The Most Controversial Moments In Stranger Things

"Stranger Things" has been a smash hit since it premiered on Netflix in 2016. With its fourth season recently coming to a close, the series shows no signs of losing its inceptive luster. In other words, it's just as successful and compelling as it was when it premiered. While "Stranger Things" originally started out as an Amblin-esque sci-fi venture, one aimed at young audiences without talking down to them, the mythology and landscape have shifted considerably. For all intents and purposes, "Stranger Things" is now the Duffer Brothers pantomiming Steven Spielberg's horror roots.

That isn't a bad thing, either. In an era of digital convergence and content for content's sake, "Stanger Things" is remarkably patient. Six years after its premiere, there have only been four seasons, and the upcoming fifth looks to be the last. With a time jump bringing the residents of Hawkins and their respective stories to a close (not counting the alleged spin-off), the series is poised to go out on a high note. Wise not to overstay its welcome, "Stranger Things" will be the rare example of streaming television that remained consistently strong, free from the ebbs and flows of lackluster filler. Not everything was strictly speaking great, however, and here, we'll be looking at 12 moments from the show's history that mired it in controversy.

12. Barb's death

The history of Barb (Shannon Purser) is a strange one, even stranger than an alternate dimension that exists in a small town in Hawkins, Indiana. Barb was the best friend of Natalia Dyer's Nancy, and in the second episode of the first season, she's had enough. Distrustful of Nancy's relationship with Steve (Joe Keery), and especially frustrated with Nancy's intentions to sleep with him, she wanders outside to the pool and sits alone, dejected. As the episode comes to a close, something unseen drags Barb down.

At the start of the following episode, Barb is swiftly killed, ending her character for good. 

What's strange about it is how Barb served her purpose, narratively speaking. As a sacrificial lamb that both solidifies the threat and galvanizes Nancy to investigate what's going on, Barb accomplished what she needed to. However, the fans were furious. Hashtags demanding justice for Barb were launched and fans couldn't believe Barb had been done so dirty. As a result, Barb figures pretty heavily in season 2, at least peripherally. The impact of her death gets considerable screen time early on, a conscious ploy to placate fans who couldn't believe she'd been killed.

11. Queerbaiting

"Stranger Things" hasn't necessarily handled sexuality well. Until the third season, there wasn't a single queer character among the main cast. Even still, the introduction of Maya Hawke's Robin was contextualized not by her own sexuality, but by how it impacted Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). Still, Robin rocks (anyone who watched season 4 knows this), and it still amounts to considerably more effort than most popular media is willing to make. Yet, for as amazing as Robin is, the show has absolutely floundered when it came to Noah Schnapp's Will Byers.

The show has been accused of queerbaiting Will's character, especially after a season 3 development that heavily suggests Will feels isolated from his friends on account of their burgeoning interest in girls. Season 4 was an opportunity to solidify Will's characterization one way or another, yet unfortunately, the show floundered once more. Not only did they not commit to Will's sexuality, but the core cast went on an inexplicable media an inexplicable media tour, brushing it off as nothing to worry about. 

Only, it is worth worrying about. In a media landscape so noncommittal with regard to queer characters, "Stranger Things" had a chance to make a pretty big impact. Curiously, while the season doesn't explicitly confirm it, the cast is now backtracking, retroactively confirming that, yeah, Will is gay.

10. Eddie's death

Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) was one of season 4's strongest introductions. If nothing else, "Stranger Things" isn't just adept at introducing new characters (see: Robin or Sadie Sink's Max), but incorporating them so organically into the world that they feel like mainstays rather than newcomers. 

As the leader of Hawkins High's "Hellfire Club," a Dungeons & Dragons group at the school, Eddie is at first quasi-antagonistic, an odd guy with a burning passion for all things fantasy. In the season 4 premiere, however, Eddie is implicated in the death of a classmate, sparking innumerable memes in the process, and for the rest of the season, the plot became simultaneously about exonerating Eddie and stopping chief baddie Vecna. As the season closes, only half the plan is successful. Vecna is temporarily quelled, but Eddie is killed and remains a suspect in several deaths. It's a heartbreaking epilogue, all the more so when Gaten Matarazzo's Dustin finds himself in tears talking to Eddie's uncle. 

While Eddie's death certainly grounded the stakes, it was perhaps too soon. Joseph Quinn was so strong in the role that it begs the question — why kill him off? While the series will likely have more bodies to drop in its final season, this one just felt cruel. Justice for Barb might be inexplicable, but Justice for Eddie is a necessity.

