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Innocence is lost in Season 4 of ‘Stranger Things.’ Here’s what changed.

The cast of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” (Netflix)
7 min

Note: This article contains spoilers for Season 4 of “Stranger Things.”

The fourth season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” is brooding and dark, mirroring the moodiness often associated with humans teetering on the edge of adulthood — otherwise known as teenagers. The murder dial is turned way up. But truth be told, the kids of Hawkins, Ind., have always punched above their emotional weights. That tends to happen when you risk your life to save the world from salivating monsters and Soviets. Still, this iteration of the hit nostalgia roller coaster leans heavier on the way down than on the hopeful ride to the top.

“I have this terrible gnawing feeling that it might not work out for us this time,” Robin tells Steve as the pair prepare Molotov cocktails intended to kill Vecna, this season’s big bad. And (spoiler alert) it doesn’t work out. Try as they might, the Scoops Troop, superhero El, Jim “The Hero of Hawkins” Hopper, and the rest of the gang come out scathed — very, very scathed. Another metaphor for puberty.

Over nine episodes stretched across two volumes, the kids are no longer in Kansas, and the jet lag shows. From the gruesome first scenes depicting dismembered children to the final frames revealing an interdimensional battle-scarred town, “Stranger Things” is now less about capturing youthful innocence than underlining innocence lost. Here’s who and what changed the most.

El has her powers back

When the season started, superhero Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) had expended all of her telekinetic brain power at the Battle of Starcourt. With Hopper presumed dead, the teenager moves with Joyce (Winona Ryder) and her two sons to sunny suburban California. But things aren’t going great. The popular girl at school is an ’80s stereotype on steroids and makes El’s life there harder than fighting the Mind Flayer. Without powers, all she can do is take it. That is until Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser) swoops in to try to jump-start El’s empty battery by secreting her off to a military facility where Dr. Brenner, i.e. “Papa,” is waiting with a 10,000-pound sensory deprivation tank.

There’s an invisible murderer on the loose in Hawkins, and the good doctors think only El can help defeat him. So Brenner (Matthew Modine) pushes his former charge to the brink of her origin story, where she learns that Vecna, the evil ruler of the Upside Down behind the killings, is actually One, Brenner’s first test subject. In a deeply buried memory, El discovers that she was the one who sent Vecna to the other dimension after an epic battle between the two. That knowledge sparks her powers back up.

Dr. Brenner is dead

Let’s be clear: A lot of people are dead. But the death of the man El called papa is a biggie. His demise also represents El leaving behind her traumatic past in Brenner’s lab and his influence over her. “Papa does not tell the truth,” she repeats when Brenner tries to force her to stay in the underground facility instead of getting to Hawkins to help her friends destroy Vecna. It’s teenage rebellion and a come-to-Jesus moment wrapped in one. When her problematic father figure gets shot down by a sniper, so does El’s guilt and shame over being the most powerful person on the planet.

Will is figuring stuff out

All this started when Will (Noah Schnapp) was kidnapped and trapped in the Upside Down. Kid Will was always shy, quieter than his boisterous Dungeons & Dragons pals. But this season, his shell is made of tougher stuff. When his best friend and El’s boyfriend, Mike, comes to California to visit, Will’s forlorn glances appear to signal something more than friendly jealousy. When the two boys have a heart-to-heart about Mike and El’s drama-filled teen love affair, Will offers advice that is clearly about himself: “She’s so different from other people and when you’re different sometimes you feel like a mistake, but you make her feel like she’s not a mistake at all.” Later, big brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) assures Will that he’ll always love him no matter what, and they hug it out. Will does not come out this season, but it is clear that he is figuring out his identity in 1986.

Eddie dies, and Dustin grows up

One of the breakout characters this season was Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), the leader of Hawkins High’s local Dungeons & Dragons crew called the Hellfire Club. Eddie is a metal head and about two years past when he should’ve graduated. He has long rebellious hair and sells drugs on occasion. All of that was enough to pin Hawkins’ mysterious teen murders on him. He looked the part. But it turns out, Eddie is a pretty good dude. “Never change, Dustin Henderson,” Eddie advises his young Hellfire Club charge as the two prepare to battle.

Eddie recognizes and values innocence when he sees it. Despite insisting that he is “no hero” when push comes to shove, Eddie sacrifices himself to the hell bats of the Upside Down to buy his friends more time to defeat Vecna. Dustin, an Eddie stan, holds his hero in his arms as he lay dying. Yeah, it’s intense for a high school freshman, once again signaling that the boys of “Stranger Things” are boys no longer.

Max dies, then she comes back

Since the release of Season 4’s ominous “Volume 2” trailer in June, fans have been clamoring to figure out which character dies. It’s Max, and it’s not Max. The red-haired skateboarder has done a lot of growing up during Season 4. Max (Sadie Sink) lost her abusive big brother, Billy, during last season’s battle royal. Her stepdad split, forcing Max and her mother to move to a trailer park. Max’s life has not been all rainbows and lollipops. She was already more mature than any kid should have to be. But the Vecna situation took Max’s self-sacrifice to a new level.

Marked for death because of her dark memories, Max is initially saved by the singer Kate Bush. But to trap the Upside Down king, Max offers herself up as bait. It’s a testament to her bravery but also to her guilt surrounding Billy’s death. Despite escaping into happy memories of the school dance, Max eventually succumbs to Vecna, who breaks her mind and her bones. Her ex-boyfriend Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who tried and failed to be one of the popular kids this season, cries out for help while cradling Max’s broken body. El answers all the way from a makeshift sensory tank in a Surfer Boy Pizza shop. She brings Max back to life — but just barely. Max is in a coma, and when she enters Max’s mind, she finds an endless darkness.

Hawkins is in the Upside Down — sort of

At the start of Chapter 8, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is in Vecna’s mental grip. “I would very much like to show you where I am going,” he growls in her ear before transmitting a vision of Hawkins on fire. She understands then that he wants to merge the two realities, bringing the Upside Down to the real world. “There were so many monsters — an army — and they were coming into Hawkins, into our neighborhoods, our homes,” she tells the rest of the gang before they hatch their plan to set Vecna on fire while he’s in a trance-like state. It works. But not completely. They manage to destroy Vecna’s body but not before he claims his fourth and final victim, Max, which then opens the gates to the monster dimension. Earthquakes rip into Hawkins, cutting the town into ribbons. The army of Demogorgons haven’t arrived yet, but in the final scene, it begins to snow the telltale dirty flakes of the Upside Down.


A previous version of this article misspelled Paul Reiser's last name. This version has been corrected.