Stranger Things 4: Will

Like the rest of the world I devoured Stranger Things this year. After discussing it obsessively with everyone who would engage with me, I realized how much I had to say and turned to his blog. Yes, this series is long and obsessive but in my defense you were warned. If you read my bio above, it says: “Basically, I talk about the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching in a level of detail that is too embarrassing to do in real life.” That’s what this is. I had originally planned to do a straightforward review, but as I was writing his it turned into a series of mini character-focused essay akin to my I care too much about fictional characters series, so that’s what it is. The short version of the Stranger Things 4 review is: I really liked it and I’m really looking forward to season five.

The long version is… a lot longer. When I realized my thoughts were nearly 10k words I decided to split them up into more manageable chunks. If you follow me, prepare to get spammed with a lot of Stranger Things content.

In the previous installment I discussed the missed opportunities with Eleven’s storyline. This time it’s Will’s turn.

I care too much about fictional characters

Will Byers

Despite the fact that, in terms of plot importance and screentime, Will is a minor character in Stranger Things 4, he has dominated much of the news cycle regarding the show. He has been a big part of the discourse this year, and he’s one of my favorite characters. Like everyone else, I have a lot to say about Will this season. A lot of it has been said often and loudly, but not all of it.

First things first: I wish Will hadn’t been sidelined again. I don’t know when or where Will became one of my favorite characters. From the start? When I started to painfully relate to him? When he just wanted to play D&D? When the show started to imply his queerness? Who knows? In any case, I love Will. Every season I make a wishlist for what I want to see and the two major things are

  1. Steve survives
  2. Will is happy

(I got one this season).

But poor Will just got kicked around and devastated again. Let the boy go ten minutes without crying, please and thank you. That’s bad enough when it’s just a regular favorite character, but when it’s the one you deeply relate to on an intrinsic level? Ouch. 

That being said, the scene with Will and Jonathan in the pizza place was absolutely beautiful. If I had to pick a favorite scene from Stranger Things 4, that would be it. It’s well-acted, it’s heartbreaking but also kind of healing, and it is one of the most nakedly vulnerable moments the show has given us to date. I guess if you’re going to give two of your main characters only a handful of scenes apiece, you’ve gotta make sure the ones they do have are doozies.

Will and Jonathan’s scene is well-acted, it’s heartbreaking but also kind of healing, and it is one of the most nakedly vulnerable moments the show has given us to date.

So, yeah. I wish Will got more to do. Anything. Preferably something happy, but anything. I wrote in detail in Eleven’s section about how I wish we’d gotten more California storylines because Will+Eleven is an unplumbed dynamic that could’ve been fantastic. I think that Noah Schnapp is one of the better kid actors (yes, they’re all good, but season two Will was something else) and I think it is a shame not to give him more to do. More than my preference or the actor’s skill, though, there’s the fact that the whole show started with Will. Chapter one is called “The Vanishing of Will Byers.” Season one was all about finding Will, and then season two was all about saving Will from the Mind Flayer, and then… Will is just kinda there. Narratively, it feels unsatisfying that Will isn’t a major part of the continuing storyline.

He isn’t a major part this season. He gets two big scenes, maybe three if you’re generous with the definition of “big,” and they have one major thing in common: subtextually, they’re about Will being gay.

There’s been a lot of discourse about Will’s sexuality for the past two seasons, which I think is good. Will being gay is hugely relevant and having representation is majorly important in mainstream shows. I haven’t written enough about Stranger Things before now to have engaged deeply with the discussion, but it is not a surprise to me. I’ve read Will as gay for a long time, and have Googled “is will gay stranger things” many times to confirm that it wasn’t just me seeing things. It isn’t. Will has been queercoded from the very start, and the fact that he is sensitive/gay/othered is a major point in the first season; there are at least a half-dozen obvious allusions to Will either being or being perceived as gay in that season alone. To have not noticed any of them at least in passing indicates an almost impressive lack of attention. His potential queerness is a reason why so many people write off his disappearance and don’t seem to care that much about finding him.

JOYCE: He’s a sensitive kid. Lonnie used to say he was queer. Called him a f*g.

HOPPER: Is he?

JOYCE: He’s missing is what he is.

Stranger Things s1e1

There’s an othering force about the Upside Down. The characters taken by it are outside the societal norms. I read a fascinating essay about it somewhere years ago and haven’t been able to find it since, but it talked about how the Upside Down is a literal curtain between Will (and Barb) and the rest of the world that echoes the metaphorical one imposed on them for being othered in the community. It’s an interesting thematic thread that hasn’t really been capitalized on with the show much until this season with Max and her PTSD/depression/survivor’s guilt. I’ll get into that in Max’s section, but the point here is that Will has been othered from the beginning of the show. Queer viewers have seen themselves in Will from the very beginning; it doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes. It’s been a textual part of Will’s characterization since long before Mike said “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls.”

Even though the show has been making Will’s queerness increasingly obvious (seriously, his historical hero is Alan Turing), there has still not been an explicit moment in the show where Will obviously, unambiguously, and unmissably comes out. This has caused some controversy. Personally, I think that on the whole the show depicts Will’s uncomfortable relationship with his sexuality really well. The scenes where he feels he’s growing up slower than his straight friends? The heartbreaking scene where he sublimates his feelings and pretends to be talking about Eleven when he’s talking about himself? The part—probably my favorite scene in all of season four—when Jonathan reminds him that he’ll always be there and that nothing can change how much he loves him? Textbook queer experiences. To a queer viewer, it’s extremely, blatantly obvious Will is queer. In a perfect world, what we’ve seen onscreen would be enough for everyone to be on the same page. It’s not a perfect world, though, and people are not on the same page.

