Horror doesn’t only exist on the big screen. It also has a deep history on television, all the way back to The Twilight Zone. In recent years, horror has been more popular than ever, thanks to shows like American Horror Story and Yellowjackets and Mike Flanagan’s entire oeuvre. However, if there’s one show that has defined the last half-decade of both television and horror, it’s Stranger Things.
Breaking out in 2016 thanks to its blending of different horror genres, its nostalgic 80s setting, and an all-star cast, Stranger Things became a worldwide phenomenon. It is consistently the highest-watched streaming show, the kids all became movie stars – hell, it’s so popular, it basically forced the It movies to change their entire approach. Not to mention the fact they made Kate Bush a superstar.
I myself watched and loved the first season before falling off during the second. It didn’t help that so many people now claiming they always knew the second season was weaker than the first tried to gaslight me at the time – I’m onto you, Kyle. Anyway, my coworker forced me this past summer to rewatch the hit series, and guess what? It’s still pretty good! Stupid, at times, but still entertaining. And a major reason for that are the characters.
Stranger Things lives and dies by its likable, fleshed-out portrayals of classic horror archetypes: the strange girl with psychic powers, the depressed alcoholic sheriff, the grieving mom, the girl next door, the jock, the wisecracker…the list is endless. And so, in honor of the show’s record-breaking fourth season, I thought we could take a look at the Top Ten Stranger Things Characters.
The rules are relatively simple: I’m looking for the combination of the best performances by the actors mixed with the most well-rounded characters. Take, for example, Honorable Mention Nancy Wheeler. Nancy is a classic girl next door that could have been a real stick-in-the-mud if not for Natalia Dyer’s commanding performance. Or Chrissy Cunningham, a cheerleader introduced solely to die in Season Four, only to remain entirely memorable by her intriguing backstory and the heartbreaking performance of Grace Van Dien. These are the types of characters I’m looking for on this list.
Other Honorable Mentions include the likes of Lucas Sinclair, a character who had some great moments in Seasons Two and Four before being sidelined for most of the run; series lead Mike Wheeler, a terrific character in the first season before being diluted into a whiny little brat; and Max Mayfield, a skater girl with relatively little characterization who feels wholly fleshed out thanks to Sadie Sink’s unbelievable performance. Oh, and I’m uncontrollably mad I couldn’t make room for Catherine Curtin as Claudia Henderson, Dustin’s mom and easily the most likable parent of the original trio. With that settled, let’s dive straight into the Top Ten Stranger Things Characters!
10. Dustin Henderson
I doubt any version of this list would feel complete without Dustin Henderson, played by series breakout Gaten Matarazzo. When the show began, he was known mostly as “the one with cleidocranial dysplasia.” However, he won over critics and fans alike, thanks to Matarazzo’s ability to perfectly balance the sarcastic, funny friend and the ultimate nerd in equal balance. If Mike is the leader, Steve the muscle, and Nancy the brains, then Dustin is the glue that keeps the group together – as can be seen in the show’s ingenious pairing between the nerdy middle schooler and the ultra-popular Steve Harrington. The only member of the original quartet to make the list, Dustin Henderson is easily one of Stranger Things’ most entertaining characters.
No actor on Stranger Things was able to do so much with so little as Shannon Purser as Barb. It’s weird to say the show’s success rests on the shoulders of a girl who died after two episodes. But in many ways, it’s true. Purser played Barb as a girl who felt real – a wholly real best friend with sage advice and a stick-in-the-mud attitude that defied the show’s tendency to utilize archetypes. It’s no wonder that a girl who felt so natural and so real in this silly, silly world would capture our attention – especially once she was tragically killed in the show’s second episode. One of only three cast members from the show’s run to earn an Emmy nomination (seriously!), this list can’t be complete without Barb Holland.
8. Murray Bauman
All great 80s sci-fi and horror had the town crackpot whose conspiracies end up being correct. It was only a matter of time before one popped up in Hawkins, Indiana. But even though the character seemed inevitable on paper, the only reason Murray Bauman became the fan favorite that he did was the perfect marriage of an entertaining character and surrealist comedian Brett Gelman. Gelman’s Murray is the comic relief the show desperately needed, highly observant to the point of audience surrogacy, comedically sardonic, and yet a complete and utter loser. Every moment Gelman shows up, Stranger Things receives a spark of life, whether he’s haphazardly karate chopping Soviets, battling monstrous Demogorgons, or yelling at one of the show/s many will they/won’t they couplings. The moral here is obviously that Brett Gelman should be in everything; but if we can’t have that, then at least keep Murray around a little longer.
7. Joyce Byers
Joyce Byers, as played by the series’ original draw Winona Ryder, is an easy character to overlook. After all, her role has gradually taken a backseat to the kids as the series progressed, and her role in the first season was campy to the point of parody. But remember exactly what her role was in the first season, and how much impact it had on the series’ trajectory. Joyce is a single mom, making ends meet for her two kids, and then undergoes the trauma of one of those kids disappearing without a trace. Ryder throws her all into Joyce as a woman trying to save her son at all costs, going through different stages of grief and resilience. And even when she took a backseat, mostly involving tragically losing every man who gets close to her and an ill-conceived trip to Russia, she still remains one of the show’s most interesting protagonists. Quite simply, you can’t talk about Stranger Things characters without Joyce Byers.
