Stranger Things Sure Loves to Sacrifice Those Lovable Side Characters
Seriously, it's happening every season.
The sacrificial side character is Stranger Things‘s favorite trope besides nostalgia and telepathy.
***Spoilers for Stranger Things season three ahead***
First came Barb, who was a barely-there presence in season one of Stranger Things that inspired a cult movement screaming for her to get justice. Then there was Bob, whose death was infinitely worse and who deserved so much better than being eaten by a Demodog so that Hopper/Joyce could probably happen. Now, there’s Alexei, the Slurpee-loving scientist who gets gunned down at a Fourth of July fair right as he achieves his American dream. Rest in peace.
Stranger Things is often hesitant to kill off any major characters. Eleven came back from her “death” in season one. While Billy bit the dust in season three in a quasi-redemptive death, Hopper’s apparent death is such a fake out that they’re already teasing his return before season four has even been announced. That makes sense, in a way: no one wants a bunch of kids to get killed off. (This isn’t Game of Thrones.) The teen and adult cast, with the exceptions of Jonathan and Billy, are all extremely likable and you don’t necessarily want any of them to die.
But there has to be a better trope than just building up a side character to off them dramatically. Barb makes sense; they needed a way to get Nancy involved in the main plot and she spent all of season one and two trying to get justice for Barb. Bob seemed like a cruel way to raise the stakes. Alexei feels particularly pointless though, as we knew the Russian team in Hawkins was dangerous when they tortured two teenagers for information.
Yes, it’s fun as a writer to get people attached to your side characters and then off them to make people cry. But when the show refuses to take a game-changing risk and off a major player like Hopper, and instead relies on offing a sacrificial woobie to drive home how dangerous things are (oftentimes, after you’ve already been aware of how dangerous the world is), it becomes repetitive.
Alexei could have lived and Hopper could have died for real (though if he’s truly dead then I’ll have egg[o] on my face) and season four rolled around, the show would be fundamentally different because of the fact that one of the grounding mainstays of the show was no longer around. Joyce would have to deal with that emotional fall-out. Eleven would grieve the loss of her father. Meanwhile, as the Russian subplot gets bigger and more important, we could have had an actual Russian character to help expand and fill in details so we don’t spend another season running to Murray and trying to figure out what coded Russian messages mean.
I get the hesitance to kill off major players. I really do. No one wants Game of Demogorgons, where no one is safe and everyone dies and is sad. But at some point they should kill off a major player whose death will actually deeply impact the narrative in a fresh way, and let some of these interesting side characters breathe a little. Both Bob and Alexei could have been deeply fascinating players going forward in the show, who could have died at a later date when their deaths would’ve meant more than just raising the stakes in an already stressful situation.
Stranger Things has a repetition problem. New characters like Max in season two and Robin and Erica in season three are great improvements to the ensemble, but the show can’t just be character vignettes solving the same problem every season. We need the characters to grow and develop, and occasionally be written off. Bob and Alexei could have grown and provided a newer element to the story, but they were just sacrificial pawns.
Next season, I hope the plucky surprise fan favorite makes it to the end of the season unscathed and is allowed to grow with the narrative. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t feel the need to fake out kill off a main character just to say “sike!” and bring them back an episode later. Shake it up a bit, Duffer brothers.
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