SPOILER WARNING – if you have not watched Stranger Things and don’t want spoilers for the character of Eddie, you can stop reading and go back under whatever rock you were under that you somehow don’t already know what happens. You have been warned.
I’m not going to come out and pretend I am different from any other person who fell for the fan favourite Eddie Munson from the most recent season of Stranger Things. I knew the actor who played him, Joseph Quinn, from the short-lived run of Dickensian, and although his character in that was of the slimiest and most pathetic, he played it well and definitely got me rooting for him in the end, if only because he’d been exploited and tormented by someone even slimier.
In Stranger Things, it was in the scene establishing Eddie as a no-pressure weed dealer, ironically, that managed to make me like him. Coupled with the fact that Lucas, out with the clean-cut, “normal” basketball team, ended up spending the night in a dump of an abandoned party house wasted, while Mike, Dustin, and eleven-year-old Erica, who spent their evening with Eddie the highschool drug-dealer, got home safe and sound before midnight–well, it did wonders for Eddie’s likeability.
So was I as upset as everyone else when Eddie fell as the only real casualty to the big boss ending? Well, no, I probably wasn’t as upset because I had been spoiled for it to happen by everybody who jumped on the social media of their choice to express their outrage the night the thing aired. Seriously. Did no one have anything better to do on their Canada Day/Independence Day long weekend but spoil it for the rest of us who, God forbid, hadn’t watched it the very night it came out? Could you not wait, like, a week? It’s not like anyone wasn’t prepared for the possibility of Eddie’s death given the show’s history, but we might like to enjoy the uncertainty a little.
So, to address the strong statement in my title: I was originally going to title it “Why Eddie’s Death Was Meaningless” but then it would have been a little too late to put a spoiler warning in the opening text. And, while it would have been a more impactful and jarring title, it wouldn’t be quite accurate.
Eddie’s death wasn’t meaningless in every sense, but it was meaningless in its function as the final part of his character arc.
Eddie is introduced as a loudmouth, unable to graduate, high school drug dealer. Although his opening scene did not really make me like him as much as cringe, while he pontificates to his club and generally makes a big scene, walking on tables and shouting, there are some important things set up that carry through to come back at his death. He says it will be his year, and after two years of failing to graduate, he knows he’s going to do it once and for all and move on with his life.
Eddie has goals, however limited–he’s tired of running in place. Yet, he stayed in school despite failing two years, which I think establishes something else unusual about his character–he’s not a quitter. Either that, or he just really doesn’t want to have to go out and get a real job. Who knows with Eddie. Another possibility is that he’s staying to graduate highschool to please his uncle, although I don’t think it’s ever directly stated.
In fact, I was pretty disappointed with the lack of an established relationship between Eddie and his uncle. I don’t think they are ever in a scene together in the entire show, correct me if I’m wrong. Eddie’s uncle talks about him quite a bit when Eddie disappears under suspicion of murder, and Eddie talks (a bit) about being raised by his uncle because his parents were awful, but in general, it felt a bit one-sided and not quite the connection, at least from Eddie’s side, that would have made it more meaningful.
What is instead developed is Eddie’s propensity to run away from real danger or frightening situations. It happens significantly twice, and Eddie himself comments on it, claiming that throughout the crazy events of the past few days, what he has learned about himself is that he is a person who runs. So far, so good for setting up character development. It isn’t difficult to see that a logical end for Eddie’s character arc would consist of him standing and fighting instead of doing a runner. Which is exactly what happens.
The issue I see with it is the intervening journey from realising that he has an overdeveloped flight response and wanting to overcome it in a general sense, to suddenly deciding to not only stand his ground, but run towards deadly peril. It happens in a split second moment during which there are some redundant flashbacks to him saying he’s a person who runs, he’s not a hero, etc., and then he suddenly decides to do the opposite.
We have to track back a bit to get to the reasoning because otherwise, what we are given for Eddie’s motivation is a bit unintelligible. After breaking into the trailer in the Upside Down, there is no indication that the Demobats would have necessarily been expected to follow Eddie and Dustin through the gate, given that that was their chosen route of retreat, but at the same time, there is no reason why the bats wouldn’t have followed them through the gate. So, theoretically, Dustin and Eddie might have both gotten back to the Rightside Up and still ended up trying to hold the bats off from coming through the gate, continuing buying time for the others. If the bats were expected to come through the gate, Eddie’s choice to strand Dustin in the Rightside Up and lead the bats away makes more sense–he was protecting Dustin.
And he is still running. He uses what he sees as his negative trait as a strength to help further the cause. At this point, Eddie’s character is undergoing a realistic transition: instead of running to relative safety or just away, he is running into a more risky situation in an effort to protect someone he really cares about. I am definitely with them so far.
Had the Demobats caught up with Eddie while he was still frantically running (cycling) as hard as he could, knocking him down and forcing him to stop and fight to survive, I would have completely bought into that type of ending for him. There was enough lead up to make the move realistic for his character development.
Even if he was successfully leading the Demobats away for a while, and then as he kept outpacing them they started breaking off and circling back and he risked losing them altogether unless he started engaging them in a fight, that would make more sense–he ran until he was forced to make the choice to fight in order to continue distracting the bats. That would have had even more impact character-arc-wise than my previous scenario, because this way he would have chosen to start the fight to keep accomplishing his goal, without being forced into it for survival, which gives him more agency.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, we’re expected to believe that Eddie, still outpacing the Demobats and successfully leading them away from Dustin while keeping them occupied and away from Vecna’s fortress, effectively succeeding at what he is supposed to be doing, suddenly decides now is the time to alter his habitual flight response; he stops, turns around, and faces a swarm of hundreds of bats the size of mastiffs, by himself, with no cover but a garbage can shield and no weapon but a stick with a hunting knife tied to the end.
