Stranger Things is back back back on Friday with the bumper-sized Season 4. But, do you know your Dustin from your Demogorgon? Your Starcourt Mall from your Steve Harrington? Need a refresher about all the twists, turns and character developments in the show so far? Completely understandable, given it has been – checks notes – three years since Season 3 wrapped things up in explosive, narrative-shifting style.
Don’t panic, and don’t go wandering into the Upside Down! We’re here to help, and have compiled a comprehensive guide to the first three seasons of the show – one that will blow the spooky spider webs off of your memory and fill in everything you need to know ahead of the new episodes dropping this week.
Journey with us back in time to a small town in Indiana, where dark, dimension-hopping secrets abound, and a bunch of kids have a very difficult time surviving their childhood…
Welcome to Hawkins, Indiana! It’s 1983; a time of classic movies, Steven King novels and fantasy role-playing games. But, terror and danger also lurk, as young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is snatched from the street by a strange creature one night on the way home from playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends.
Will’s best buddies, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) start searching for him, instead coming across a mysterious, shaven-headed girl known only as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Pleading for help from town police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) with finding her son, Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) also begins to notice odd electrical disturbances in her home, rigging up a set of ouija-board-inspired Christmas lights in an attempt to contact her missing son. It works! He’s alive! But where is he?
It turns out that Hawkins is ground zero for all sorts of weirdness. A local lab has been experimenting on psionically-powered children like Eleven, and she accidentally opened a gate to a monstrous parallel dimension, which Mike and the gang soon nickname the ‘Upside Down’. It’s a dark mirror of the town, featuring buildings and other landmarks all festooned with weird tentacles and falling ash. Will has been taken there, and is at the mercy of a creature called the Demogorgon, a humanoid beast with a head full of teeth that the boys name after the big bad in their D&D games.
Also drawn into the effort to find Will are his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), who has excellent hair. When this trio aren’t embroiled in their own teen drama, they’re also being haunted by the Demogorgon, which kills Nancy’s best friend Barb (Shannon Purser). #JusticeforBarb!
Joyce and Hopper team up to mount their own rescue attempt, confronting Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), who was running the experiments and finding a way to penetrate the Upside Down, before eventually locating Will and bringing him home. Mike, Dustin and Lucas help Eleven boost her abilities in a makeshift sensory deprivation tank at Hawkins school – but when the dodgy lab’s agents burst into the school, and Eleven kills several of them, the Demogorgon is attracted by the bloodshed. The kids attempt to hide from the monster, but Eleven challenges it – and ends up sacrificing herself in the process (or does she?).
One month later, the boys are back playing D&D in Mike’s basement. They’re happy to be reunited, but still sad to have lost Eleven. All is well in Hawkins. Well, for a few minutes, at least – the season ends with Will coughing up a weird black slug.
It’s now autumn, 1984. After a brief side-trip to meet some other characters who have similar powers to Eleven escaping cops in Pittsburgh (one of them has an “008” tattooed on her wrist), we’re back in Hawkins. Initially, the most worrying aspect for our heroes is that someone has beaten Dustin’s score on Dig Dug at the local arcade. We soon learn, though, that Will is still having scary visions of the Upside Down. That boy ain’t right. Joyce and Hopper take Will to the lab (now run by Paul Reiser‘s Dr. Owens) to see if they can help him.
The boys meet new student Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), who has arrived in town with step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), an alpha ready to compete with cool kid Steve for top-tier status in the school. Joyce has new love in her life, dating former schoolmate Bob Newby (Sean Astin, aka Samwise Gangee. Legend.). Nancy and Steve have been meeting up with Barb’s family (#JusticeforBarb), who want to hire a private detective called Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) to find out what happened to her. Eleven, you’ll be glad to hear, is alive! Her encounter with the Demogorgon at the end of Season 1 merely transported her to the Upside Down, which she has since escaped, and is now hiding out with Hopper.
Halloween hits Hawkins, and our heroes dress up as Ghostbusters. Tension arises when Lucas and Dustin try to bring Max into their group, and we also meet Erica (Priah Ferguson) – Lucas’ sister, and front-runner for Funniest Person On The Show™. Will’s visions come in handy when Hopper, who has been investigating rotting pumpkin patches (oh, the life of a small town police officer) discovers a tunnel leading to the Upside Down and quickly becomes trapped. The tunnels turn out to have been invaded by vines and tentacles from the Upside Down, and are currently home to the giant creature Will is seeing – the Mind Flayer, who, as its name suggests, is not friendly.
