‘Stranger Things’ Season 4 Premiere: Eleven Is Stuck in a California Nightmare (RECAP)

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things 4
Spoiler Alert
Netflix

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Stranger Things Season 4 “Chapter One: The Hellfire Club.”]

A lot has happened in the three years since Stranger Things was last on our screens. It’s almost as if 2019 was another lifetime ago, back before face masks were a hot button issue and social distancing was just something introverts did at parties. In hindsight, a town being ravaged by a monstrous Demogorgon is almost passé compared to the pandemic we’ve been in since early 2020. It also means that the events of the third season are a long distant memory and might require a catch-up for viewers hoping to jump back in. So let’s briefly rewind.

The Season 3 finale left us with some significant changes for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and the gang. And change is definitely welcome. For as fun as last season was with its neon-lit mall and monsters capers, Stranger Things has a tendency to get comfortable in a predictable formula. So the shake-up at the end of the third season — which saw Hopper (David Harbour) seemingly sacrifice his life and Eleven lose her powers before moving out of Hawkins with the Byers family — is a promising indicator for Season 4. The question was whether the show would commit to these changes or quickly revert to the status quo.

The season opener sticks to those changes, for now at least. It’s been over 100 days since the melee at the mall that saw the deaths of Billy and Hopper. The kids are now attending high school and dealing with the trials and tribulations that come with it. It’s a daily battle of failing grades, shifting social group dynamics, obnoxious bullies, and awkward teenage romance. And with spring break on the horizon and Satanic Panic in the air, the Party is more separated than ever, even for those still living in the same town.

Winona Ryder as Joyce in Stranger Things 4

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Eleven is physically separated from her friends, having moved across the country with the Byers. She opens the episode penning a letter to her long-distance boyfriend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), painting a rosy picture of life in The Golden State. On paper, Eleven presents an image of a teenage girl finally beginning to fit in with society, making new friends, and excelling at school. “I think I’ve finally adapted,” she writes. We soon realize this is far from the case. Eleven’s school life is hell: She’s a social outcast, bullied and belittled by her classmates, even when giving a heartfelt presentation about her adopted dad Hopper. In her letters to Mike, Eleven breaks her own cardinal rule — friends don’t lie.

Her home life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. She mentions Joyce (Winona Ryder) having a new job that allows her to work from home, supposedly giving her “freedom.” But Joyce doesn’t seem particularly fulfilled trying to sell encyclopedias over the phone to disinterested customers. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) has picked up a weed habit, perhaps to cope with his distance from Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and his impending college acceptance letter. And while Will (Noah Schnapp) is still there to offer Eleven comfort, he appears distracted by his own high school dilemmas (and potential romance?).

On top of all this, Eleven is still without her telekinetic powers. This is highlighted in a scene of public humiliation when she tries to enact revenge on her bully, Angela (Elodie Grace Orkin). Eleven reaches out her arm and yells… but nothing happens. It only serves to make her look more like a weirdo as the other students gather around and laugh at her. For Eleven, high school is even more challenging than fending off the creatures of the Upside Down.

Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things 4

Netflix

Over in Hawkins, Mike and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) are also adjusting to high school life. Fortunately, things aren’t quite as bad as they are for Eleven. They’ve at least found a group of like-minded Dungeons & Dragons-loving friends, nicknamed the Hellfire Club and led by the unfiltered and charismatic Eddie (Joseph Quinn). Sure, the rest of the school perceives them as outcast freaks, but Mike and Dustin are well accustomed to that by now.

The same can’t be said for Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who is hoping to finally shed the “loser” image. He’s a benchwarmer on the Hawkins High basketball team, and with a big championship game coming up, there’s a real chance for him to improve the Party’s social capital. Mike and Dustin don’t have any interest in appeasing the popular kids. They’d rather play D&D than attend Lucas’ championship game, which is exactly what they do, missing their friend’s game-winning point in the process. And it’s here we see friendships begin to dissipate.

Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin’s (Maya Hawke) friendship is still going strong at least, as they regale each other with their love life struggles. Steve is still searching for “the one” and coming up short, while Robin has a crush on her bandmate Vicky (Amybeth McNulty) but is afraid to put herself out there due to fear of rejection. Steve tries to offer some encouraging words of wisdom: “I like boobies, you like boobies, Vicky likes boobies.”

If there’s anyone in a similar situation to Eleven, it’s Max (Sadie Sink), who has become isolated since the loss of her step-brother Billy. At one point, Lucas describes her as a “ghost,” wandering the school halls alone as if she isn’t even there. Her mind is preoccupied, and her grades are slipping. She’s got an alcoholic mother to care for and a home to maintain, all while trying to keep up with her school work. So it’s sad but no surprise to see her popping Tylenol in the bathroom.

Joseph Quinn as Eddie in Stranger Things 4

Netflix

This might paint a bleak image, but there are still moments of hope and levity. Joyce receives a parcel from Russia containing a babushka doll, inside of which is a note implying Hopper is still alive (because, of course he is). There’s some fun back and forth on the phone with Murray (Brett Gelman) as he talks Joyce through the best way to crack open a ceramic doll that may or may not contain an explosive. And there are always laughs to be had when Erica (Priah Ferguson) is on-screen, here brought in for a D&D game as Lucas’ sub. “Are we gonna play, or are we gonna keep chit-chatting like this is your mommy’s book club?” she quips.

But it’s clear from the off that this season is going to be much darker than the others. The episode is bookended by two particularly gruesome scenes. It opens with a flashback to Nevada 1979, where a young Eleven (inadvertently?) massacres the staff and children at Dr. Brenner’s (Matthew Modine) laboratory. When a show opens with shots of blood-smeared walls and dead children, you know you’re in for a macabre season. This brutality is matched in the episode’s closing scene when Hawkins High cheerleader Chrissy (Grace Van Dien) visits Eddie to score some ketamine.

Throughout the episode, Chrissy appears to be suffering from similar visions that used to plague Will. Her mind is transported to the Upside Down, where monsters lurk around every corner of a dark and dystopian Hawkins. She hopes drugs will help stop these visions from happening, and if anyone can get her drugs, it’s Eddie. The meeting between the cheerleader and outcast allows us to see another side of Eddie, showing there is a sweet and caring person behind the anti-social anarchist he portrays at school. And that likability is what will make what’s to come so devastatingly painful.

Chrissy becomes possessed by her Upside Down nightmare while in Eddie’s company. Nothing Eddie does can snap her out of the trance. Her eyes glaze over, and her body begins to levitate. It’s a bone-snapping, jaw-cracking, eye-gouging bit of body horror that leaves Chrissy dead in Eddie’s trailer. It’s clear what is coming next.

The pretty blond cheerleader found dead in the trailer of the heavy metal-listening, D&D-playing outcast? It’s a perfect recipe for the type of fear-mongering that Eddie read about earlier in the episode. Satanic Panic gripped the U.S. throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and there are real-world cases of people linking games like D&D to satanic rituals and murder. If this is to become a recurring theme of Stranger Things Season 4, I’m sure I’ll go into more detail on some of those cases in future episodes.

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The stars of the Netflix series look undeniably older and wiser.

For a reintroduction after a long sabbatical, this episode effectively set up the pieces for what’s to come. Stranger Things has A LOT of characters at this point — and is still introducing more — so it can sometimes get a little unwieldy. It often means the show splits its characters into separate groups before merging everyone for an epic showdown at the end of the season. Nevertheless, it’s something the show does well, so I don’t expect them to stray too far from the formula — even if I could do without mopey Jonathan pining after Nancy.

But a darker season set against the backdrop of high school growing pains? I can get on board with that, even if this season’s feature-length episode run-times are already giving me anxiety.

Stranger Things, Season 4, Streaming Now, Netflix