NOTE: I finally finished Stranger Things 2, and there are some light spoilers in this post. This warning is here in case you’re late to the party like me.
But like the saying goes: If you’re going to be late to the party, make sure you bring some good guacamole.
Spoilers beyond this point.
At the end of Stranger Things 2, the main characters get to take a brief victory lap at the school’s Snow Ball dance. There’s one dance floor pairing that stands out: Nancy and Dustin.
There’s plenty that could be said about the relationship between Nancy and Steve, and how Dustin is now trying to emulate Steve, but I’m not interested in that aspect. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Instead, let’s look at two moments, one from season 1, and one from moments before this dance, and what connects them.
So much of Stranger Things 2 is about the past bleeding into the present, worming its way back and refusing to be forgotten.
Nancy starts out Stranger Things 2 dealing with the guilt of Barb’s death. It creeps up on her at odd times. She can’t escape Barb’s memory.
Nancy sent Barb away so she could be alone with Steve, leaving Barb vulnerable to an attack from the Demogorgon.
Nancy could have no idea she was sending Barb to her death, but she carries the weight of being one of the few people in Hawkins who know the full story. Her knowledge and guilt separate her from most of the rest of the town, leaving her conflicted and angry.
But let’s go back further, to before Nancy knew definitively what happened to Barb. Back in season one, Nancy caught a glimpse of the last moment anyone saw Barb before she was pulled into the Upside Down.
Through Jonathan’s pictures, Nancy sees Barb’s sadness and isolation. This was Nancy’s fault. Nancy brought Barb to a place she didn’t want to go, then ditched her to canoodle with Jean-Ralphio’s dad. (This is canon.)
The memory of this image matches up with what Nancy sees when she looks at Dustin after he’s been rejected by the girls at the dance.
Yes, when she brings Dustin on to the dance floor, she’s trying to make him feel better. She knows what they’ve all been through (twice now). But this is just as much about her trying to deal with her guilt over Barb.
Seeing another friend having that same moment of isolation, she chooses to reach out instead pushing them away.
And the show, using the positioning of the actors and framing within the camera, as well as Nancy’s gaze, tells us these moments are all connected.
There’s no Justice for Barb. Not really. And Nancy can’t directly make reparations for the harm she’s caused others through her indifference to her friend.
The show deals with trauma as an absence. A lack. Like a missing puzzle piece that keeps you from seeing the whole image.
But there’s no bringing Barb back. No finding the missing piece. The best that Nancy can hope for is a substitution.
What Nancy wanted, at the start of the season, was a way to make amends for letting Barb go of alone and get killed by the Demogorgon. What she needed was to learn to have more honest connections with the people around her. To bring people in instead of pushing everyone away.
And it doesn’t just go for Nancy. The whole cast of characters, from Eleven, to Joyce, to Hopper, are all cobbling together a new whole, pooling together the pieces they each have left.