Meanwhile, Eleven is angry that Hopper is hiding details he discovered about her mother from her, and so sets out to contact her psychically, digging into her memories and tracking down the girl we met in Pittsburgh at the start of the season. Cue telekinetic exploits and Eleven developing a newfound love of eyeliner in a distinct, disappointing outlier of an episode that has no bearing whatsoever on the main plot. Fortunately, Eleven soon returns to Hawkins to save her friends, who she senses are in danger.
With Will still suffering from some kind of Upside Down virus, our heroes converge on Hawkins Lab, and we learn that the main gate to the Upside Down is located there. Oh, and monstrous Demodogs (one of which Dustin had been raising as a pet called Dart) arrive to attack, killing poor Bob. What would Mr. Frodo think?
A final stand-off takes place in several places – the Mind Flayer’s tunnels, which Steve and the kids end up setting fire to; Hopper’s cabin, where Nancy, Joyce and co turn up the heat in an exorcism-style attempt to cure Will; and the lab, where Eleven closes the dimensional gate.
One month later (yep, they used that again), the lab is being shut down for good. The Hollands hold a funeral for Barb (#JusticeforBarb) and the kids are attending the school dance. Lucas and Max share a kiss, then Mike and Eleven do the same. All is well in Hawkins. Except… Oh, come on! The giant shadow monster is alive, and hanging around the Upside Down version of the school.
It’s summer in Hawkins! And 1985, now, which goes some way to explaining why all the kids look years older. Mike and Eleven are all smoochy now, much to Hopper’s parental disgust – but what everyone’s really obsessed with is the brand new Starcourt Mall, which has opened near the town. Steve, who has failed to get into college, is wearing a fetching sailor outfit and working at ice cream shop Scoops Ahoy, along with snark-tastic, scene-stealing new character Robin (Maya Hawke).
Dustin is back from summer camp, where he claims to have snagged a girlfriend, and debuts a new invention – Cerebro, which he says will boost his radio transmissions enough to contact the lady in question, Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo). He doesn’t have much luck with that, but does pick up odd Russian transmissions. Those lead him, Robin, Steve and Erica to a new lab under the Starcourt Mall, where the Soviets are trying to open a new gate to the Upside Down with a big fancy machine that keeps making Joyce’s magnets fall off her fridge.
Meanwhile, Billy – now something of a celebrity to all the local ladies thanks to his summer job as a shirtless lifeguard – is attacked by vines and ends up possessed by the Mind Flayer, which is also causing rats to explode all over town. Nancy and Jonathan, now a fully-fledged couple, are drawn into the rat problem when they investigate the issue, looking to score an exclusive for the local paper where they now work. They clash over their class differences, but discover various other people exhibiting the same symptoms as Billy. They’re more Mind Flayer victims, who drink chemicals before disintegrating into fleshy black masses and becoming part of the Flayer itself. Not an ideal way to spend the summer, is it?
The kids figure out Billy is possessed, trapping him in a sauna to confirm their suspicions (the Mind Flayer likes it cold) before he and Eleven have a vicious showdown. Now they know what’s happening, the gang split up – Joyce, Hopper and Murray head to the lab to stop the Russians and (once again) close the gate, whilst the youngsters take on the Flayer in an epic battle at the Starcourt Mall. Eleven is bitten on the leg by the Mind Flayer, and must use her powers to remove the part of the creature still inside her, resulting in her abilities abandoning her for the rest of the fight. As the kids give the Flayer all they’ve got, using fireworks to create immense visual spectacle, Billy, in his possessed state, takes Eleven to the Flayer for it to feast on her – but, after Eleven uses memories of his mother to get through to him, he protects her and sacrifices himself, a moment of intense trauma for Max.
Joyce and Hopper use Murray’s Russian language skills to sneak their way into the lab, and Dustin’s girlfriend Suzie saves the day by helping them break into a safe. Unsure if they’ll make it out alive, Joyce and Hopper finally cut through the romantic tension that’s been burgeoning between them throughout the series and wistfully set a date for that Friday, Enzo’s at 7pm. As Hopper fights off the Russian guards, Joyce realises she must destroy their dimension-splitting machine, evaporating everyone in the room in the process – including Hopper (or so she believes).
The season closes with Mike and Eleven professing their love, and a series of goodbyes as she, Will, Jonathan and Joyce move to California. Cut to a Russian gulag, and mention of an American prisoner. Maybe Hopper isn’t dead, after all?
Find out what’s next for Eleven, Mike and the gang when Stranger Things Season 4, Volume 1 drops on Friday 27 May. Until then, keep an eye out for any suspicious noises, nosebleeds, or, you know, giant soul-sucking creatures wandering around. After all, in Hawkins, one of the above is always just around the corner…