We’ve come to another year in the mysterious town of Hawkins, Indiana – and the gang’s freshman year of high school in the spring of 1986. Things have changed a bit in the three-year gap (in the real world) since we last saw them – with Joyce relocating her remaining family to California after adopting the girl formerly known as Eleven – one of Hopper’s dying wishes before he shut down the portal to the Upside Down beneath Starcourt Mall. The fact that Hopper is in fact, very much alive, has already been leaked online for at least a year now. The revelation that he is in fact, being detained at a Siberian labor camp by the Soviets, and that the opening episodes take place in March, are a pretty good indication that eventually the Chernobyl disaster will eventually come into play – which happened at the end of April 1986.
The real life disaster, which rendered 18 miles of the former Eastern Bloc unlivable for decades, turning nearly 100 villages into ghost towns, is probably the closest real-life equivalent to the strange dimensional portal that once held sway over Hawkins – and now a new threat is back – without either Jane or Hopper around to help fight it. Alien threats are hardly anything new around here, but this is perhaps the most frightening threat that a fairly divided gang has to deal with yet, as residents of the town are routinely turning up dead under mysterious circumstances, with details too gruesome for the news media or even the local authorities to come to terms with.
The town is also not overly eager to rally together against this new threat – with authorities being overly cautious that they may have another terrifying incident on their hands like the one that played out last summer. Meanwhile, even an escape to the much sunnier Lenora Springs, California doesn’t go so well for Jane who is herself haunted by the past – a dark memory where she murdered the rest of her cloned siblings over a misunderstanding in her days as a test subject. She can no longer summon the mysterious powers Dr. Brenner’s questionable experiments gave her and must now confront the bullies at her new school without them.
Even among the gang things aren’t so great, as Lucas has decided to take up basketball and leave his D&D days behind, while his ex-girlfriend Mad Max goes into withdrawal following the death of her brother and stepfather – so now it’s up to Mike and Dustin to find their own D&D club, in an era when the game is coming under attack as Satanic. The group that meets at Hawkins High mockingly calls itself “The Hellfire Club” – but the name invites more trouble than they bargained for when the group’s leader is connected to the sudden death of a Hawkins cheerleader. We’re seeing the town turn against each other before the exact danger is fully known.
There have been moments in the series, where the 1980s setting just seems to exist for the sake of nostalgia – but this time it works in the context of the story – with this season happening at the peak of the Cold War and the Satanic Panic, which at its core was about the so-called breakdown of “traditional values” the Religious Right in the US was railing against. In Stranger Things, after Lucas sees his basketball team turn vigilante on the Hellfire Club, he begins to wonder if the worst threat Hawkins faces may in fact be human after all.