It's been almost two years since we last checked in with the rag-tag heroes of Netflix's global hit Stranger Things, and things are poised to look very different once season 4 rolls around next year… and not just because stars Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp and Gaten Matarazzo are inching toward adulthood.
Season 4 of the Duffer Brothers' smash, currently in production, is looking to be a globe-trotting affair, transitioning from the malls of Hawkins, Indiana to the cold dark heart of Cold War era Russia in addition to the eerie world of the Upside Down. And with the changes come new faces and new inspirations for the gleefully referential Amblin pastiche.
Here's what we know as excitement heats up for Stranger Things: Season 4.
Who is joining the cast?
During its June Geeked Week presentation — something of a virtual Comic-Con for the streamer's upcoming programming — Netflix announced four new cast members, who will enter the mysterious world of psychic children and snarling monsters.
Anne with an E star Amybeth McNulty has signed on as fast-talking band-nerd Vickie; Myles Truitt of Kin is on board as a Hawkins basketball star caught up in the horrors bubbling underneath the town; Regina Ting Chen will play a guidance counselor; and Grace Van Dien — daughter of actor Casper — will show up as a popular cheerleader harboring a dark secret.
The group joins previously announced Robert Englund, who will play an elderly murderer imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital. The presence of the iconic Freddy Krueger icon continues a Stranger Things tradition of dipping into its inspirations to fill out its cast: Season 2 notably included Sean Astin, who starred as the main character in The Goonies, which itself heavily influenced Stranger Things.
Other new cast members include Jamie Campbell Bower, Joseph Quinn, Eduardo Franco, Tom Wlaschiha, Sherman Augustus, Mason Dye and Nikola Djuricko.
Who is returning for season 4?
All the series surviving are on board: Core quintet Brown, Wolfhard, Schnapp, McLaughlin and Matarazzo will continue their adventures along with Winona Ryder, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery. Last season's new additions Maya Hawke and Sadie Sink — who played snarky ice-cream scooper Robin and new kid Max — are also back on board.
There are also some faces that were presumed dead back in the mix: David Harbour's gruff cop Hopper has apparently survived vaporization and is currently stuck in a snowy Russian work camp. And Mathew Modine's Dr. Brenner — whose mad scientist hellbent on experimenting on kids was last seen being mauled by a Demogorgon — is also set to return… whether in flashback or in the present is anyone's guess.
What will season 4 be about?
Netflix tends to keep everything under lock and key. When last we saw the heroes, they had successfully fended off an onslaught of mind-controlling inter-dimensional demons and a Russian invasion of their quaint suburban mall. With Hopper presumed dead, the Byers family — Ryder's Joyce along with Schnapp's Will and Heaton's Jonathan — moved to another town, separating the core group.
In a post-credit stinger taking place in Russia, it was revealed that the Communists had taken an "American" with them when they fled Hawkins following the destruction of their secret research facility. That's been confirmed to mean Hopper, though some have speculated it's in reference to Brenner, who was never in the aftermath of season 1's Demogorgon attack.
Cast and character information points to more trouble in Hawkins along with wherever the Byres family ended up, and not just because of the influence of teenage metalheads and the Satanic Panic of the era: Will Byres, who was abducted into the Upside Down in season 1, is shown to have a psychic connection to the darker dimension that isn't bound by Hawkins' municipal boundaries.
Brown's Eleven, meanwhile, will very likely continue her quest to dissect her past. A flashback-focused teaser alluded to more time being spent with the younger Eleven in the Hawkins National Laboratory, where she endured the cruel experiments that made her a powerful psychic. That could also mean seeking out others like her, though fans are rightly concerned that such a quest could result in a return to the characters introduced in the malained season 2 bottle episode The Lost Sister, in which Eleven met a bunch of punk-rock psychics in Chicago.
Eagle-eyed fans spotted an X-Men reference in the show's materials, with one character leading a group of teen nerds called "The Hellfire Club," in reference to a villainous cabal from comic lore. Some have taken that as a sign that Eleven could become a more destructive force akin to X-Men's tragic Jean Grey (AKA Dark Phoenix), though it could just be one of the various easter eggs and nods the show is known for.
Hopper, meanwhile, the shackled Harbour will continue his hero's journey from drunken lout to gruff dad to international hero. Harbour told Games Radar, "We were always interested in that idea of the Gandalf resurrection – Gandalf the Grey who fights the Balrog and then becomes Gandalf the White."
That could mean some serious escape movie vibes in Russia, with casting reports pointing to characters serving as both friend and foil to Hopper in the Gulag.
What will the tone of Season 4 be like?
A Spielbergian heartbeat is embedded in Stranger Things' very DNA, along with a love of Dungeons & Dragons. But each season leans hard into a specific set of influences to set its tone. Season 1 heavily referenced the works of Stephen King and the films (and music) of John Carpenter. Season 2 took cues from Ghostbusters and Aliens, while season 3 expanded its vision with riffs on everything from Terminator to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Red Dawn and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Those trends should continue with season 4, which breakout star Keery (bully turned world's-best-babysitter Steve) told Games Radar would be the gnarliest yet, saying, "I think that this year – and I know I say this every single year – but this is definitely going to be a lot scarier than prior years, because last year was pretty dark."
With A Nightmare on Elm Street's enduring boogeyman lurking on the fringes of the seasons, it's likely Keery isn't exaggerating.
When will season 4 debut?
The production was stalled repeatedly by COVID, but is presumed to debut in early 2022.