What happens when you inadvertently kill off your main character in the opening paragraph?
Those of you who have watched Stranger Things will know immediately who I’m writing about. To the rest? This post will be meaningless. As a story teller, I took it personally when the Duffer brothers killed off the only character I cared about (after a mere two episodes). I mean, seriously? But the interesting question is why? How did I and so many others fall in love with a character after only two episodes and with whom we clearly weren’t meant to. We were supposed to be obsessing over Will.
And so much for that, by the way.
It’s a curious and inadvertent failure in story telling. I know I was supposed to be as emotionally invested in Will’s rescue as all the other characters but here’s the strange thing—I never was. Why? Because we see Will for all of a few brief moments, hardly enough time to compel any real interest in him. He’s straightaway abducted by the “Demogorgon”. By contrast, the Duffers give us every possible reason to care about Barb. With just a few brief and brilliant strokes, they inadvertently make her the show’s main character.
Why? Because she’s caring, she’s loyal, and she’s different.
And it’s a testament to the otherwise spellbinding skill of their storytelling that they accomplish this. How? Her murder (as she desperately screams for Nancy) contrasts wrenchingly with a series of cuts in which self-absorbed Nancy fucks an oleaginous and self-absorbed Steve. One of the most emotional and powerful horror movie sequences I’ve watched.
It’s clear, in interviews with the Duffer brothers, that they really had no clue as to what they did (from a storytelling perspective). They profess complete surprise as to Barb’s popularity, but seriously? That moment when Barb was so utterly betrayed by Nancy; and that moment, even in the seconds before her death, when Barb continued to have faith in Nancy, sealed the show’s fate. At that point I knew I would never like Nancy or particularly care about her. And as if to drive home Nancy’s betrayal (who had invited Barb to spend the night only to abandon her) she proceeds to lie to everyone (including Barb’s mother) when time might be of the essence.
And then, inadvertently emphasizing the true horror in the horror story, nobody appears to give a rat’s ass about Barb’s disappearance. The Duffer’s throw in an almost gratuitously cruel scene in which nobody in the high school remembers who she was. Christ almighty, with friends like these, who needs an extra-dimensional Demogorgan? The townspeople are the real monsters.
Even Barb’s own mother appears to hardly give a damn!
One might respond, as the Duffers do, that the focus is meant to be on Will (and the events only take place over seven days) but that’s either disingenuous or utter directorial malpractice. The Duffer’s, after all, very deliberately curated Barb’s betrayal and the town’s response. And the broader reaction to Barb’s death reveals just how profoundly they misdirected our sympathies. By wrenching the focus of the script back to Will, they effectively made an entire town unsympathetic. Ad hoc rationalizations, such as the Duffers comparing Barb’s death to Game of Thrones, just don’t cut it.
“People get very frustrated, understandably, that the town doesn’t seem to be really dealing with Barb. That stuff is all happening. We’re just not spending any screen time on it. It’s not like her parents are like ‘Oh Barb left. She died!’ Season One actually takes place over the course of six or seven days — it’s a really short period of time. So part of what we want to do with hypothetical Season 2 is to explore the repercussions of everything that happened.”
And that’s all well and fine, but that’s not what happened in Season 1. They created one of the most glaring and gaping plot holes I’ve ever seen. And claiming that her death subverted the usual horror movie tropes also doesn’t cut it. The problem, from a storyteller’s perspective, is in their having so thoroughly cultivated our sympathies for Barb rather than Will (both before and after her death).
When Barb died so, in a sense, did the show.
That is, the rest of the show feels like an afterthought. When you end up making an entire town, a school, a “best friend” and a character’s own parent look like unsympathetic assholes, then you’ve done something wrong as a writer and director.
And that’s the shame of it. While the rest of the characters follow their predestined and predictable trajectories, Barb felt real and distinct. As Vulture writer Brian Moylan put it, Barb was the best character on Stranger Things. So too Allison Davis at The Ringer, Everyone Needs a Friend Like Barb She’s the best character on ‘Stranger Things’. Barb is/was the show’s best and most sympathetic character. And it was the Duffers inadvertently brilliant portrayal that more or less made all the other characters dispensable.
So again, from a storyteller’s perspective, I’d have to say the Duffer’s screwed up, and not in a small way.
Sure, the show’s a hit. And sure, in every other respect its brilliant and will go on, but it could have been so much more if they hadn’t been seduced by a cheap trick. Ironically, in trying to subvert the usual sex/death horror movie trope, they turned “Stranger Things” into just another horror movie.
And as a storyteller, I took it personally.
But I’ll get a grip. I’ll get over it. She’s just a character in a fictional story. And there are other storytellers out there who aren’t fool enough to kill their best and main character in the opening paragraph for cheap kicks.
Will Crimson | September 5 2016