Spoilers for Stranger Things 2, up through Episode 8, "The Mind Flayer," below
The #JusticeforBarb crowd may yet get their wish this season, but that will only mean it's time to start a new Stranger Things protest hashtag: #JusticeForBob. Luckily Season 2, Episode 8, "The Mind Flayer," provided a very good reason in the form of Bob's surprising, gruesome death.
Even knowing for much of the episode that it might happen, that was a heck of a gut punch. In its penultimate episode, Stranger Things 2 verged into full-on horror territory, and in true horror movie fashion, Bob went out just at the moment he finally seemed safe.
Did the show earn that death? Is it cheap for it to set up lovable but disposable new characters for no other purpose than to use them as emotional pies-in-the-face? I won't know how to fully process the whole thing until the season's over, but one thing's certain: Bob's death hurt. He was funny, loving, and courageous, an old school nerd who'd weathered bullies and worse and made it out the other side of life to date Winona Ryder. He was a good character, and Stranger Things could have benefitted from his continued existence (and Sean Astin's continued presence in the cast).
On the other end of the spectrum is Billy. Gorgeous as Dacre Montgomery may be, Billy is less a character and more a cardboard cutout with a vaguely defined background and one-dimensional personality. He's a lot like a beginner D&D character, though not in a good way.
Compare Billy to Steve in Season 1. Steve was definitely a douche, but there was good inside of him, and he was conflicted in ways that were relatable even when he was acting uncool. He's spent the last two seasons on a genuine arc, and he's grown a lot as a result of the show's events. Steve bucked the bully/boyfriend trope of the '80s, subverting it and becoming a character we love; Billy unironically embodies that cliché, and is hopelessly uninteresting because of it.
In his current state, Billy isn't even capable of a redemption arc, because he has no redeeming qualities, unless he does a total 180 as a character in the finale. Billy is a vain moron, a toxic alpha male, a blatant racist, an abusive brother, and a reckless idiot. His dad being a grade-A dickhead doesn't excuse any of that. That troubling scene may have made Billy temporarily more sympathetic, but it didn't make him a more complex character. Every villain has an origin story, and Billy is still just a plot device to provide conflicts for Max and Steve.
Thankfully, he's been a relatively small part of Stranger Things 2, which, in "The Mind Flayer," finally got back on the track toward an epic conclusion. The action in this episode was the biggest and best that Stranger Things has ever delivered, and seeing all these characters finally come together again, even in grief, highlights how great all their various dynamics are.
This episode also once again feels grounded in reality in a way that the last one, "The Lost Sister," decidedly did not. Even in all the chaos, characters like Bob, Hopper, and Joyce acted in realistic ways. When they reached safety again, Hopper called for backup. The fact that that backup won't come is what forces them into action themselves, but they don't take that decision lightly.
Winona Ryder is on point, and she's never seemed harder than when she's mercilessly jamming needles into her own baby boy--or sadder than when she's mourning Bob (RIP). Even Noah Schnapp, who for multiple seasons has had very little to actually do as Will, showed off some serious chops as he began to go through his very own Exorcist tribute. The morse code twist was a great callback and perfectly in keeping with the show's sensibilities. And, of course, the reunion with Eleven looks like it will prove every bit as emotionally satisfying as we'd hoped, even if it's coming later in the season that I'd have preferred.
Going into the final episode, it's safe to say that Stranger Things Season 2 is, overall, a weaker series than the original. But it's still a fantastic show, even with some faults. And there's plenty of time left for them to pull off a satisfying finisher.
And remember: #JusticeForBob.
Best reference or easter egg:
Hopper certainly knew his way around that assault rifle, which I'd guess wasn't standard issue for small town Indiana police in 1984. It's yet another hint (along with his knowledge of PTSD and his impressive survival skills) that there's more we've yet to learn about the character's past.