Spoilers for Stranger Things season 1 (and early, minor developments in season 2) ahead.
Barb Holland only got a small amount of screen time in season 1 of Stranger Things, but that didn’t stop viewers from falling in love with her. Her best friend Nancy might be the smart, popular high schooler we wish we were, but the bespectacled, dowdily dressed Barb is probably the teen we were. Nancy gets to make out with the most popular boy in school; poor Barb ends up sidelined, ignored, and eventually dead, with a slug monster wriggling around in her mouth.
Barb was shunted to the side as an early casualty of Stranger Things, but fans didn’t take her graphic murder lightly. They demanded #Justice4Barb online, creating a meme so popular that even those involved with the show were in on the joke. At a New York Comic Con panel last year, actor David Harbour (who plays Sheriff Jim Hopper) told the audience fans would get some sort of justice. “We do deal with the loose ends in season 2, and we do deal with some of the internet rage over Barb’s death," he said.
Stranger Things season 2 makes good on Harbour’s promise in one obvious way: people actually talk about Barb being missing. Where season 1 seemed to shuffle the character out without any fanfare from her family, in season 2, Barb is suddenly at the forefront of their concerns. In the first episode, we learn Barb’s parents are selling their house to hire a private investigator so they can track down their missing daughter. But they’re burning through their funds in the process, for what viewers know will be a heartbreaking end.
Nancy is haunted by Barb’s death. She mourns her friend through quiet crying sessions and public outbursts. She resents her sentient hairpiece of a boyfriend, Steve, for wanting to move on. “It’s like everyone forgot,” Nancy tells Steve at a party. “It’s like nobody cares.” The death of her best friend is the driving force of Nancy’s arc in season 2. Although Nancy was silenced about Barb’s disappearance, through threats of government imprisonment or bodily harm, she searches for ways to circumvent those constrictions and punish those responsible getting Barb killed — the organization that opened the path to The Upside Down, and helped unleash the Demogorgon.
In an interview with Variety, the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, said they’ve intended for a long time for Nancy and Barb’s family to address her death, and that it’s hard to know how much of an effect the fan campaign actually had on the season. “We certainly wanted a big idea for this season to be the characters to be dealing with the trauma of what happened in the past,” Ross told the publication. “We wanted people to react realistically for that, and for someone like Nancy who feels guilty because she played a part in her best friend’s death, that’s not something you can just brush aside and get over in a year. So we needed her to be dealing with it. So that storyline was already set in motion by the time the Barb stuff came out.”
It’s reasonable to say that, because season 1 of Stranger Things took place over about a week, Barb’s disappearance had very little time to settle. Grief takes time to process. The idea of justice for any dead character is tricky, because unlike in real life, fictional justice has to serve a larger narrative, and come to a logical, satisfying, and appropriate conclusion. Justice is meaningless for the dead; it only serves to satisfy the living. Barb won’t be coming back to life anytime soon, but Stranger Things season 2 has at least given fans a way to bury their collective outrage. It’s time to find a new meme. Maybe “Hopper dancing to” can be this year’s obsession.