9. Episode lengths

Much ado has been made about television in the age of streaming. Some shows, especially those that are released on Hulu or HBO Max, remain committed to the episode-a-week format of cable television past. Others, including Prime Video and Netflix, are content to drop an entire season at once, feeding into a larger cycle of easily bingeable television; consume one show in a single sitting and quickly move on to the next one. 

Additionally, streaming has shown its growing pains in regard to how long shows themselves should be. The bingeworthy model certainly lends itself to short episodes, but "Stranger Things" bucked that trend, releasing a fourth season whose individual episodes could all but be movies on their own.

With a finale that's nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, "Stranger Things" was unusually dense in terms of storytelling length. The backlash was swift, with some decrying television episodes have simply gotten too long. There's an argument to be made there, sure, but for anyone who grew up on cable television, it's not the lengths that are the problem, but the way in which television itself is consumed. "The X-Files" had plenty of throwaway, monster-of-the-week episodes, and they were sensational. In the age of streaming, those episodes would be decried for ostensibly not moving the plot forward at all. 

The Duffer Brothers know what story they want to tell, and if that means nine episodes over an hour long, so be it.

8. The Lost Sister

The aforementioned monster-of-the-week contention isn't just speculation, it actually happened. Season 2 is arguably the weakest outing for "Stranger Things." Yes, it's still sensational (it's "Stranger Things"), but every series has to have a weaker arc, and this is undoubtedly it. As the tension swells and the saga of Will Byers' experience in the upside down comes to a head, "Stranger Things" takes a mid-season detour in "The Lost Sister," the seventh episode of the second season.

As chaos breaks loose at Hawkins Lab, putting several key players in danger, fans were furious to see "Stranger Things" pivot to an episode that reeks of spin-off material. As a standalone, it grinds the season to a halt. Worse still, the episode plays with some problematic narrative tropes and arrives at a foregone conclusion — Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven is the good guy. It's an arc that added nothing audiences didn't already know and the creators are likely aware of that. In the two seasons since then, Eleven's jaunt to Chicago to meet others like her has never been brought up again.

7. Bob's death

"The Lost Sister" might not have generated quite so much ire had it been positioned anywhere else in the season. As it stands, it's an obstacle on the way to another point of fan contention — the death of Sean Astin's Bob Newby. Four seasons in, fans are likely well-versed in the show's handling of death. Legacy characters are a no-go, but well-received new arrivals (looking at you, Alexei) are introduced as lambs for the slaughter. Such was the case of Bob Newby, an almost saccharine love interest for Winona Ryder's Joyce Byers.

Their dynamic is cute, but to pave the way for the expected Joyce-Hopper pairing, Bob had to go. As the group endeavors to escape the lab, now overrun with monsters, Bob volunteers to reset the breakers to return power. As the remainder of the group escapes, Bob catches up, only for a monster to suddenly tackle him, and shortly thereafter maul him to death. Fans appropriated the "JusticeForBarb" hashtag, replacing the two names, and some were taken aback by the cruelty of it all. 

Though "Stranger Things" veers toward horror, Bob's death was unusually graphic, all the more so on account of how Joyce looks absolutely devastated as he is torn apart.

6. Billy is a racist

"Stranger Things" has had a complicated history with race, and while the full impact will be explored later, things came to a head with the season 2 introduction of Dacre Montgomery's Billy Hargrove, stepbrother of Sadie Sink's Max Mayfield. In the final episode of the season, Billy assaults Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), the only character of color on the main cast.

The entire scene abounds with racial undertones despite Billy's characterization as a terrible person writ large. In an interview with Newsweek, Montgomery is clear that he doesn't think the scene has any racial intent behind it. However, he added that in the original script, there was "a far worse piece of language" included. While Montgomery doesn't reveal what the word was, it's easy to presume it's an epithet of sorts. More than anything, it is indicative of how the Duffers, and Netflix in general, are still grappling with race. "Stranger Things" didn't need a hate crime, the implications of which it had no intention of exploring further.

5. Season 4 release schedule

Unlike its competitors, Netflix is inclined to dump television seasons in their entirety. While Hulu and HBO Max might indulge in a three-episode preview before weekly releases, Netflix's strategy is one of inundation. Everything is available everywhere (quite literally all at once). That's largely why subscribers were taken aback when Netflix announced an unconventional release strategy for "Stranger Things" season 4. Rather than dropping every episode at once as with the past three seasons, Netflix split the release into two parts, premiering seven episodes in May and the remaining two in early July.

