Stranger Things Keeps Failing Will Byers

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) has been queer-coded since "Stranger Things" began. When the sweet, sensitive kid went missing in the show's first season, school bullies joked that he was off "in fairyland," while his mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder), revealed that his deadbeat dad used to call him homophobic slurs. When Will came back from the Upside Down, he was clearly uneasy about his strong friendship with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) being displaced by Mike's romance with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). "It's not my fault you don't like girls!" Mike blurts out to his friend during a season three argument. The conversation doesn't go any further than that.

By season 4, Will is all but an insignificant background character. His internal emotions are completely closed off to us. We know that Eleven thinks he has a crush, that he painted something that seems to be for Mike, and that he follows his best friend and his girlfriend around with a perpetual catty scowl. Of course, there are two more episodes of the season to go, but so far, season four of "Stranger Things" has spent roughly nine hours having Will Byers do about as much as the wallpaper in the background.

"Stranger Things" is failing Will Byers, and it's also failing the fans who by this point seem to love his character more than the writers do. Viewers who identify with the young, bullied, sensitive boy have been waiting years for him to express his feelings. Instead, he seems to be trapped in a narrative closet.

The show hasn't made space for Will

To be clear, the show doesn't owe anyone a happy ending for Will, although it would be great to see him joyful for once. It also doesn't necessarily need to fulfill the early promise of exploring his identity by having him do something as concrete as publicly coming out or getting a boyfriend. Questioning kids and late bloomers need representation too, after all.

But it would be nice to see "Stranger Things" at least try to give the character some of the interiority it lends to everyone else in its ever-growing ensemble. This season, we know more about the interests and ambitions of Dustin's long-distance girlfriend and the Russian smuggler who likes peanut butter than we do about Will, one of the show's main characters. In what appears to be an attempt to stretch out a plot related to Will revealing his lingering feelings for Mike, series writers have instead hung him out to dry.

It's disappointing that the series, which revels in all things '80s, can't seem to find a place for a queer-coded kid in its zeitgeist — and doesn't seem willing to try very hard. The '80s were an incredibly tough time to question one's sexual identity, as the AIDS epidemic forced many back into the closet out of understandable fear. But it wasn't a void for queer pop culture (pop music, in particular, was gayer than ever), and it's frustrating to see it portrayed as such. Eleven and Max get their "Material Girl" mall fashion montage. Dustin gets his Farrah Fawcett hairspray moment. Every character at one point or another seems to gain confidence and a sense of identity through something that's grounded in the show's beloved, nostalgic setting. Instead, Will gets a bad bowl cut and a wizard hat his friends think is corny. At a certain point, it doesn't feel like it's society that's excluding Will, but the show itself.

He started as the heart of the series

"Stranger Things" failing to let Will Byers live up to his full potential doesn't seem to be an act of malice, but of negligence. A series this massive, with this many moving parts, is bound to have a few players that start to feel like chess pieces being moved around the board. It's just a shame that Will is frequently one of them, both because Schnapp is a talented actor and because Will's story has always been a clear opportunity to illustrate the series' most important themes.

Long before Vecna's origin story was explained, it was obvious that the Upside Down pulled in outsiders. The lonely, the ill-adjusted, and the outcast always seem to end up tied to its dark power. As the first person to find himself in the Upside Down, Will embodied its metaphor perfectly. He was isolated, cut off from his sense of self and community. When he was finally saved–and then saved again, from a later manifestation of his lingering trauma — it was by the people who love him exactly the way he is.

But then Will comes back from the Upside Down, and spends the next three seasons feeling left out. The power of the show's central metaphor — of the Upside Down as the isolating void that ostracized young people can fall into — mostly dissolves. It's picked back up again as needed, like when Max (Sadie Sink) is singled out by Vecna due to her secret suicidal feelings after Billy's (Dacre Montgomery) death. The show's supersized season four finale will likely bring this idea from season one full circle, as Vecna openly preys on secrets and insecurities. 

If so, that will be great, but it still won't undo the seasons the show has spent sidelining Will and obfuscating his identity. Will Byers, once the heart of this entire series, deserves better.