Friday, August 16, 2019

Stranger Things, Broken Things, & Billy Hargrove

Stranger Things, Season Three
As soon as the release date was announced for the third installment in the Stranger Things series, my siblings and I made plans that we were all coming home for the July 4th holiday and we were going to spend our vacation together binging the newest installment in our latest obsession, complete with Eggos and Reese's Pieces.

Now, if you haven't seen season three yet and want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now. This is your one and final warning. If you haven't seen any Stranger Things and plan to watch it, stop reading. If you don't care, keep reading and I hope you change your mind. 


The creators of Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers, are phenomenal writers who know how to craft beautiful, three-dimensional characters and carefully plotted story arcs rooted in the great themes of classical mythology. Much like the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings or the Harry-Ron-Hermione trio of the Harry Potter series, a party of nerdy kids in Hawkins, Indiana remind us of the beauty of friendship, love, courage, and loyalty as they face fearful odds and terrifying monsters. Indeed, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, Stranger Things is true not because it tells us that monsters exist, but because it tells us that monsters can be beaten. 

These themes have been central to all three seasons of the show. However, a new theme was given center stage in season three: the theme of redemption as represented in the storyline of Billy Hargrove. 

The theme of redemption isn't new to Stranger Things, as Steve Harrington also undergoes a similar transformation over the course of seasons one and two. However, it can be argued that Steve's choices in season one were motivated primarily by selfishness and immaturity. 

By contrast, the Duffer Brothers characterize Billy as truly malevolent: he bullies his step sister Max and nearly runs over her friends with his car; he is a bigot and a liar; and he attempts to destroy the Wheeler family by trying to seduce the mother, Karen, who is clearly unhappy in her marriage. (Granted, he seems to be motivated more by lust and perhaps boredom than by a desire for revenge. Regardless, he is clearly up to no good.) 

Nevertheless, the writers are careful to maintain the humanity of their new villain. A brief exchange between Billy and his father towards the end of season two indicates that Billy's angry, volatile behavior is the result of verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. While this does not justify his actions, it contextualizes him for the audience.

Billy Hargrove, played by Dacre Montgomery

The Fall

In season three, the Mind Flayer attempts for the second time to assert its dominion over our world. While it cannot yet take physical form, it can use its influence to lure or capture unsuspecting victims and then subject them to its will. Billy is at the wrong place at the wrong time and, in the basement of an abandoned warehouse he becomes the second human victim possessed by the monster. Billy then becomes the primary tool through which the Mind Flayer subtly “recruits” additional human hosts until it amasses an army of what become known as “The Flayed.”

It’s not long before the AV Club of Hawkins Middle School & Co. realize that the Mind Flayer is back, that Billy is under its control, and it is building an army to destroy Eleven, the people of Hawkins, and the world as they know it.

Eleven, as played by Millie Bobby Brown

In Episode 6, Eleven attempts to locate Billy by reaching out to him via the astral plane. She finds herself on a California beach, where she witnesses a tender scene between ten-year-old Billy and his mother. This is followed by a series of pivotal moments over the course of his youth where Eleven observes the devastating impact of an abusive father on the troubled, angry young man she and her friends are trying to save.

Unfortunately, Eleven’s attempt to reach out to Billy compromises her position, and the Mind Flayer tracks her and her friends all the way to Starcourt Mall, where through a mysterious turn of events she is stripped of her supernatural powers. Although her friends attempt to shield her from the clutches of the Mind Flayer, they are no match for the Billy and the monster.

The Resurrection

As Billy presents a battered Eleven to the Mind Flayer, Eleven makes one last attempt to reach out to him. In one of the most beautiful moments in the entire show, she reminds him of his memory of his mother watching him play on the beach. She appeals to the goodness buried within him as represented in his love for his mom. Knowing Billy’s past of terrible suffering and trauma, and simultaneously drawing on her own experience of the loss of her mother, Eleven not only breaks through to him but also inspires him to turn and face the Mind Flayer, buying enough time for Hawkins’ heroes to close the Gate and defeat the monster. This costs Billy his life, and yet Billy Hargrove dies an unlikely hero in one tremendous sacrificial act.


J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift,’ if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”

This does not mean that Our Lord wills for evil or tragic things to befall us, or that we should desire such things. Rather, it means that God allows in His providence and grace for us to experience suffering in order that a greater good might be brought forth, as the broken body of Christ on Calvary brought forth the redemption of mankind.

The fate of Billy Hargrove serves as a powerful example of this divine phenomenon. If Billy had never been possessed by the Mind Flayer, he may never have had the desire for the good or the courage to become a hero. But his brokenness -- the desperation, loss, and fear that he felt from being possessed by the Mind Flayer -- opened him up to receive Eleven’s reaching out to him. She reawakened in him the memory of his love for his mother, helping him find the courage to stand in the gap and become a hero.

Similarly, it is only when Eleven is broken and stripped of her supernatural gifts that she is able to call Billy on to heroism through the power of empathy and love. If it were not for the loss of her powers, Billy might not have had a chance at redemption.

To quote the Venerable Fulton Sheen, “Broken things are precious. We eat broken bread because we share in the death of Our Lord and His broken life. …A broken ship saved Paul and many other passengers on the way to Rome. Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them.”

A broken Eleven saved Billy, and a broken Billy saved the world.

In the breaking of Billy Hargrove, and the pouring of his lifeblood out upon the floor of Starcourt Mall, there was a gift, and that gift was a resurrection: the saving of Billy’s soul, for no greater love has a man than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

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