Here's How 'Stranger Things' Season 2 Delivered Justice for Barb
It's impossible to predict how audiences will latch on to stray parts of a pop culture phenomenon. When Netflix's Stranger Things debuted in July of 2016, it's unlikely that the Duffer Brothers, the sci-fi show's creative braintrust, had any idea that the character of Barbara Holland, a nerdy and awkward friend of the more popular Nancy Wheeler, would become an audience favorite known affectionately as "Barb". They definitely had no idea Barb would become a meme, a fashion icon, and an internet cause célèbre.
As the show became a word-of-mouth hit, the unapologetically marginal Barb, who gets killed by the Demogorgon in the third episode, became a sensation and even earned actress Shannon Purser an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the loyal but scolding friend. Soon, fans were demanding "#JusticeforBarb," decorating sweaters and buttons with the slogan. The Duffer Brothers began to claim in interviews that the show's second season would explore the aftermath of her death in more detail.
"Barb will not be forgotten," Matt Duffer told IGN. "We’ll make sure there’s some justice for Barb. People get very frustrated, understandably, that the town doesn’t seem to be really dealing with Barb. That stuff is all happening. We’re just not spending any screen time on it."
Now that Stranger Things Season 2 is here, how is Barb's death actually dealt with? Do we finally learn where she got her stylish glasses? Does her killer stand trial? Below, we dig into the show's Barb-centric plotline, which pops up throughout different episodes, and try to determine whether or not justice has actually been served or not.
We meet Barb's parents
When Stranger Things Season 1 ended, we'd met the parents of many of the main characters, but Barb's parents remained on the margins of the action, presumably grieving while the other characters raced against the clock to rescue Will from the Upside Down. In the first episode of Season 2, the Holland's take center stage for one scene as we see Nancy and her boyfriend Steve arrive at their humble home, which now includes a photo-shrine to their missing daughter. Apparently, the Hollands were planning a more elaborate meal, but ran out of time and went with fast food chicken. ("I love KFC," says Steve. Of course he does.)
It's clear that Nancy wants to tell Barb's parents that their daughter is dead, but she's sworn to secrecy by the shady government agency that caused her death. Instead, she must watch on as the Hollands continue to believe that Barb might still be alive somewhere. They tell Nancy they've hired a man named Murray Bauman, a former investigative journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times, to track down any leads on the case. Also, in a truly sad twist of the knife, the Holland's are planning on selling their home to pay for the pricey investigation.
Distraught, Nancy goes to the bathroom and sees a picture of Barb. She begins to cry, her feelings of repressed guilt and shame coming to the surface. It's a scene that suggests that the Barb storyline will be a major plot thread of the season and that the Duffer Brothers comments about finding justice for Barb weren't made in jest. For once, the show appears to be taking Barb seriously.
Nancy becomes obsessed with getting justice for Barb
As the season progresses, Nancy's guilt becomes less about Barb and more about her relationship with Steve, the well-coiffed bully-turned-good-guy from Season 1 (and likely father of Parks and Recreationcharacter Jean-Ralphio). In the second episode, Nancy spots a girl sharpening a pencil and thinks it might be Barb -- or maybe the ghost of Barb! -- but it ends up being some random redhead. We even hear bits of Barb's dialogue from Season 1, like "That's not you Nancy." But it's all a tease: No Barb. (According to her Twitter, Shannon Purser's only part this season was shooting those Barb photos.)
Nancy confides in Steve about her feeling, voicing some of the criticisms that the show's fans actually made of the Barb plotline after Season 1. It's one of a handful of cheeky, self-aware moments, like Max's accusation that Lucas's story lacks originality, sprinkled throughout the second season. "I can't keep doing this," Nancy pleads. "Pretending like everything's ok… It's like everyone forgot. It's like nobody cares."
Later, Nancy and Steve go to a Halloween kegger party, where Nancy is so distraught over her friends' death that she ends up drinking too much spiked punch, spilling on her white blouse, and arguing with Steve in the bathroom. She tells him she feels like they killed Barb and also tells him their love is "fake." Heartbroken, Steve leaves, and Nancy ends up getting a ride home from Jonathan Byers, the David Bowie-worshiping outcast who also harbors feelings for her. Once again, Barb gets sidelined for Nancy's increasingly complex love life.
Soon enough, Nancy and Jonathan are on the hunt for proof surrounding Barb's death. In a pretty convoluted scheme, they purposefully get picked up by government agents who take them to the creepy testing facility in Hawkins, where Paul Reiser's doctor character basically confesses to killing Barb as Nancy secretly records him. It's a big get -- and proof that the government really needs to hire some more tight-lipped scientists. Too many leakers.
The town finds peace about Barb's death -- through a lie
The funniest thing about the Barb plot in Season 2 is how much it echoes the arc of Season 1: Again, Barb has a larger role in the beginning of the season but pretty much gets forgotten as the tension rises in later episodes. In Episode 5, Nancy and Jonathan pay a visit to the investigator hired by Barb's parents Murray Bauman, played with scenery-chewing glee by comedian Brett Gelman, and they share their tape with him. Intrigued, he suggests they "water it down" by claiming that Barb was "exposed to some dangerous toxins." He argues that the real story of the Upside Down and the Demogorgon is simply too radical. Instead, they need something "scary but familiar."
So, they send the tapes out with a letter to a bunch of newspapers and then… nothing really happens with the Barb plot for the next few episodes. Most of the cast members are busy trying to figure out what's wrong with Will; Eleven is hanging out with punks in Chicago; and Nancy and Jonathan end up sleeping together. At the end of the Season 2 finale, after Eleven has closed the gate and Will has been freed of whatever demon was possessing him, we get a "One Month Later" title card and learn from some newscaster voice-over that the release of the "incendiary tape" has thrust Hawkins into the national spotlight.
That's right: the "justice" for Barb is mostly delivered in an expository info-dump. "Under mounting pressure, several high-ranking members from the US Department of Energy have admitted involvement in the death and cover up of Hawkins resident Barbara Holland who died due to exposure to an experimental chemical asphyxiant which had leaked from the grounds of the lab," says the voice on the news. We see images of Barb's parents at a funeral for their daughter -- and with that, the show is done with Barb.
In a way, it's a fitting end to the Barb phenomenon: Barb cult-dom was clearly motivated by the feeling that she was shafted by the show's creators, served up as monster meat to a plot that would quickly focus on other more conventional TV characters. If the first season had dealt with her death in a more serious manner, the fandom around her wouldn't have had the same touch of advocacy to it, which is what made it so effective as a meme.
Season 2 doesn't really provide justice or closure for Barb -- her death is still part of a cover-up -- but it does pay tribute to essence of the Barb meme. It was never really about her. It was about the people who loved her.