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In Defense Of Stranger Things' Sweet, Sensitive Will Byers

Will Byers has been through hell and back, and he deserves some respect

It's sometimes easy to forget about Will Byers, the quiet, hapless kid at the center of Stranger Things. He's not as forthcoming (or foul-mouthed) as Dustin, or as charismatic as Lucas. He's not a natural leader like Mike, and he can't flip a van with his mind like Eleven. He can't even top Max's Dig Dug score. So when he's not being used as a human vessel for the Mind Flayer, he mostly tends to fade into the background.

To be fair, it's not really his fault. Throughout the eight-episode first season of Stranger Things, Noah Schnapp's Will was little more than a mawkish phantom. The middle-school misfit's mysterious disappearance haunted everyone — his anxious mother, Joyce; his introverted older brother, Jonathan; the local police chief; and his best friends and fellow outcasts, Mike, Dustin and Lucas. As such, we mostly learned about Will through the people he left behind. The main takeaway? Will Byers is not like most boys coming of age in Hawkins, Indiana, in 1984. And it's not because of his fondness for The Clash.

He's deeply sensitive, so much so that his estranged father Lonnie used to call him "queer" — a slur that followed him into middle school. He'd rather draw than play baseball, and he frequently seeks solace and solitude under the makeshift canopy of Castle Byers, his own private fort in the middle of the woods. He's the sweet, thoughtful member of the Party, the one who told Mike he rolled a seven when he could have easily lied about it. (Turns out, he can't even lie when he's being possessed by an evil entity.)

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Will Byers has been through hell and back on Stranger Things and he doesn't deserve your hate.

But in Stranger Things 2, Will's compassion, made tangible by Schnapp's standout performance, becomes his hidden strength. He's fragile, but he's not weak. He's fearful but still fighting. (Let's not forget that he survived a week in a parallel dimension hiding from a predatory monster, completely alone. Talk about resilience!) This is evident at the end of Episode 3 ("The Pollywog"), when Will attempts to tell the Shadow Monster to "go away." He could have kept running, but he didn't. He tried to face his fears, even if the outcome was the literal worst case scenario.

In a society that tends to valorize toughness, Will's deep-seated empathy is refreshing. Patriarchy often perpetuates the notion that in order to be "strong" you must fight back, stay in control, and never show your emotions. But Stranger Things subverts this idea of traditional masculinity, giving us a group of scrappy young heroes who do things a bit differently. Will cries. He relies on others. He's vulnerable. But he's also complicated and tenacious.

So, no, Will Byers is not "the boring one." He's challenging societal norms one paranormal day at a time in the 1980s, and he deserves some respect. Don't believe me? Here's more proof:

  • Crazy Together: His Friendship With Mike
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    One of the best scenes in Stranger Things 2 happens in the Wheelers' basement following Will's harrowing episode on Halloween night. It's a particularly vulnerable moment for both Will and Mike: Will doesn't know if his visions of the Upside Down are real or just cruel remnants of last year's trauma, and Mike still feels woefully aimless without Eleven, 353 days after her disappearance.

    But Mike, ever the protector of the Party, reassures Will with a smile: "Hey, well, if we're both going crazy, then we’ll go crazy together, right?"

    It's such a tender moment, one we don't often see in depictions of young male friendship. The parallels between Stranger Things and coming-of-age staple Stand By Me have never been subtle. The final line in the 1986 Rob Reiner classic reads like Matt and Ross Duffer's initial Netflix pitch: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?"

    Will is doe-eyed Gordie Lachance to a tee — a quiet bundle of insecurities with a golden-colored heart. But in scenes like this, it's Mike who fully emerges as Hawkins's own Chris Chambers. He doesn't shame Will for crying; he supports him. And when Will later voices his fear over spying on the Shadow Monster, rightly suggesting that the monster could very well spy back on them, Mike delicately takes his best friend's hand in his own and promises, "We won't let him."

    It's the kind of earnest promise only a best friend could make.

  • His Relationship With His Mom
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    After suffering so much physical and emotional trauma (his father's abuse, his narrow escape from the Upside Down, and his invasive body-swap with the Mind Flayer), Will has every right to be angry and cynical. But he's not. Whereas Eleven expresses her trauma through anger — it even fuels her powers — Will internalizes it, choosing only to open up to the people he feels closest to, like his mom.

    Joyce Byers is a profoundly anxious, albeit intuitive, woman who doesn't discourage her sons from expressing their emotions, the good and the bad. In fact, she even pressed him to recount his painful visions of the Upside Down in detail. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the season, Will bravely tries to explain how the Mind Flayer attacked him in Episode 4 ("Will The Wise"):

    "I don’t know, it came for me," he cries. "And I tried. I tried to make it go away, but it got me, Mom. I felt it everywhere. Everywhere. And I still feel it."

    Later, when Will can't articulate what he's feeling, Joyce pushes him to draw all of his dark, manic thoughts onto paper. For Will, his art is an emotional outlet, and Joyce does more than support it — she encourages it.

  • He's a Bowie
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    Turns out, coming back from the dead doesn't make Will an overnight sensation. In fact, it only makes him more of a freak. In Season 1, he's tormented by the school bully and called a "fairy," and in Stranger Things 2, he's "Zombie Boy." Enter Jonathan with a bit of crucial brotherly advice:

    "Being a freak is the best, all right?" he tells Will. "I would rather be best friends with Zombie Boy than a boring nobody. OK, look, who would you rather be friends with, [David] Bowie or Kenny Rogers? It's no contest. The thing is, nobody normal ever accomplished anything in this world."

    Perhaps Zombie Boy is Will's Ziggy Stardust, an otherworldly identity he can one day claim without fear or shame. After all, who else can say they died and came back to life? That's a superpower in and of itself.