Some reports earlier in the month suggested the Duffer Brothers only finished some VFX shots for the final two episodes hours before the premiere. In an interview with Variety, the Duffers contended it had to do with the length and volume of episode 7, an episode so jam-packed it amounted to a season finale on its own. With the full season now aired, that explanation doesn't really fit. Likely, it's Netflix trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Rather than weekly releases, this might appear to be the next best thing. Yet, with just two episodes after the break, it leaves audiences wondering why it wasn't simply made available in its entirety from the start.

4. Smoking

It might seem like a distant memory now, so fans of "Stranger Things" might have forgotten just how much smoking there is in the first three seasons. Seriously, everyone is smoking. Teens are smoking. Joyce is smoking. Hopper is smoking. In a show aimed at young audiences, however, fans were understandably incredulous that so many beats felt like tobacco ads. Entire scenes were all but clouded in the huffing and puffing of its stars.

"Stranger Things" was likely the worst offender on the platform, and on account of the backlash Netflix received, they committed to reducing on-screen depictions of smoking other than in instances of "historical or factual accuracy." Who's to say what that means, exactly? But it was pretty conspicuous when, in season 4, neither Hopper nor Joyce smoked a single cigarette despite concluding the last season like nicotine-rabid monsters, repeatedly stopping off-screen for another pack despite the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance.

3. Eleven's tattoo

Twitter users were kind enough to point out that Eleven's numeric tattoo in "Stranger Things" isn't just a fun bit of characterization. During the Holocaust, prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex were tattooed with numbers, a record-keeping process that also dehumanized the prisoners, stripping them of their names and identities and reducing them to mere numbers. It's a tragic, horrifying history, one that "Stranger Things" echoes, intentionally or not, given Eleven's wrist tattoo.

While that is certainly bad enough, fans of the show were so inspired to indirectly trigger the dehumanization and genocide of Jewish people that they started getting numeric tattoos of their own. In fact, according to The Mary Sue, the official "Stranger Things" Instagram account even reposted several such fan tattoos. "Stranger Things" has no shortage of noteworthy iconography with which fans can tattoo themselves. Demogorgons are cool. Dustin's hat is neat. Why they would need to permanently etch symbols reminiscent of tools of Nazi oppression onto their bodies, the world might never know. Worse still, why the show would encourage it remains inexplicable.

2. Prison filming

If anyone thought that was the beginning and end of the unfortunate, irresponsible Holocaust homages in "Stranger Things," sorry to say, but there's more bad news. Season 4 of the show is its most ambitious yet, spanning not one, not two, but three distinct narrative threads, all of which take place in different settings. There's the Hawkins investigation (the show's strongest plot) and additional beats in both California with Eleven and Russia where Hopper has been taken prisoner. From a narrative perspective, those moments in Russia are annoying at worst. Independently strong, they still feel wedged into a season whose thematic resonance doesn't quite match the dour, prison camp atmosphere.

And, boy, is that atmosphere dour. The Russian scenes were filmed at Lukiškės prison in Lithuania, a real site where, in 1941, nearly 350 Jewish prisoners were held captive by the Nazis. Fans and advocacy groups have called Netflix out for filming there and the streaming services' contribution to a rise in "dark tourism," a burgeoning trend where vacationers look to visit sites where horrific atrocities were committed. 

There are plenty of cool horror film sets to visit. "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" house is one example. Even Michael Myers' childhood home is just a hop and a skip away in Pasadena. A former concentration camp simply isn't it.

1. Black characters

As media converges and strides are taken toward accessibility and representation, the media out there is getting marginally better at reflecting the real world. Distinct, diverse identities, persons, and characteristics are given opportunities to not simply exist but exist in all manner of stories, some of which are and are not directly linked to lineage (The Guardian has a great piece on the Academy's history of principally recognizing women of color when they play slaves).

"Stranger Things" isn't especially egregious. There's plenty of work to be done, especially in terms of how it portrays characters of color, but the show isn't actively hostile. That being said, good enough is not quite the same as good, and four seasons in, "Stranger Things" is still struggling with its Black characters. According to Kaiya Shunyata, Blackness is equated with antagonism in the show. Season 4's biggest Black characters, including Priah Ferguson's Erica Sinclair and Sherman Augustus' Lt. Colonel Jack Sullivan, are defined by their antagonism. While both are great characters, especially scene-stealer Erica, they're indicative of how the show as a whole is still struggling with what should amount to a pretty easy feat.