6. Eddie Munson
Everywhere one looked online this past summer, the Internet was fawning over Eddie Munson. Memes were made, songs went viral, and Doja Cat tried to shoot her shot with actor Joseph Quinn. It’s enough to make you roll your eyes. But once one watches Season Four, it’s clearly understandable why Eddie became a breakout hit. His arc alone is beautifully tragic – the misunderstood metalhead outcast accused of a crime he didn’t commit (it’s much more interesting if you don’t read about how the Duffer Brothers based him on the real-life West Memphis Three case of the 1980s). Yet Quinn breathes so much life into the role, even beyond the surface-level look at the character. His little tics and traits and desire to f*ck with the popular kids are so entertaining, and his self-loathing at his own cowardice is so utterly relatable. His musical rants and sarcastic flirting and mentor role to his Freshman wards are so beautifully fresh, it’s hard not to remember his tragic journey. No list would be complete without Eddie Munson, or Joseph Quinn’s performance.
5. Jim Hopper
It seems pretty cliched to include Jim Hopper on this list. He’s the alcoholic town sheriff who punches evil government figures in the face and dances with his surrogate daughter figure to Jim Croce. Yet that’s the magic of David Harbour’s performance: how well he defies the cliches. Hopper is the flawed protagonist we love to cheer for. He’s a hapless drunk for a small town with almost no crime barely hiding his inability to keep it together. Yet Hopper is more complex than his surface lets us see. He’s determined to get the job done, has a strong sense of justice, and his heavy drinking hides the fact that he lost his daughter at a young age – perhaps the reason he decides to take young Eleven under his wing. It’s no wonder that Harbour’s career exploded after the show’s first season, and it’s easy to see why Jim Hopper is a fan favorite, from Day 1 through this past season.
4. Robin Buckley
It says a lot about Robin’s character that most fans didn’t comment on the fact that Maya Hawke is the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman for a solid month after her premiere. They were too busy talking about everything else with her character. From the jump, Robin’s sarcastic nature captivated fans. She was the exact opposite of all the other characters her age – too sarcastic for Jonathan, too dorky for Steve, and too clumsy and outspoken for prim and proper Nancy. Perhaps these contrasts are what helped her stand out – they put her at sardonic odds with all the other characters, especially Steve. Robin’s blossoming friendship with Steve was the heart (and indeed, only good part) of the third season, as they went from sniping comments to Robin confessing her sexuality to Steve in a mall bathroom. Robin feels like a real girl from Indiana, hiding her secret from friends and neighbors behind sarcasm, yet always utterly herself. She is one of the show’s best creations, and thanks to Maya Hawke’s performance, one of the best characters on TV today.
I mean, duh. Of course Eleven has to be Top Three. She’s a literal cross between Carrie, E.T., and every slasher’s final girl. The character of Eleven works because of Millie Bobby Brown’s wholly believable performance, but I’d argue that even if she wasn’t a superstar, Eleven would still make this list. Let’s break it down. She’s a mystery girl found in the woods by the protagonist, who has never had friends or family, was told she was a monster, and suddenly feels love and compassion. She is the most powerful force in the universe, yet wants to use those powers for good. She has unique relationships with every single one of the show’s characters, from her first-season crush on Mike to her second-season surrogate family with Hopper to her third-season friendship with Max. Oh, and she really loves Eggos. Eleven is a perfection of a classic sci-fi archetype, and a subversion of the Chosen One trope the genre beats like a dead horse. She is the reason the show became the success that it did, and it would be wrong to put her anywhere on this list outside of the Top Three.
2. Steve Harrington
Steve Harrington has had quite the amazing journey with Stranger Things. In the first season, Joe Keery’s jock was a simple subversion of a stereotype, a flawed, but well-meaning popular kid who stands between the girl-next-door and the artsy boy with a crush on her. Now? Netflix has allegedly informed the Duffer Brothers that they would rather cancel the show than let them kill off Steve. Who knows what made Steve so popular? Well, there are several reasons. In the first season, it was solely based on his resemblance to Jean-Ralphio. But as the show went on, what drew fans to Steve was his growth as a character, in almost every sense. He went from a self-absorbed pretty boy to a mentor to lonely teenagers, an outlet for a closeted gay girl (thanks to the logic, “Wait, YOU like boobies too?”), the street-smart leader of the group who always thinks to approach situations prepared, and above all a flawed, but goodhearted human being looking for redemption for past mistakes. If Stranger Things is Scooby-Doo, then he is the Fred and the Shaggy rolled into one, and the growth, charisma, and humor that Steve brings to the table is his redeeming quality.
Oh, there was no question that Bob was going to be my #1 pick, for both comedic and legitimate reasons. After all, what could be funnier than picking Sean Astin’s dorky boyfriend of Joyce Byers and stepdad to Jonathan and Will above so many creative and colorful characters? But whether it’s because of the writing or Astin’s pitch-perfect performance, Bob deserves this spot because he’s such a unique character. He’s the high school loser who grew up to get the girl of his dreams, thanks to his head and his heart. He never has a bad thing to say about anyone, caring about all his friends and family without a second thought. And his love of puzzles even manages to save Jim Hopper’s life. And even though he was taken from us all too soon (RIP Bob, always remember to look to the right), he still got to go out like a hero. Bob is love, Bob is life, and his subversion of classic tropes and wholehearted goodness make him the greatest character to appear on Stranger Things.
Well, that wraps up our look at the best characters on Stranger Things! Hopefully you had as much fun reading this as I did revisiting the show this past fall. And if not, no worries! I feed off your hatred! Go ahead and tell me how wrong this list is in the comments – the aforementioned coworker has already ripped me a new one over it. I’ll be back later this week with a whole new list. Until then, feel free to sit back and relax with the only possible song I could end this list with.