In the many trailers for the hot-awaited Stranger Things season 2, one thing is for sure: Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) hasn’t disappeared from the world of inter-dimensional monster fighting. Eagled-eyed viewers will notice we get glimpses of Nancy wielding a rifle in the apparently forever-accursed Byers household, anxiously running out of a home I assume is haunted, and joking with Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) that they only hang out “when the world is ending.”
While a big part of Nancy’s storyline at this point in Stranger is her love triangle with Jonathan and the perfectly-coiffed Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), it wasn’t always this way. Originally, Nancy only had beef with the hellscape that is the Upside Down — and that pesky, murderous Demogorgon — because it killed her best friend, Barbara “Barb” Holland (Shannon Purser, who was nominated for an Emmy for her role). Although we all know #Justice4Barb, one of the most overly-saturated Stranger Things memes, it’s easy to forget, why, exactly the late Barb even needs justice. Amid all of the meme-ing everyone forgot to actually talk about the events that led to the beloved redhead’s very premature death. So, now that Stranger Things 2 premiere is near, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of the character, since we’ve been promised Barb-related closure when the new season debuts on Friday, October 27.
When you go back and look just how much screen-time Barb was allotted in Stranger Things season 1, you’ll realise it was a shockingly small amount. In series premiere, “The Vanishing Of Will Byers,” we meet Barb as she literally runs into frame to ask Nancy, “So, did he call?” The “he” is, of course, Steve, the most popular boy at Hawkins High School. Nancy doesn’t actually confirm whether Steve called or not, but reveals she and the jock “made out a couple times.” While Nancy is trying to pretend her relationship with Steve isn’t that serious, Barb isn’t so naive. “You’re gonna be so cool now, it’s ridiculous,” the redhead tells Nancy. “You better still hang out with me.” After tossing in a few more eyerolls, that’s the last we see of Barb in the whole episode.
The next episode, “The Weirdo On Maple Street,” spells doom for Miss Holland. While trying to quiz Nancy for her upcoming science test in the middle of a Hawkins High hallway, Steve appears to snatch the cards out of Barb's hand and invite Nancy to his house for a tiny party, sans parents. Barb immediately doesn’t want to go. When Nancy tries to convince her BFF during a phone call to go with her, we don’t even get to hear Barb’s side of the chat. Still, Barb picks Nancy up to go to Steve’s, despite her many, many reservations. “He just wants to get in your pants,” Barb tells Nancy. “Come on, you are not this stupid.”
Barb and Nancy show up to the teeny Harrington house party, and the former immediately has a terrible time. She’s so uninterested in being there, the high schooler never even takes off her jacket. The real problem arises when everyone starts shotgunning beers, and Nancy goads her shy pal into trying the trick, so she can feel less self-conscious and maybe Barb will feel more included. Barb fails at puncturing the can and gives herself two small cuts on her hand. “Gnarly,” says Steve’s requisite terrible friend, Tommy H. (Chester Rushing). By the time Barb is finished dressing her wound, Nancy is heading upstairs to “change” after she “fell” in Steve’s pool. It’s evident to everyone Nancy is actually going to Steve’s room to hook up.
Although most horror movies uphold the trope of killing the teen girl who has sex, Stranger Things instead kills the girl who judges her female friend for having sex. As Nancy tells Barb she can go home — the thing she’s been begging for all night — the quieter girl literally scoffs and incredulously says, “This isn’t you.” Interestingly, she makes this declaration without ever asking Nancy if she does want to have sex with the cute guy she is crushing on. Instead, throughout the first two episodes, Barb side-eyes Nancy for acting “stupid” and not realising Steve is trying to sleep with her. When, by the time you get to the end of “Maple Street,” it seems pretty evident Nancy knows precisely what’s going on, but feels too trapped by her “good-girl” image to admit she’s just as interested in sex as a guy like Steve is. She’s not stupid, she’s just playing the game of acceptable feminine sexuality. Unfortunately, Barb doesn’t exactly give Nancy the room to explore such topics.
This is how Barb ends up sitting next to the Harrington pool, dripping blood all over the place. The gore-hungry Demogoron smells all the spilled blood and shows up, dragging Barb to the Upside Down. While fans everywhere hoped Barb could survive the attack like Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) does, sadly, Nancy’s best friend isn’t so lucky. In episode 3, “Holly, Jolly,” we see Barb wake up in the Upside Down, spitting up creepy grey water. While Nancy enjoys her first time sleeping with Steve, Barb is trapped in the Upside Down’s version of Steve’s pool with the Demogorgon. These two wildly different experiences are cut together for a very upsetting cold open. Yes, an anxious Barb slut-shamed her friend, but, she didn’t deserve to violently die in a hell dimension, screaming. Her final words are, “Nancy!”
We get confirmation of Barb’s death in Stranger Things season 1’s penultimate instalment, “The Bathtub,” when the psychically-powered Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) travels to the Upside Down to find Barb and Will. While the tween does manage to track down a still-holding-on Will, she sadly also comes across Barb’s bloodied corpse, which has an Upside Down slug coming out of it; it looks like the same type of slug Will Byers closes out the season coughing up.
So, Barb — a sometimes cluelessly judgy friend, as many teen girls are — died in the Upside Down screeching her best friend’s name and eventually had her body filled with otherworldly hell-spawn slugs. On the other hand, said BFF got to hook up with the best-haired boy at school and never have a single Upside Down slug enter her respiratory system? It’s no wonder everyone is out here looking to get #Justice4Barb.