How many good people must die at the expense of Strangers Things’ dastardly play for the zeitgeist? If you’re a pure-of-heart nerd living in Hawkins, Indiana, start planning your funeral. Being a good guy is as dangerous as being in the path of a deadly Demogorgon.
It’s another year of bingeing, another year of Stranger Things omnipresent obsession, and another year mourning the death of a fan favorite character. Move over Barb. This time it’s all about Bob. And, frankly, we’re still pissed.
From the second Sean Astin is introduced as the sweet, adorable Bob Newby, you know he’s doomed. Acting in peak Rudy-meets-Samwise aww-someness, Bob seems, at first blush, almost too good. He’s a former schoolmate of Winona Ryder’s Joyce and David Harbour’s Hopper, the manager of the local Radio Shack, and Joyce’s doting new love interest.
In some respects, it’s easy to imagine him as a future version of what the Stranger Things Scooby gang might turn out to be like, had their childhoods not been so traumatized by carnivorous monsters from an alternate dimension. He speaks about how he learned to be confident in his unabashedly nerdy passions and hobbies, which, from puzzles, strategy games, and A/V technology to harboring endearing crushes on cool girls, mirrors the interests of Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas.
In some ways, he actually is too good to be true: The way he dotes on Joyce, the way he campaigns to be a significant part of her sons’ lives, the way he understands how she needs to deal with the trauma of the previous year. You start to watch his every appearance with equal amounts of suspicion and dread: They’re going to do a bait-and-switch and turn Bob into a bad guy, aren’t they?
Nope! They’re just going to kill him.
Turns out that Bob Newby wasn’t just lamby. He was a sacrificial lamb.
It’s one of the hardest scenes from the new season of Stranger Things to watch, mostly because you know exactly what’s going to happen so far in advance. The second that, while hiding in a closet from a pack of Demidogs, he volunteers for the doomed mission of resetting the circuit breaker in the Hawkins Lab, you know he’s done for.
Stranger Things nails so many beats of the ‘80s sci-fi and creature films to which it pays homage. The emotional torture of a noble, unlikely hero seemingly saving the day, only to sniper your heart with his shocking 11th hour demise, is certainly one of them.
It’s true that the moment injects a much-needed emotional wallop into a season that, because its major story arcs were so disjointed—Eleven’s journey, Nancy and Jonathan’s crusade for justice for Barb, Dustin and Steve versus the Demidogs, and Will’s continued torture—sorely needed one to rekindle a more visceral investment in the proceedings. But watching Bob get gruesomely eaten by the Demidogs still somehow seemed crass and gratuitous.
That’s because unlike the demise of last year’s fan favorite, Bob’s death was unnecessary.
It’s arguable that Barb had to die. Perhaps there needed to be an actual fatality to wake up the town and raise the stakes of season one’s mystery beyond the disappearance of Will Byers. What made her death in season one so ludicrous wasn’t that it happened; it was the flippancy with which it was dealt, and the cold way the character was made to be dispensable.
The supreme oddness of it all—the seeming randomness of her being the one who was killed, followed by, in the end, it being actually random that she was the one who was killed—helped catapult Barb to the status of pop culture phenomenon. Peculiarity has that effect, and it got so out of control that Shannon Purser even scored an Emmy nomination for her performance, which is really just wild.
There was the bizarre way the show wrote Barb in the first place, as some bitter normcore wallflower whose entire character arc centered on slut-shaming Nancy, only to then discard her entirely, as if it was something she deserved. In fact, the strange surge in cult fandom surrounding Barb centered around the fact that the show never justified why it was Barb who deserved that fate, something season two attempts to make amends for with Nancy and Jonathan’s mission to go public with the truth about what happened to her.
Bob, it goes without saying, certainly didn’t deserve his fate. It might have seemed like he got his hero’s death. But he really was collateral damage to the show’s greatest flaw: its infuriating inability to handle love stories.
Bob was written onto the show because the Stranger Things writers haven’t figured out how to believably connect Hopper and Joyce, who are meant to be together—at least not while keeping to the business of Hopper harboring Eleven this season. And he was written off the show so that the writers can finally make it happen next season. (This is all our speculation.)
It’s kind of confusing how inept the show seems to be at handling its characters’ romances, when what’s so satisfying about it is how perfectly it hits the notes of every other tenet in genre cinema. It’s not just the Joyce, Hopper, and Bob triangle. The Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan romantic musical chairs is even more ungratifying. Season one’s “poor Jonathan!” rally cry is now “poor Steve!” Neither outcome is particularly pleasant for viewers.
There’s similar weirdness with the adolescent crushes, whether it’s the dynamic between Max, Dustin, and Lucas, or the maddening plot point in which one of the few big moments this season for Eleven—a badass heroine if there ever was one—comes because she’s jealous that Mike was talking to Max.
Listen, it’s common practice for TV shows to introduce fantastic new characters, and to break our hearts by killing them off. It’s the emotional gamble of investing in television! But there’s something that stings extra hard about our beloved Bob Newby.