Monday, July 22, 2019

Will Byers and the Tragedy of Childhood Lost

This post contains spoilers from Stranger Things 3.

Poor Will Byers. Fans of the Netflix show Stranger Things have become quite accustomed to saying that since it began. This character has not had an easy go. In the first season he was trapped in the Upside Down, in the second he was possessed by the creature that lived there.

In some ways, Will gets a break in season 3. The creature finds other people to torment and use as puppets for its own ends. And he even retains an ability to sense when bad things are about to go down, which benefits our heroes more than once.

But Will is still struggling. It's a struggle that all his peers--Mike, Lucas, Dustin, El, and Max--are enduring, but he faces it a bit differently than they do. While the rest try to navigate romantic relationships and hormones (with a little decoding of Russian messages thrown in), Will just wants to keep playing Dungeons and Dragons the way he and his buddies used to do. But nobody else seems very interested in that any more.

There are plenty of people speculating that Will might in fact be going through his own journey of self-discovery related to romantic attraction, which I'll leave to others for now. But I want to talk about one of the most resonant minor plot points for me personally, which rose to its crescendo in episode 3.

By this point, Lucas and Mike are completely involved in their on-again, off-again relationships with Max and El, respectively. They're both grousing about what to do in the boys' headquarters in Mike's basement, eating Doritos, making body sounds that young boys love to make, and talking about girls as if they're a different species, all while accepting as little blame for their situation as possible.

Meanwhile, Will is meticulously setting up a D&D game, carefully arranging the pieces, books, and papers around the table where they've played countless times. He's ignoring the other guys' talk about how to solve their problem, instead throwing in an occasional update about how close he is to being ready to start.

The other two aren't interested. They don't become any more interested after they start playing, despite Will's best efforts to set the mood with music, a wizard costume, and dramatic storytelling. When Mike short circuits the game, Will rips off his outfit, storms out of the basement, and rides his bike home in the rain, realizing that something of what he and his friends used to have is gone.

One of the most heart-breaking scenes for me in the entire season happens shortly after this, when Will finally gets home. He looks at the posters and pictures around his room, symbols and memories of childhood filled with imagination and play, and calls it all "stupid." Through tears, he destroys and rips apart everything that represents what he's loved for so long. He and his friends are growing up, and he's seen firsthand that the ones he used to play with have other interests now.

It's a lonely scene and it can be a lonely realization. Save for a couple small conversations and references, the show doesn't really deal with the aftermath of this moment. It suggests that Will is left to suffer and adjust on his own, which is also quite relatable.

The socialization to "grow up" is powerful, and can be quite painful. The other adolescent characters embrace these changes, but Will wants to hold onto his childhood--or at least pull some of it into his growing years--however he can. For many, leaving what society deems "childish things" behind is the expected norm, whether it's games like D&D, action figures, fantasy adventures, and so on.

The message ends up being, "It's nice that these stoked your imagination and helped you make sense of the world when you were younger, but now it's time to dump all of it in favor of finding a partner, getting an education, starting a family, getting a job, retiring, and dying. Get on with it."

(Notice that this only applies to what's deemed "geek culture" and not, for instance, sports.)

Nobody is around to tell Will that it's okay to keep playing. Sure, he has to accept the responsibility and changes that come with growing up, but the reason for his meltdown is because nobody tells him that growing up can be a both/and.

You can prepare for your future and play RPGs. You can explore your attraction to others and read comic books. You can get ready to graduate high school and hang onto the stories and characters that have been helping you figure out your life identity, because really, if you've made it this far thanks to them, why would you suddenly let them go?

There's plenty about growing older that is hard. For Will and for so many others, being told to stop playing only makes it harder. Which is why we shouldn't. Remembering to play, to imagine, to dream helps us retain a sense of vitality.

Let's never give that up.

(image source)