This article discusses the plot of Stranger Things 3.
Bullies are evil.
Heart and logic say no. To grow is to learn that the bully is born of insecurity, a fear of vulnerability. To grow is to learn that bullies get bullied, too. It’s often why they bully. Bullies are tragic. This is an integral lesson, yet, no matter one’s age or experience, we love to watch the bully fall. Not just fall, but suffer. Because, deep in our guts, we will always hate the bully as it manifests for us—he as a jock, she as a cheerleader, or they as blade-toting burnouts. It’s hard to forget the insults, the spit in your hair, the resentment that accompanies fear—you can say you’ve forgiven your childhood tormentor, but you’d also be lying. It’s why, decades after he made life hell for Daniel LaRusso, we still love to hate Billy Zabka.
Bullies are evil.
Stephen King gets that. It’s why bullies have such a special place in his oeuvre. Where many authors offer their antagonists depth, dimension, and redemption, King often pivots in another direction. It’s Henry Bowers, The Body’s Ace Merrill, Christine’s Buddy Repperton, and Under The Dome’s Big Jim Rennie are all vivid, well-drawn characters, but they’re also broken, flesh-and-blood manifestations of whatever supernatural evil simmers beneath the surface of King’s worlds. They’ll call you names, but they’ll also hold a switchblade to your throat. And when King brings us into their minds, we see not a flawed, vulnerable creature, but a cruel, corrupted soul. They want nothing more than to hurt us, and as such, they are exactly what we imagined our bullies to be when we were children. We were right to be afraid.
The Duffer brothers get it, too. A knife is brought to throat of sweet, curly-locked Dustin by the local bully in the first season of Stranger Things. That tormentor, Troy, is the passionless kind preferred by King, but the Duffers let him off with little more than a broken arm. It’s clear why, in retrospect: Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) was on the way in his blue Camaro, and Billy is much, much worse than Troy. His casual air of near-sociopathy was on display in Stranger Things’ second season, but King fans saw the writing on the wall—when Billy met the Mind Flayer, it was going to get ugly.
Enter Stranger Things 3, which may as well be subtitled The Wrath Of Hargrove. Sure, Billy’s the dick he always was when he struts on in his lifeguard reds—he reintroduces himself by calling a kid “lard-ass”—but insults give way to violence once the Mind Flayer makes him its Patient Zero, the nucleus of a cell that infects and corrupts the town of Hawkins, Indiana. What’s truly Kingian, though, is that Billy’s meeting with the Mind Flayer is, in its own way, destined. It’s not entirely clear what causes the accident that careens Billy into the steelworks factory, and Stranger Things is all the better for it. Billy is there because Billy was meant to be there. Billy is evil. And evil attracts evil.
The charismatic Montgomery agrees. “It’s inevitable in some respect,” he says of Billy’s union with the Mind Flayer, adding that the monster is, in its own way, “drawn” to Billy. Just as Pennywise is drawn to Henry, the dog-poisoning bully of It. Just as Leland Gaunt is drawn to Ace, the Body tormentor turned washed-up, beer-bellied Needful Things antagonist. They don’t summon the evil; the evil senses them—kindred spirits and the like. One of the most unnerving aspects of King’s work is that evil belongs not only to the supernatural, but to humans as well. It, for example, is filled with characters—the Bowers clan, Patrick Hockstetter, Bev’s dad—who were, one could argue, predestined for villainy. And then there’s King’s post-apocalyptic The Stand, where survivors are split into camps via prophetic dreams—one overtly Christian in its concepts of humility and goodness, the other fascistic. That the survivors appear to have little choice in what dreams they receive is interesting—it’s reductive in a humanistic way, but striking in the cosmic realm. There’s a unique terror in knowing that we are not only powerless in the grander scheme, but also mere pawns in the battles of our gods.
What’s fascinating about Montgomery, though, is how much he complicates this interpretation. When we chat about the potential of Billy’s innate evil, he returns time and again to the humanity of the character, a facet for which he’s fought since first being cast. Billy was pitched to him, he tells us, as “that stereotype” of the bully, but he did everything in his power to give the character more dimension. For example, it was Montgomery’s idea to have Billy be harassed by his father in the latter part of the second season, a scene that, in retrospect, stands as one of the season’s best.
“He can’t just be bad because he’s bad,” he says. “How are we going to get the audience to actually be involved in this character’s journey? And then they wrote the scene with the dad, and I think that actually breaks the archetype in some ways because you humanize the villain. I can’t relate to a CGI monster because I don’t know what it is, it doesn’t exist in my world. I can’t fathom it realistically. Whereas you can fathom Billy. We all have a Billy in our lives.”
Montgomery brings a painful, conflicted humanity to Billy, who bucks against his possession and, even in the throes of violence, exudes a sad-eyed weariness that imbues him with an aura of tragedy. It’s a layered, impactful performance, and it epitomizes the ways in which Stranger Things is able to have its cake and eat it, too. It’s easy to criticize the show for how much it cannibalizes and flaunts the genre properties of yesteryear, but Stranger Things is rarely content to recycle for recycling’s sake. Montgomery’s Billy is Zabka as filtered through a Kingian lens, a desired, sun-dappled hunk with a homicidal mean streak. That itself is a subversion of the archetype as established by King, whose bullies tend to alienate more than entice. Montgomery’s humanistic approach may undercut the cosmic horror, but it also speaks to what makes Stranger Things special—the horror, sci-fi, and action elements are never more important than the characters.
Still, Montgomery knows what series he’s in and that, for all his sunken humanity, Billy isn’t your average bully. He has a “god complex,” for one, a trait that Montgomery explains with a chuckle that he initially thought to take literally. “I wanted this god complex idea that I was developing for myself to have a reason,” he says. “And the only way that I could come up with [that] was that he knew he was birthed from a virgin.” A wild idea, sure, but he couches it in science, saying that he envisioned his birth mother, a virgin, having conceived him via artificial insemination. The Duffers ultimately decided to fold in his birth mother via other means, but Billy’s god complex nevertheless resonates, if only for how it again links the character to King’s roster of tormentors.
It’s god complexes, after all, that link so many of King’s bullies. Desperate for power, they seek to transcend their status by sheer force. What the supernatural presence offers is an opportunity for apotheosis, and a key aspect of the Kingian bully is that they dive willingly into their dark fate, only to see their own deification yanked from them once their usefulness ends. The bully, now a patsy, has been rendered pathetic; King’s bullies die not in a blaze of glory, but with a withering whimper. The evil that was once so menacing is made facile. There’s tragedy and satisfaction in that.
That’s not Billy’s journey, though; he achieves apotheosis, but his is a sacrificial one that doubles as his redemption, the likes of which he’d never have received in a King novel. It works, though, having been earned via a combination of emotional vulnerability and the knowledge that no one, no matter how shitty, deserves the physical and mental torture he undergoes in the grip of the Mind Flayer. In the end, then, Billy’s a prick, but he’s not quite evil—Montgomery, ever the empathetic performer, made sure of that. Such a revelation might not satiate the bloodlust of the bullied masses, but it feels of a piece with the innate optimism of Stranger Things, a show as indebted to ’80s comedies as it is the decade’s horror and science fiction. Sometimes, though, a bully is just a bully. But Billy, mullet and all, was one we loved to hate.