Stranger Things‘ Barb, played by Shannon Purser, captured our collective attention for a number of reasons.
First, because she felt like a genuine sidekick for Nancy (Natalia Dyer) but ended up as little more than an elevated red shirt. What do we actually know about her? Any hint of personality we saw was all in service of or a reflection of her friendship with Nancy. We may know that Barb nagged her friend about the changes she was making in her life, but we don’t understand why. Jealousy? Selfless concern? Something darker? And yet Barb contained multitudes.She didn’t want to party with Steve and the Wastoids (incidentally, my high school ska band name), and she didn’t give two rips about peer pressure. But she still saddled up to chug a beer anyway. Yes, she sliced her hand open to mark the halfway point of a terrible last night on Earth, but she warmed to the possibility of loosening up and proving she wasn’t as anti-fun as we’d been led to believe. Maybe that’s part of why her death is so frustrating. We were on the cusp of getting to see her as her own person, outside of Nancy’s shadow, just before watching her thrust into the position of plot mechanism.
In the end, Barb had the ignoble responsibility of being a horror film salad course. The random government scientist who got eaten in the very first scene of the very first episode was the amuse-bouche to let us know we’re dealing with a creature feature, but Barb was the first person we cared about who is sacrificed to prove the show wasn’t playing around and that our investment was going to be meaningful.
Up to that point, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the Fellowship have already crept through the looking glass into Eleven’s (Millie Bobbie Brown) sci-fi world. It’s the same with Joyce (Winona Ryder), whose loose grip on her own sanity had allowed her the freedom to answer her missing son’s electric call from beyond. In stark contrast, Nancy’s sole concern so far had been her burgeoning sexuality and social status, which she took seriously not out of misplaced ideals but because she’s an intelligent, self-aware young woman in search of independence.
It’s a coming-of-age story worth telling, but there was also a horror-beast straight from Lovecraft’s brain pan tearing the fabric of space-time and wrapping children in spider web burritos, demanding a shift in Nancy’s priorities. Enter Barb’s death, which kicked Nancy into a new existential crisis (is her new social crew really worth it?) and into the main story. Barb’s absence plagued Nancy throughout the day by way of an empty desk at school, a mother who didn’t know anything, and a lie about Barb spending the night at Nancy’s. As such, Nancy spent the entire day unsure of what to do until she was forced to abandon her new friends and reveal her concerns to her mother. The safety net of her old life was still there to catch her even if Barb wasn’t.
Everyone in “Holly, Jolly” faced the end of their old lives. Just as Barb’s death was the literal embodiment of Nancy’s former high school life being ripped to shreds, Joyce chose to absorb a brand new reality that looks like insanity to everyone else. She became embedded in a disembodied connection with Will that forced her to buy a new phone and get a two-week advance on her paycheck. And since her son had begun communicating using the power lines, Joyce began to wear her apparent insanity out in public. It’s much easier to slide into delusion in the dark comfort of your own home, but who owns enough Christmas lights for that?
Threshold thoroughly crossed, she no longer cared about her helmet-haired boss or her casserole-bearing neighbor Karen catching sight of her insanity. All that mattered was her son. And once you paint the alphabet on your living room wall as a multi-colored Ouija board for your child’s electric spirit to warn you about the hell spawn coming to eat you, you’ve chosen, unconsciously or not, to shut the door and enter a new realm altogether. Joyce’s old life was gone. So was Nancy’s. So was Barb.
Stranger Things‘ third episode also treated us to similar shifts in other characters, namely Eleven, who showcased new degrees to her powers and ethical limits alike, and Hopper, who has upped the ante toward finding Will beyond routine police work. At this point, Hopper was just entering that limbo phase where his old life had died away but he didn’t realize it yet.
Still, the biggest and most poignant catalyst to this trend is Barb. She was a symbol of Nancy’s innocence and an anchor to her adolescent life. Her death wasn’t only a domino drop so that the rest of the story could keep going (although it was definitely that in a big way), but was a slaying of something in Nancy as well. After Mike saw “Will” pulled out of the water, he raced home and cries in his mother’s arms as Nancy watched from another room. One sibling thought his friend was dead when he was only missing, the other thought her friend was missing when she was actually dead. But Barb and Will’s situations both served the same symbolic function: as mazes in which to test their friends.
Are you rewatching with us? Let us know your thoughts on Barb, and on Stranger Things in general!