WARNING: Spoilers for Stranger Things 3 below.
The ambiguous ending of Stranger Things 3 left us with many questions. Some were existential: What happens to Hawkins? Where do we go from here? Will we ever be able to erase The Neverending Story jingle from our collective mind? Some were decidedly less so, like the questions related to a specific character and his ongoing role within the show. No, I’m not talking about Sheriff Hopper, I’m talking about the eldest Byers brother, and I’m posing a simple query … What good is Jonathan Byers?
No really, if someone can give a logical answer to this question, please stop me now. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, we’ve seen the teenage Byers suffer some pretty debilitating trauma. His brother went missing and was presumed dead, his mom began to lose her mind, he had to take on Demogorgons and corrupt governments to protect his family, he pined for Nancy Wheeler. The dude has been through it. In many ways, his commitment to his friends and his enduring love for his brother has been admirable, heart-warming, it’s made us all soft to watch.
And then the Jonathan Byers of season three came along. It should’ve been obvious from the first scene when Jonathan failed to remember to set the alarm after the power went out in Hawkins, then acted hopelessly confused as to why Nancy wouldn’t want to be late to work, that Jonathan Byers was going to be messy this year. He’s never been the brightest bulb in the box, or the bravest little toaster, but Jonathan has had his part to play in Stranger Things as the emotionally intuitive guy, the sensitive bro who wants to help, the woke kid just trying to make a difference in the world. But this season of the show made Jonathan something he’s never been before: selfish and obtuse.
The biggest struggle for the character this season came in the form of his relationship with Nancy and the stress their shared professional environment put on their romance. Both teens scored jobs – yes jobs, not internships, take a second to let that sink in – at the local paper after high school. Jonathan, being a young man with the ability to operate a camera, got to spend most of his time developing film in dark rooms and wondering why Nancy was complaining all the time. Well, Jonathan, Nancy was complaining all the time because she was suffering in a misogynistic workplace with male superiors that openly mocked her and teased her because of her age and gender. In some ways, that atmosphere seeped into Jonathan’s own treatment of Nancy as he constantly questioned her instincts, blamed her for his failures, and refused to risk his own neck to pursue a story that turned out to be deadly, for the town and his family.
But Jonathan wasn’t just a crap boyfriend this season, he was also useless when it came to fighting Mind Flayers, babysitting his brother, and preventing the destruction of the Star Court Mall. Once Nancy was able to drag the eldest Byers away from his photo lab and convince him that there were more important things than his need to kiss the butts of his superiors, Jonathan found himself face-to-face with a new kind of Mind Flayer, one made flesh with the guts and goo of melded rats and leftover human body parts. After getting his butt kicked by a pair of Flayed baddies, he spends most of episode five and six futilely banging on locked doors, getting pummeled with metal surgical tables, and waiting for Eleven to save his girlfriend from the glob of rat guts that’s trying to kill her.
Steve Harrington, this dude is not.
By the end of season three, when Jonathan’s finally remembered he has a brother and he might need to check on him now that the creature who once possessed his body is back and creating his own army of Hawkins minions, he’s even more insignificant in the fight against the Upside Down. While Steve and Robin are relaying vital information to Hopper and Joyce as they try to destroy the machine and close the gate, effectively cutting off the head of the monster, Jonathan is, well, struggling to start a car. His inability to hotwire a getaway vehicle might’ve proved deadly for the group if Nancy hadn’t shot up Billy’s corvette before Steve crashed into it with a Cadillac convertible.
And look, we’re not bashing Jonathan Byers because he’s not as handy with a gun as his girlfriend, as fearless as Hopper, or as savvy as his mother, but this season of Stranger Things really failed to give the character an arc of substance. In fact, in many ways, Jonathan Byers spent season three reverting back to his former self, isolating those he cared about, unable to contribute to the fight, and unsure of his direction in life. For a season filled with secondary characters coming into their own, gaining autonomy, taking the reins in their own storylines, Jonathan’s presence didn’t just feel like a waste of space on screen, but a direct foil to characters like Nancy and Steve and Robin, fellow teens finding a sense of empowerment and purpose in their roles in the fight against the Mind Flayer.
We doubt Jonathan Byers will ever be the hero on Stranger Things, but if the show gets a fourth season, it’d be nice to see him as something other than inconsequential.