Stranger Things 3 or Why Should We Mourn Abusive Men?
Another season of Stranger Things has come and gone and I have lots of thoughts and in this piece, all of them are going to be pretty negative. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the season. I actively enjoyed it. But I want that joy somewhere else, somewhere far from here where I scream and shout and ask the vital question of why we are asked to mourn abusive men?
SPOILERS (and Scoops) AHOY for the whole of Season 3!
Listening to a recap podcast of the show before the season aired, there was a prediction that Billy would become the villain in season 3. This gave me pause as I had been under the assumption he had already been the villain. From the moment we’re introduced to him in season 2, he’s presented as intensely aggressive, and as the season progresses, he is physically violent towards almost everyone, racist and manipulative. Sure, he may not be a supernatural demon from another dimension, but is that what it takes to classify someone as a villain? He’s a quantifiable piece of shit. We get about 30 seconds of backstory on him, he’s had an abusive childhood himself, but is that 30 seconds enough to ignore/erase/forgive his actions? In my books, no. Despite this tiny peek into Billy’s past, we’re really only ever given one side to his character. We never get a glimpse of any sort of multi-facet he might possess. On the other hand, a character like Steve Harrington, who at first was presented as a one-dimensional douche (and we expect him to remain in this archetype as it’s an archetype we’re familiar with, especially in this 80s world we’re living in), evolved and shifted and has been on a continuous character growth spurt. Billy on the other hand is narrowly written and poorly defined. There is no nuance.
By the end of season 2, he’s been brought down, maybe by a peg, by his sister Max, and seems slightly cowed by her assertiveness towards him. However, once season 3 starts, he’s back to his old ways, screaming and fat-shaming a young boy at the pool where he lifeguards, manipulating married women into affairs and just being physically menacing. He is very shortly thereafter ‘corrupted’ by the Mind Flayer, thereby becoming the supposed villain I believe he always was.
I’m not going to get into his whole trajectory throughout the season only to say that it continues to be one-note. It’s hard not to think that this would just be the way Billy would be behaving had he not been possessed, maybe minus the drinking of chemicals. His real self vs. his Mind Flayer self are hardly different. He’s just as maniacal, only now he has super-strength and sweats profusely (a side effect of getting possessed by the Mind Flayer during an Indiana summer).
By the end of the season, after literally torturing people and killing many others, Billy decides to sacrifice himself because El says some words about him surfing as a child, and much like the universally panned segment in Batman v. Superman (Martha???), those words seem to snap him out of his haze long enough to get gutted by the Mind Flayer. This action does momentarily distract the Mind Flayer from ripping El to pieces just as Joyce closes the gate, vaporizing everyone near the Russians’ machine (including Hopper, who I will get back to) and killing the Mind Flayer, but the moment lacked any emotional depth or feeling. This heart-to-heart probably would have been better served from Max, the original target of Billy’s ire, instead of someone Billy mind-melded with for a minute. And this ‘heroic’ act of self-sacrifice is somehow supposed to balance out every other shitty thing we’ve seen him do for the past two seasons? I don’t think so. All I felt after it was all said and done was a mild sense of relief.
Max is BEREFT at the loss of Billy, her psychotic step-brother, and again, there is nothing to substantiate this reaction. They have literally never had a positive interaction and it is not fair to the viewer to have us pretend that this makes sense with no backstory to support it. It’s also disrespectful that now we are being told through music cues and Max’s reaction that WE are also supposed to be bereft by this loss. Billy may have done one selfless act in the 17 episodes we’ve seen him in but I will not mourn him. I will sing no requiem for the man who caused physical harm to his sister, almost ran over some pre-teens to scare his sister, violently assaulted his classmate until he had to be subdued by his sister… no. I will not be told to mourn that.
That brings me to the other major death we had this season (that is, if you believe he’s actually dead, which, with the current evidence we have, is not certain, but I’m going on the assumption that he is). Breaking the rule that if your name starts with the letter B, the Duffer Brothers have it in for you, Jim Hopper bites it in spectacular fashion. After finally getting rid of the Russian monkey on his back, he is stuck next to the deadly machine that is opening up the gate to the Upside Down. With no way of getting back to safety, Hopper solemnly nods to Joyce and she vaporizes him and closes the gate, saving the day. This loss is definitely a bigger one, Hopper has been a huge part of all three seasons of Stranger Things, and integral to the story. However, for some reason, this season he just sucks. What came off as loveable grump in the first two seasons is now coming off as raging asshole in the third. As the legal guardian of El, admittedly rightly perturbed by the physicality and closeness that has developed between El and Mike, Hopper begins the season by flipping his lid. El and Mike are preteens swapping a lot of spit and that’s a lot for Hopper to take. I get that. I, as the viewer, found myself more than once hoping the kissing scenes would get cut short. This begins Hopper’s tirade of aggression throughout the season. He is seemingly unable to use his words thoughtfully and must resort to threats to separate Mike and El. It only goes downhill from there where he assaults the corrupt mayor of Hawkins and almost chops his finger off in a cigar cutter. Later in the season he shoots down a bunch of Russian soldiers for no other reason then he was tired of waiting for Murray (a welcome surprise to the season, and almost made me forget how much I hate Brett Gelman’s character in Fleabag) to calm them down. We’ve seen people casually killed in Stranger Things before. El has killed her fair share of people before in acts of self-preservation. However, all of this seemed more and more extreme with Hopper. Last season we see him almost exclusively fighting supernatural creatures and for him to turn that aggression on people felt scary. It didn’t help that most of this season found him yelling at someone for things not going his way. He began to come off as petulant with a gun.
So by the end of the season, when Joyce is left with no choice but to destroy him for the greater good, I was again left with a hollowness. My sadness was not for the loss of Hopper but for those who had lost him. Had Hopper been axed last season, it would have had a much greater resonance. He had just begun to become the father that El needed, he was the friend that Joyce wanted and though he may have screwed up here and there, you always felt that he was trying. There was always an underlying goodness. To have that loss last season would have been a gut punch. To have it delayed to the end of this season and to see his character shift so negatively, it felt shallow instead.
There were so many positives this season, like the evolution of El’s and Max’s friendship, the introduction of the intriguing Robin, bringing back fan-favourite Erica for a larger role, any and all Steve content… Unfortunately, I felt the season was weighed down by aggressive men and the unrealistic belief that we should come to care for them. The show may be set in the 80s, but it’s 2019. It’s time to stop relying on this trope. Now that those two characters are out, what will season 4 bring? Murray as a main character? More Mr. Clarke (who was criminally underused, but shone in his scenes)? No adult men at all? We play the waiting game once more to see what Hawkins ‘86 has to offer.
And tomorrow… my top 10 moments from Stranger Things 3.