ex-boyfriend, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and her mother’s drinking make her vulnerable to yet another threat from the Upside Down. As a result, she gets a tremendous emotional arc in Volume 1’s first four episodes that do more to define her character than the previous two seasons had.

It’s a trend that we eventually see play out in the rest of Volume 1’s seven episodes, as the other characters reckon with their past traumas, too. Seeing how the Duffers retread Season 1 and start to weave in older narrative beats, Season 4 is beginning to provide the long-awaited payoffs viewers have been hoping for since El took that first delicious bite of an Eggo.

Stranger Things 4 Volume 1 is available to stream on Netflix. Volume 2 premieres on July 1, 2022.

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