What I Learned about Friendship from Stranger Things

[Spoiler Alert: This article includes plot spoilers for season one of Stranger Things]
After a young boy vanishes mysteriously, his three best friends (along with an embittered sheriff, a potentially deranged mother, and two troubled teenagers) embark on an adventure to get him back, enlisting the help of a strange girl named Eleven (11), whose talents are a bit beyond the ordinary. So begins one of the best original series on Netflix—Stranger Things.

Recent studies have indicated that Stranger Things is the most popular streaming show on the planet.¹ A blending of the buddy adventuring of Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), and the nail-biting monster suspense of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)—not to mention other classic 80s flicks like The Thing or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial—this nostalgic throwback to the 1980s is both charming and terrifying. Unlike most horror films, which are invariably shallow and unnecessarily graphic, Stranger Things has a lot to say about family, love, and trust; but the series’s most important theme is friendship.

Friends Have Fun
One of the most heartwarming elements of Stranger Things is the camaraderie that exists between the young boys Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will. When we first meet these four, they are enjoying a highly animated game of Dungeons and Dragons (which they had reputedly been playing for ten hours when they are told to go to bed). When Will disappears, the remaining three friends communicate regularly on their radios, explore scientific experiments, and bike all over the city in search of him.

For some, watching these boys reminds them of their own childhood friendships and the good times they used to experience. The value of having fun with friends is too often overlooked. There’s something really good about just spending time together. As we get older, good friendships get harder to maintain and people we once knew well simply drift out of our lives. To be sure, we cannot maintain all the friendships we would like to, but for too many, having fun with friends no longer means anything more than getting wasted on Friday night.

And for some, this theme of friendship doesn’t resonate at all, because they don’t really have friends. In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis observes that not everyone experiences friendship on this side of eternity.² Friendship is a great gift and joy. Though a good friend will never be able to meet all of our needs and desires, friendship is still an important part of our well-being. Maybe it’s time for us to reconnect with the people whom we used to call friends, or to reach out to someone who doesn’t have a friend.

Friends Don’t Lie
Another key element of friendship is honesty and trust. In Stranger Things, “Friends don’t lie.” This becomes one of the recurring themes in the series, as the three boys and Eleven must learn to be completely honest with each other. In a touching moment, Eleven asks why Mike has a large bruise on his chin. Mike, embarrassed by the real reason, pretends that he tripped and fell. But Eleven is not satisfied with this answer and pushes him to tell the truth—that it was actually bullies who tripped him up.

I was convicted as I watched this scene. How often do we fail to tell each other the truth? I’m not talking about when we outright lie to cover our tracks, but the simple day-to-day failure to be completely honest with each other. For example, how often do we act as though we have no opinion about what we’re going to do on Saturday, when in reality, we just don’t want to cause conflict? How often do we blow off another’s apology because “it didn’t really affect us that much,” when deep down we know that it did? We may think we are being generous in these ways, but in reality, we are only making it harder for the other person and potentially opening up the avenue to resentment in our souls.

But maybe you’re on the other side of it. Why is it that people won’t be honest with you? Is it because they know how you will react? Is it because they know they will get a lecture or that you won’t really listen to what they’re saying? In Stranger Things, Nancy and Mike are constantly hiding things from their parents. Although their mother tries desperately to understand them, telling them repeatedly that they can talk to her, there seems to be a level of broken trust. Their father is clearly untrustworthy as well. He is totally absent from their lives, seems to care little about what they do, and naively believes that everything is just fine.

Strong friendships are built on trust. Many times in the series, trust is tested and characters must choose to believe their friends, even when they seem crazy. The boys must trust Eleven to lead them to where Will is; the sheriff must believe that Will’s mother isn’t crazy; and all of the characters must trust the sheriff to help them find Will. Honesty and trust—it’s hard to have one without the other.

Friends Listen
If we are to have friends who will trust us, we have to be the kind of people that can be trusted. We have to be willing to listen before we speak. We have to practice empathy. Eleven does this well when she encourages Mike to be totally honest and then responds to his embarrassment by simply saying, “Mike, I understand.” It is a powerful moment for their friendship.

Contrast this with Nancy, who doesn’t listen to her friend’s concerns and chooses her own selfish path; or consider the various bullies throughout the series, who seem to care nothing about hearing the deep hurts that many of the characters are wrestling with. Indeed, most of the conflict between the friends centers around them not taking the time to listen to each other, which inevitably leads to some fallouts.

Friends Forgive
When we fail to really listen, conflict is inevitable. After Eleven steers the three boys away from where Will is (ultimately to protect them), all three friends lose faith in Eleven—and ultimately each other. When Mike tries to stick up for Eleven, Lucas gets angry and leaves the group. Nancy breaks trust with her best friend when she refuses to listen to sound advice. Steve turns his back on Nancy because of a misunderstanding. Over and over, the failure to listen and understand turns friends on each other. And when conflict arises, we all need a friend like Dustin in our lives.

Throughout the series, Dustin maintains a level head and urges other characters toward reconciliation. When Lucas and Mike try to forgive each other, they do so with terms and reservations. Since they can’t agree to each other’s terms, they refuse to forgive with shouts of, “Fine! Fine!” But Dustin says, “No, not fine” and goes on to explain how when friends can’t stick together, everything falls apart. Though they can’t make up in that moment, Dustin clearly is the catalyst for reconciliation. Eventually, Lucas and Mike learn to forgive each other and to admit that they were wrong. When we forgive, conflict can go from being a blight on a relationship, to being a strengthening factor.

Friends Sacrifice
Finally, friends sacrifice for one another. Unlike Steve, who doesn’t want to help the police so that he doesn’t get in trouble with his parents; or Will’s dad, who has no concern for his wife or children, nearly every other character in the show displays tremendous sacrifice. One of the most striking examples is when Mike jumps off the cliff into the quarry to save Dustin from the hands of some ruthless bullies.

Sheriff Hopper is another excellent example of sacrifice. When we first meet him, he is a depressed, impatient, selfish, addicted man who doesn’t have much interest in investigating the disappearance of a Will. However, throughout the series, he slowly sheds this persona, and risks his personal safety several times to find the lost boy.

Of course, the most striking example comes at the end of episode eight, when Eleven sacrifices herself to destroy the demogorgon and protect her new friends. In a culture where many of us are stuck in our own little worlds and consumed with our immediate needs, these examples of putting others before one’s self are simply beautiful.

Looking back on season one, I found myself reminded of how wonderful and difficult friendship really is. Sometimes it takes boldness to befriend someone else, or courage to maintain a friendship through hard times. It takes trust to tell the truth whether or not the other person wants to hear it, and humility to listen to another person’s confession or rebuke. Friendship takes sacrifice and putting the other before yourself. Yes, friendship is hard, but most things worth having are. As Stranger Things shows, friendship is among the greatest joys of life; and working through difficulty and conflict, ultimately strengthens the bond.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.