Here, we leave the realm of acceptable risk for a good cause and enter that of certain, stupid, painful, and pointless death for no additional benefit.
Again, why? What are we given as Eddie’s rationale for this totally out-of-character and fatal choice?
He doesn’t want to be the person who runs away.
Well, taken at face value as it’s given, that’s dumb because there’s no emotional motivation for that desire. Also, it’s redundant. Because guess what? He already made the choice not to run away. Twice. When Dustin first came up with the plan to go and look for the gate to get to Vecna, Eddie voiced his hesitation and made an absolutely iconic speech, “You’re asking me to follow you into Mordor. Which, if I’m totally straight with you, I think is a really bad idea. But, uh, the Shire… the Shire is burning. So Mordor it is.” That’s instance 1 of him not running away.
Instance 2 happens not much later when he dives into the Upside Down after Robin and Nancy. He later expresses to Steve that he didn’t want to do that either, yet he did, regardless of the motivation being that he didn’t want to be shown up by the girls. So, we’ve already seen him make the choice not to run.
If all his death does is show that he made the choice not to run, well, whoop-de-do, we already got that. Of all the reasons they could have given for him deciding to do this from the material that has been previously established about Eddie, they instead give us this face-value “doesn’t want to live as a coward” crap to justify their choice to write him out of the show. It’s a meaningless end to a character arc that was full of potential.
How could it still have ended this way but instead been made emotionally meaningful to Eddie’s development? Because it’s not like the material isn’t there, it’s just that the writers refused to take the time to connect the dots on Eddie’s story while they were juggling four different groups of characters in all corners of the globe and dragging more endless drama out of previously established romantic relationships.
There are two significant things about Eddie that the show sets up that would have functioned perfectly as motivation for Eddie’s decision and made what happened seem more emotionally meaningful to his character, if still futile and tragic.
First of all, Eddie is a nineteen- or twenty-year-old in high school, still running a Dungeons and Dragons club as the Dungeon Master. Secondly, Eddie doesn’t want to be anything like his absentee father, who taught him to hotwire cars and generally be a useless drag on society.
Now why might a kid have a habit of running away from things he doesn’t want to deal with, while clinging desperately to a fantasy world that he has probably been invested in since childhood, refusing to let go of it and grow up?
I don’t think it’s a reach to say that Eddie clings to D&D as a method of exercising control over something when in his own life he feels so directionless and inadequate. As the DM, he can make decisions, face consequences, be brave, and be a strong leader who doesn’t let his followers down–all things his father didn’t do for him.
But in real life, Eddie consistently runs from things he doesn’t want to deal with, consequences of actions he can’t face… which is probably exactly the type of behaviour his father exhibited, leading him to abandon Eddie. And as Eddie voices realizations throughout the show about how in reality he acts differently than his persona, I think it could have been tied into his desire to not keep falling into the destructive pattern of behaviour exhibited by his father.
It’s not that Eddie just needed to be a hero in real life as he was in D&D–that would be meaningless, in the same way that ultimately a D&D campaign is meaningless, however elated the players might be to win. In the end, it’s just a game. But that’s how show treated Eddie’s death–just part of a game–when they could have easily tied it in more solidly with his real insecurities and given his choice a more rational explanation connected to his father. Instead they brush over it with the abstracted, “he wants to be a hero, so he just needlessly throws himself in harm’s way to prove that he can.”
No, we need to know why it’s important to Eddie that he be brave. Not just proving something to himself–he’s already proven himself in other ways–but growing from his need for the security of a table-top RPG that he had complete control over, to facing the risks of reality and moving past the traits picked up from his useless father. Above all, he needed to be shown to believe that in fighting he could win and that his struggle would have meaning.
And somehow, in the actual moments leading up to his death, it just missed that.
It’s not that his death had no meaning–it had limited meaning for Eddie in the sense that he brought back the language he’d used in episode one about graduating and it being his year, only now referring to his death. It had meaning for Dustin, who came back for Eddie and was with him when he died. It had some meaning for Eddie’s uncle when Dustin told him that Eddie had died a hero (although Dustin’s abstract and vague language about how Eddie fought against what was ostensibly an earthquake seemed like it might have been less than believable and therefore not so comforting to Eddie’s uncle, but that’s a different critique).
So it wasn’t a meaningless death in all senses, but it was effectively meaningless to his character arc because they didn’t follow through and connect all the emotional dots they had already set up to make Eddie’s death clearly meaningful as it was happening.
Yes, you can extrapolate and infer more meaning in his death for his arc, as I have, but that’s not what we were given on the face of it, so I can’t give them credit for just throwing out the crumbs of a good arc and leaving the audience to do the work to make it fit together afterwards, as we are left wondering why it didn’t hit in the satisfying way it should have, and rightfully could have.
Did I cry despite it not being a perfectly satifying arc? Yes, it accomplished that much. Despite its shortcomings for Eddie’s character, it was an impactful death scene, not least of all because of the spectacular emotional range demonstrated by Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin. Sometimes the best a character can hope for is to be mourned by those left behind.
Because, unfortunately, Eddie is another example of a character introduced not for his own sake, but exclusively for the benefit and effect his presence will have on the development of the established cast of characters. Hence, his premature death with nothing but the most surface level of effort to make it meaningful, as soon as his character no longer served the story.