Sympathy for the bully
There are characters in Stranger Things 2 that obviously get a lot of attention. The main cast is a clear focus, alongside lovable characters like Bob and the investigative reporter. And everyone is still hoping to puzzle out the Mind Flayer, the evil entity that seems to rule the Upside Down. Given all this attention, I was hoping to focus the lens on a more complicated, less popular character—Billy.
Perhaps, by the end of this, we might understand his character a little more.
Alongside his sister, Max, Billy comes to Hawkins as a new kid in Stranger Things 2. He pulls up to school in a stylish muscle car, rocking the ‘80s metal thing he has going. As exemplified by his entrance of being ogled by the popular girls, Billy is here to shake things up.
And there is no one he shakes things up for more than Steve Harrington.
There’s no immediately clear reason for the antagonism between the two. At the Halloween party, when Billy breaks Steve’s keg stand record, we do see Tommy as Billy’s new hanger-on. But it’s clear Billy doesn’t listen to, or even like, Tommy, as he ignores him in their scenes together. Rather, I’m inclined to believe Steve is important to Billy as a source of competition—an object of envy even.
Billy and Steve
Steve and Billy have an interesting relationship as the warring kings of Hawkins High. Steve had no competition before, but since the events of Season 1, things have gone quickly downhill. Billy is stronger, meaner and better at sports than Steve, in addition to being more well-liked. He picks up girls casually and without even seeming to care to.
Billy shuts out Steve easily, in all areas. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of a competition, if Billy didn’t seek it out. But there’s motivation for both of them to see each other as rivals.
For Steve, Billy represents a life pulling him backwards. In Season 1, Steve’s plan might have been to be the popular kid throughout school, moving on to his dad’s company afterwards. But in Season 1, Nancy Wheeler came along and Steve fell in love. He became soft and lost his hangers-on, looking ahead to the possibilities of college instead. But moving on is a struggle for Steve, as he isn’t very good at school. And when he loses Nancy shortly after Billy’s appearance, both Steve’s present status and his future are put in jeopardy.
Faced with Billy, Steve has the option of defending his status in Hawkins—a present that has little meaning in the long term—or giving up and moving on, an alternative that certainly won’t make him popular or do much for his ego.
Billy, on the other hand, likely fights with Steve for another reason.
Throughout Stranger Things 2, we see Billy express his hatred for Hawkins. Coming from a coastal city, it’s clear Billy must think of Hawkins as a backwoods where nothing happens. Status in Hawkins likely means little to him, beyond being able to dominate others. Steve is a clear representation of the town for Billy, as he held up in the school by its students as its most ideal model. In fighting with Steve, Billy likely gets out of some of his anger.
But Steve isn’t much of a rival in the main areas. As previously mentioned, Billy is seen to dominate Steve across all major masculine points of status. Billy even seems a little disappointed by the truth of this, as he refers to Harrington mockingly as “King Steve”—a moniker meant to hurt Steve but one that also shows that Billy is intrigued by Harrington. Billy’s interest in Harrington may come from his status as an object of envy for Billy.
A Better Life
There is, in fact, something Steve has that Billy does not—a few things even. Whereas Billy has girls interested in his looks, Steve has a girl he loves. Steve also has a loving family, when Billy’s is clearly broken, with a stepmom and a father who seem to be away more often than not. Moreover, as we learned towards the end of the season, Billy’s father physically abuses him, in what is likely a long history. Steve’s life might seem perfect to Billy; as even Steve’s future is guaranteed by a loving father.
Envy would explain Billy’s disappointment in Steve as a rival. As someone who has so much more than him, Billy might be exasperated that Steve seems to show so little initiative in defending what he has. Perhaps, in Billy’s eyes, Steve should be better, given the advantages he has.
Of course, all of this is speculation. The main source of hatred for Billy likely comes from his suggested racism. There’s no easy solution or condonable explanation for this, but Billy’s hatred for Lucas Sinclair likely stems from how he was raised. Of course, solving the problem of racism requires accepting that people can change—that hate can be replaced by love with time and effort.
My personal hope for Billy in Stranger Things 3 is that he does change. Nothing about Billy’s situation is good; simply condemning him neglects the role his bad environment might play. Having grown up with kids like Billy, it feels a little easier to trace where his life of bad choices and a bad family may lead him. In a different home, with real friends and a real future, Billy might have been vastly better.
I believe redemption will find Billy in the next season. I think beating the Upside Down, as well as those who represent it, requires repairing the perversion it represents.