The problem comes from the way Will’s sexuality is being treated outside the text of the show itself. The problem comes from homophobic straight people with heteronormative goggles soldered onto their eyes. The problem comes from the history of queerbaiting particularly in mainstream genre shows

There are really three arguments that people make when they want to argue that Will isn’t gay. The first one is absolutely idiotic. Some people claim that Will is in love with Eleven. They say this because they can’t ignore that Will has a crush on someone, and their heteronormative brains can’t process that being another boy, so they attach the crush onto the nearest girl, which is Eleven. The idea of Will being in love with Eleven has absolutely no narrative backing. They have negligible one-on-one interaction until season four, when they are presented as siblings.

The next argument is that Will isn’t gay, he’s just traumatized. He isn’t interested in girls yet! because his development has been arrested by the traumas he underwent in the Upside Down. By itself, this isn’t a bad argument. The problem with it is that it’s usually made in bad faith as a reason why Will couldn’t be gay. He can be gay and traumatized. Lots of people are gay and traumatized. Straight people don’t have a monopoly on being traumatized. Will’s development was arrested by the traumas he underwent in the Upside Down. Undeniably, he has grown up slower than his friends. He wants to stay a kid and they are ready to sprint into adulthood. That can be true even if he isn’t straight. For what it’s worth, even without supernatural trauma, a lot of queer people develop slower and/or hit romantic milestones later than their straight peers, and in some cases growing up LGBTQ+ is in itself a traumatic experience (and considering the homophobic abuse Will has suffered at the hands of his bullies and his own father, that is likely the case for him). No one is saying that it’s wrong to argue that Will’s time in the Upside Down stunted him developmentally; it’s only a bad argument if you’re using it to claim that Will has to be straight.

Lastly, there are tons of people saying, a gay kid in the 80s wouldn’t have come out. It would be anachronistic for Will to come out. It’s true that gay kids in the 80s didn’t always come out. Some did, but let’s ignore that for now. Here’s the thing about TV: the audience can know things about characters that other characters don’t. There are ways Stranger Things could have made it abundantly clear to the audience that Will was gay without needing to give him a bathroom floor Tammy Thompson moment. For instance, we know lots of things about Eleven that she has never vocalized to another character, because the information is given visually in flashbacks. It is entirely plausible for the audience to know things about Will that literally no one else in the show knows. It’s also possible to tell a few trusted people without being totally out. Will could open up to, say, Jonathan or Eleven without anyone else knowing. Everyone acts like Robin is out there waving a lesbian flag. She’s not. Literally only Steve knows. Will could have gone a similar route.

Let’s take another approach. Leaving the show itself unchanged, the cast and creatives could discuss Will’s sexuality in interviews the same way they do the sexuality of any of the other characters. When interviewed about Nancy and Steve’s relationship, no one gets cagey and goes does Steve like Nancy? Is he straight? Maybe he is, but that’s up to interpretation. We don’t have to label Steve’s sexuality. The text makes it obvious Will is queer. It’s not, like, a big secret… except everyone acts like it is. If the Duffer Brothers discussed that part of Will like they discuss everything else, it wouldn’t feel like a taboo subject. Seriously. Imagine if we could just bypass this entire conversation because one of the Duffer Brothers or Noah Schnapp had just said “yes” and moved on the first time someone asked if Will was gay, six years ago.

Even though the show has been making Will’s queerness increasingly obvious, there has still not been an explicit moment in the show where Will obviously, unambiguously, and unmissably comes out

I hate that the beauty of it is that we don’t have to label everything bullshit because that only comes into play when someone isn’t straight. There are people, apparently tons of them, who will do mental gymnastics to tell themselves that Will has a crush on Eleven just because she’s the only girl in his vicinity that isn’t his mom. Until shows or creators come out and say specifically yes, this character is queer, a huge section of the fanbase will aggressively assume they’re straight and gaslight/insult anyone who dares suggest otherwise. Queer people have enough problems. We don’t need to be gaslit by people who would fail Lit 101. Also, for what it’s worth, you can avoid labeling someone without then assuming that they’re straight. We can say Will has a crush on Mike without boxing him into “gay.” Maybe he is gay. Maybe he’s bi or pan. Maybe he’s gray ace or demi or nonspecifically queer. There’s freedom in not choosing a specific label, but too often let’s not label him is just a cagey way of saying let’s leave enough wiggle room for the homophobes to feel comfortable.

The show itself does a good job, and I’m glad we finally got some legit, unstuttering, no-one-can-misinterpret-this confirmation that Will is queer, but I don’t think the world is at a point yet where shows can afford to leave that gray space if they want to represent the LGBTQ+community in any significant way. And for what it’s worth, I’m really glad and excited that a big, popular, genre show like Stranger Things has two canonically queer characters in its main cast (and hopefully they’ll get to meet/interact next season). I just hope they follow through and let Will have a lot to do next season (and not turn evil or die, because really. Aside from the unfortunate implications of that, it would feel thematically unfulfilling that a show that kickstarts by saving Will would end with Will unsaved).

It’s very hard to find an image of Will smiling

How do you think Stranger Things handled Will this season? What do you want to see from him in season five.

Next up: Jonathan, Steve, and Nancy

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