There was a moment early in the new season of Stranger Things when I thought, finally the show is going to give Will Byers the storyline he deserves. He was throwing more tortured soulful looks than Frodo on the way to Mount Doom. He had drawn some kind of painting that he didn't want to show anyone. Meanwhile across the continent a whole new villain had appeared in the Upside Down. These things had to be related.
To be clear, for me, Will has always been the most important character on Stranger Things. I get it, Eleven has the powers and the backstory and everyone is always hunting for her (please God, can we stop with the hunting for her?). Dustin has all the good ideas and the courage. Mike has a lot of…heart (we'll get there). Steve and Hopper both have classic hero arcs (although giving them both six packs…so weird).
But Will was the kid taken into the Upside Down. By the rules of all the classic stories that the Duffer Brothers love, that makes him both special—touched--and essential to the story's resolution. Eleven may be Vecna's opponent/dance partner, but by virtue of what he's been through, Will somehow has to be the Upside Down's.
But so far that plot hasn’t really happened. Will spent season four mostly in a pizza van giving off a very different set of Frodo vibes. Finally in episode eight, we not only learned what the deal was with the painting, but we also dug into the story that Will has quietly been given in the intervening seasons seemingly in lieu of a continuation of his relationship with the Upside Down. He's in love with Mike.
Will's (not) coming out was so uncomfortable. The script felt overwritten, and Noah Schnapp's approach felt so melodramatic. That moment after he's talked (and talked) (and talked) about Mike's big…heart, and he turns away toward the window and clutches his mouth to hide his weeping for a really long time (while Mike is still like 'Hey, cool painting')—for me, the whole thing was the definition of cringe.
But then I remembered this guy I knew in high school back in the 1980s. He had this very Andrew McCarthy "Pretty in Pink" style, jackets that laid upon his shoulders like they belonged there and perfect hair. Everything about him seemed effortless and charming.
I always wanted to be around him, but at the same time I never looked at that feeling, never let myself confront the truth of why that was, what I was telling myself about who I was and how I loved. He was just a great person, I told myself, and also him, any time it seemed like he needed encouragement, always with that same overwrought earnest quality of Will's which signaled-without-signaling not just my affection for him, but a part of me fighting so desperately to be seen by myself.
The purpleness of Will's dialogue is so important in this regard; it's not just his trying to say what he thinks he needs, but searching through the words for something that can explain to himself what he's feeling, who he is, what this is that he's actually doing. Will cries not because his friend doesn't see what he's really telling him—seriously Mike, your best friend is weeping right in front of you, what is wrong with you?—or because he couldn't bring himself to say it. In those moments you cry because you came so close to catching a glimpse of yourself, but you didn't quite get there, and now it's past.
Since the final two episodes dropped, that scene in the pizza van has been a big part of the conversation. And I’ve been a little shocked to discover that some people don’t see that moment or Will’s overall arc in season four as definitively indicating that he is gay. Writing in Vulture, Jason P. Frank called these moments the “Will Byers gay kinda” scenes. His own take is that Will is definitely queer, but that the Duffer Brothers don’t want him to realize it.
But for me that scene captures perfectly the confusion and intense ambivalence of being a young gay kid in the 1980s. Despite the fact that I attended high school in an upper middle class suburb of Chicago, I can’t think of a single person who ever just mentioned the word “homosexuality.” I didn’t meet anyone that was out of the closet until I was a senior in college. There were no openly queer characters to look to in pop culture, either. How do you articulate your experience when society is withholding all the images and words?
I don’t know if Will will ever “officially” come out. But whether he does or not, I think his sexuality is actually the deepest expression of his connection to the Upside Down. What is the Upside Down anyway, if not a metaphor for our unconscious, the unseen but underlying dimension of our existence in which all the emotions and experiences that we fear roil about, and if we are not careful explode completely out of control? Of course the repressed gay child gets pulled in there; it's the manifestation of everything about himself that he has been so desperately burying.
Just as Max's brilliant story in season four was about the liberation that comes with confronting our darkest thoughts in that terrifying place, so I hope in the final season that Will's slow journey to truly see and love himself will give him freedom and also power. When we finally face the “stranger things” within us, they lose their monstrous aspect and we see them for what they are: our deepest desires; our fiercest defenders; the greatest gifts we have to share.
At the very end of the fourth season, with everyone at long last back in Hawkins—please Duffer Brothers, no more Russia—our main characters stand before the storm of the Upside Down which has broken through into their world. As usual, Eleven is placed front and center. But it's only Will that can feel what is going on over there. More than any of the others standing there, he is the one that is connected to that place. And ultimately, that connection should be his and their salvation.