Spoilers below for “Stranger Things 2.” You’ve been warned!
Strange things happen on “Stranger Things” Season 2, but there’s one friendship, in particular, that keeps us all from flipping upside down.
Although the bond between the four lead kids ― Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) ― captivated audiences last season, the new installment shines an even more powerful spotlight on the specific connection between two of its most empathetic characters: Mike and Will.
What’s so great about “Stranger Things” is that it places honest portrayals of relationships between friends, parents and children directly in the middle of its sci-fi fantasy conundrums. Rarely do we get to witness authentic male friendships on screen that reflect the actual realities of growing up, and the Duffer Brothers give us that opportunity. Through Mike and Will, we experience real tenderness between boys ― boys who are capable of expressing their emotions and asking each other the simple but necessary question: “Are you OK?” They, like the girls in so many well-told tales of youth, can look each other in the eyes and reply, “No.”
Mike and Will didn’t get to share a lot of screen time together last season when Will was living in the nether. But now that he’s back in Hawkins proper, Mike is as worried about his friend as Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) is. While Dustin and Lucas are focused on impressing the new girl Max (Sadie Sink), Mike is more concerned with Will’s well-being and the freaky “episodes” that are preventing him from living a normal life. Sure, Mike’s also preoccupied with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and her whereabouts, but he seems to sense that his best friend, whose brain is being violently haunted by a shadow monster, needs him now more than ever.
In a sweet scene from Chapter 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak,” Mike and Will sit in the Wheeler basement and discuss what’s really been going on with Will since he returned from the Upside Down.
Mike: Is this all real? Or is it like the doctors say, all in your head?
Will: I don’t know. Just please don’t tell the others, OK? They won’t understand.
Mike: Eleven would.
Will: She would?
Mike: Yeah. She always did. Sometimes I feel like I still see her. Like she’s still around, but she never is. I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy.
Will: Me, too.
Mike: Hey, well, if we’re both going crazy, then we’ll go crazy together, right?
Will: Yeah, crazy together.
This moment speaks volumes of the sensitivity surrounding these two young characters. Mike knows Will is in a fragile state, so instead of harping on his own pain, he uses it to relate to Will and reassure him. No semblance of competition. No teasing. Just pure understanding.
We see this behavior play out again in another poignant scene from Chapter 5, “Dig Dug.” Mike, the only kid not entirely obsessed with a pollywog-turned-Demodog Dustin rescued from a trash can, goes to the Byers’ house to see where Will’s been since he blacked out at school.
Will’s mom, Joyce, who is very much aware of her son’s episodes with an alternate reality, is skeptical at first about inviting Mike in, not knowing that Will has already confided in him. Once inside, Mike gazes in awe upon the startling map Will created using his “now-memories.” But instead of freaking his friend out even more, Mike sits with Will, eases his mind, and rightly tells him that he can use these visions to his advantage.
“Just think about it, Will,” Mike tells him. “You’re like a spy now. A super spy, spying on the shadow monster! If you know what he’s seeing and feeling, maybe that’s how we can stop him. Maybe all this is happening for a reason.”
When Will suggests that the monster might be spying back at him, Mike assures his clearly shaken friend. “We won’t let him,” he says. His advice is decidedly more mature than the pearls of wisdom dispensed by everyone’s favorite out-of-touch newbie, Bob (Sean Astin). (“Go away” apparently doesn’t work on a relentless shadow monster.)
Sadly, the Mind Flayer has a bigger grip on “zombie boy” than those around him realize. It seems to be chiseling away at Will’s personal memories, as well as his physical state. As Will loses more and more of who he is to the monster using his body as a host, Mike stays by his side. While his other friends are distracted by girls, cat-eating creatures and Steve Harrington’s hair, Mike, alongside Joyce and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), tries to remind Will of their past experiences, providing his friend with the life preserver he needs as his reality slips away.
In Chapter 8, “The Mind Flayer,” the group watches as the shadow monster tightens his hold on Will. They tie him up in Joyce’s shed and share stories of their time together before a teary-eyed Mike attempts to reach Will.
Do you remember the first day that we met? It was the first day of kindergarten. I knew nobody, I had no friends and I just felt so alone and so scared, but I saw you on the swings and you were alone, too. You were just swinging by yourself and I just walked up to you and I asked ... I asked if you wanted to be my friend. And you said yes. You said yes. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.
Vulnerability makes an appearance again. Even if the shadow monster is the ultimate recipient of his story, Mike’s not afraid of his emotions, nor is he threatened by the group of people standing around him as he makes his tearful plea. He’s a self-assertive young man who truly wants to reach his lost friend, judgment be damned. He cares.
The storytelling roundtable doesn’t work the way they intended it to, but it does lead Will to a solution. He uses Morse code to communicate with his family and friends, letting them know that he is indeed listening. And the group continues to share heart-wrenching stories in response, until Will delivers a crucial clue for stopping the Mind Flayer: “Close gate.” In the end, every plan the team concocts works out, and Eleven, in her triumphant return, is able to confine the Mind Flayer to the Upside Down ... for now.
But even though the season closes with a reunion between Mike and his romantic crush (she’ll never l’Eggo, Mike), “Stranger Things 2” was less a nod to young love and more a perfect salute to young friendship. The tender moments between Mike and Will throughout the last nine chapters allowed the audience to experience a hug-rather-than-push adolescent connection so often left out of stereotypical coming-of-age sagas. An image of boys wrestling for a game controller, hurling insults and chuckling mercilessly, is replaced for a second by an image of two kids, in their matching “Ghostbusters” Halloween costumes, having the kind of tough, uncomfortable conversation that marks a real friendship.
Understanding more about Mike and Will’s bond will surely inform future seasons of “Stranger Things.” As the months and years roll on, we’re eager to see how these characters grow ― and how their relationships take shape in the process. Here’s hoping Mike and Will continue to show us that young boys can have complicated, emotionally mature relationships, too.
And Bob, we hope you’re eating KFC with Barb somewhere.
Honorable mention: Steve and Dustin’s budding bromance is the best thing since creamy nougat. I would douse myself in Farrah Fawcett hairspray in their honor if I could actually find a can.