The Duffer Brothers on Stranger Things 4's big reveals, cameos, and why 'everybody is in jeopardy'
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things season 4.
Volume I of Stranger Things season 4 had a lot going on.
For the first time, our heroes were split up, Dr. Brenner a.k.a Papa (Matthew Modine) is alive and back in action, Will (Noah Schnapp) might be gay, and relationships are changing all around. The show also goes back to its beginnings, with Vecna, a new demo-creature terrorizing Hawkins from (where else?) the Upside Down — and turns out, he has deep connections to Papa's lab, Eleven's powers, and the root of the evil plaguing the town.
Due in large part to the new baddie, things this time around are also a lot darker and more terrifying, with the show leaning heavily on horror references like Nightmare on Elm Street, even bringing in Freddy Krueger himself — or rather, the man who played him, Robert Englund — for an epic and emotional cameo.
This latest jaunt to the Upside Down isn't over yet, though, with two more super-long episodes set to debut July 1, and a fifth and final season still to come.
Here, series creators and showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer open up about some of the season's biggest reveals, why they decided to go darker, and what it all means for Volume II and the show's final season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, and I don't know if this was intentional or not, but when Nancy was being taunted by Vecna, he definitely seemed to be Team #JusticeForBarb.
MATT DUFFER: He is definitely Team Barb. You're right. I hadn't thought of that. But you're right.
ROSS DUFFER: He's not gonna let Nancy forget that anytime soon. And luckily, we still had the original Barb dummy from season 1. We had to search around a little bit and dust it off. But that's the exact same Barb dummy we have from season 1. So she's still with us.
One of the big early reveals this season was that Dr. Brenner is back and alive, as was previously rumored but never proven on the show. Do we know how he survived that Demogorgon in season 1? And did you always want to bring him back?
ROSS: Well, we never showed his death on screen. And the reason is, we always knew that we wanted to bring Brenner back and wanted to work with Modine again. We brought him back briefly in season 2, but that was more to hint at him still being alive. And we were just waiting for the right story to bring him back. We wanted him when he came back to be a central character and be central to the further development of Eleven's character. So once we realized that, it's [a question of] who else could bring back Eleven's powers but her "Papa," and that's when we got really excited about bringing Modine back.
MATT: Well, it felt like such a great central conflict of like, she needs her powers back in order to save Hawkins in order to save her friends. But the only person who can do it is this man who she's grown to hate for good reasons. There's a lot of complicated emotions there. I just love that Matthew and Millie [Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven] have — even though on screen, it's a very intense, dark relationship — off screen, they're super close. And I think they bring out the best in each other. I'm very excited for people to see their performances in Volume II, because it's, I think, the best they've ever been.
It definitely felt like we got to see this other side of him, instead of just the "villain" that he was seen as in season 1. It almost seemed like he genuinely cares for Eleven, in his own messed up way.
MATT: Yeah, we wanted to show another side to him. There is more to him than we saw in season 1, and we wanted to get to know him better. And there's no one more defensive of Brenner than Matthew Modine. Some of it is us infusing that in. [To him,] he's not a villain. Everything he's doing, at least in his mind, he has a reason for, and he thinks it's for the greater good. So we just wanted to make sure that the character had an opportunity to spell that out, not just to Eleven, but to the audience.
ROSS: Yeah, you're right. You're not justifying anything [with his character]. You're just going, "Okay, this is more complicated than I originally imagined." We reveal a lot more, especially in episode 8. I don't want to say too much. But yeah, a lot of it was Matthew. Because when you're an actor, and you're portraying a villain, you can't play it as a villain. He never did even in season 1, even though, in our minds, he was very much a villain, but Matthew didn't play it like that. Because he's a great actor, and he can't, in his mind, think that anything that he's doing or any of this behavior is unjustified. So he's justified everything that he's doing in season 1. I thought that was so interesting. And we had a lot of talks with him, and a lot of that inspired his storyline in season 4. I love how messy and dark it is. It was a lot of fun to write.
A major cameo this season is Robert Englund, who famously played Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, which this season was heavily influenced by. How did his role as Victor Creel this season come about?
MATT: Pretty organically. It's one of those moments that feels like fate, if you believe in such a thing. We had written most of the season, or a lot of it. And obviously so much of it is inspired by Nightmare on Elm Street, and Robert Englund's performance as Freddy. He was a huge touchstone for Vecna. And we were casting the role of Victor Creel, which is a hugely important role, but it is just in that one episode, and we were just watching auditions that our casting director, Carmen Cuba, had sent us. And suddenly, Robert Englund popped up on our screens. He just sent in a tape. He was lying in a bathtub performing the monologues that you see on the show. He was unbelievable. He gave the same performance that he gave on the show. So he was great. And it was Freddy Krueger, it was Robert Englund, it was like this guy who had inspired so much of the season and who we'd been talking about nonstop for months. So I'm only frustrated that we didn't come up with the idea, that Robert had the idea. It's one of those experiences where we fanboyed out. He signed a bunch of posters for us. I've got a stand-up Freddy Krueger poster now signed by him. And it's really cool that he was a part of the show this year, and that he is the one who initiated contact.
Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays One/Vecna, previously told us that Volume II was "explosive." Can you expound on that at all? What can we expect from the final two episodes this season?
MATT: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting. The season wasn't initially designed as a split. And when we decided with Netflix to split it, we were kind of looking at, where is the best natural break? And we all felt episode 7 was great, because 7 really is what we consider the end of a second act, if this were a movie, which is how we like to think about it. And so what we're heading into is the third act, the climax. So it's just this massive, massive climax. Not to say it's all action, there's a lot of action in it, but there's a lot of big, emotional character moments.
ROSS: [There are] character reveals, there are also big plot reveals. I mean, episode 7 is the big, big one with Vecna, but we have a few big, more surprises to come. And I think what I'm excited about specifically with the finale, is that generally in previous seasons, we have these various groups, and they come together and they share their information, and they go off to defeat this evil. Obviously, this season, that's not really feasible, in that everyone is in very different parts of the world. So to us, that created a challenge, both for us as writers, but also for the characters. How can we defeat this evil when we're not even in the same space? So that's something that we're really excited about, seeing how that all comes together. And just the cross-cutting. Obviously, we've been cross-cutting between these very different worlds all season, but the cross-cutting becomes very rapid in that final episode, and we were just bouncing between all of our locations really, really quickly.
MATT: I saw some interview with Joe Quinn [who plays series newcomer Eddie Munson], and he said it was like "a mad symphony of chaos," which I thought was a great description, so I'm just gonna steal it.
That makes me think of the scene of his character playing his beloved guitar in the Upside Down that's seen in the trailer, but we haven't yet seen on the show...
MATT: There were a few shots in the original trailer for season 4, most of them were from Volume I, but a few were from Volume II, of course, and that's a big one. We're very excited.
ROSS: Yeah, that's a really special moment. We cast Joe Quinn, not knowing he's an incredible musician, as well as being this magnificent actor. So we were very lucky. I just remember that we texted him or called him and said, "Hey, by the way, can you play guitar?" And he's pretty modest, so he's like, "Yeah, I'm pretty good." He's more than pretty good. He's amazing.
MATT: He is amazing. And he worked a long time on that [moment] as well.
ROSS: Yeah, I can't wait for people to see that. He spent many, many, many, many hours perfecting it. I won't say what song it is, but I think people are gonna be excited when they hear it.
One thing that fans have latched on to are the not-so-subtle hints that Will might be gay. What do you guys make of that and will the character have an official coming out moment?
MATT: As Ross said earlier, we have a lot of big character emotional reveals and payoffs in the final two episodes, so I don't want to say too much.
ROSS: What we're excited about in those final two [episodes is] that it's not just the story coming full circle, but all of this character stuff is going to come to a head because there's a lot dangling that we're going to try to resolve in those last four hours.
The show has progressively, at least to me, gotten darker and more terrifying. Should we be prepared for more of that in Volume II? Should we be prepared for some hard goodbyes, or for things to go darker as we head towards the end?
MATT: Yeah, certainly. I mean, a lot of that was driven by the fact that we had these — I still call them kids, even though I know they're not kids, but they feel like my kids — is that they were heading into high school. And it felt like the right time to put them into a full-blown horror film. We're dealing with darker themes, and issues that come along with being a teenager, because for at least Ross and I, and I think for most people, high school is a challenging time. And you're experiencing a lot of dark emotions for the first time. Whereas for us, middle school was such a magical time. And that was why that was reflected in season 1, whereas this has gotten darker. But what you're expressing to me is great, that you're feeling a little bit unsettled and unsafe for everybody, and all I'll say is, that's great. You should. That's the intention. We wanted the whole season to feel like everybody is in jeopardy. And we felt like that was something you couldn't really do as well when they were these cute little kids. But now, you know, everybody's life is on the line.
ROSS: With this formidable monster that they've come across. He doesn't mess around.
MATT: No, he doesn't pull punches, you know? He has his fans. That's been a surprise to me, that Vecna has fans.
Volume I ended with the huge reveal about Vecna and his origins, and his connection to Eleven. Each season's villain has sort of had its own arc, and then it's on to the next. Will that be the case with Vecna or is his story a part of the endgame?
MATT: I don't want to spoil anything. But I will say, I think when fans reach the end of season 4, they'll see more clearly than perhaps with previous seasons, where season 5 is headed. But again, there's some big reveals still to come.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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