Despite what the show might have you believe, the most compelling character in Stranger Things isn’t the teenager with superpowers and a numeric name. Though Eleven has incredible power and an interesting backstory, everything she does in the show’s present day fulfills the general arc of the overpowered hero’s journey. She hides from the public, she saves the day; she harnesses her power, she saves the day; she loses her power, she eventually finds it, and then … saves the day. No, the most compelling character in Stranger Things is Lucas—or at least, it could be.
Before plot even arises, Lucas is given a more engaging background than most of his friends. He’s the only Black member of the friend group, though the show notably denies engaging that aspect, and he has a precocious scene-stealing younger sister who is the bane of his existence—a sibling relationship much more complex than Mike and Nancy’s, though maybe not more than Max and Billy’s. And then there’s the conflict the show builds around him: of the main group of Stranger Things kids, Lucas has experienced the most change (you know, the thing protagonists are usually known for). In the early days, Lucas was the most distrustful of Eleven, balking at the idea of protecting her at every turn. It wasn’t until after she saved their lives a solid handful of times that he fully changed his tune. As the show progresses, Lucas is surrounded by great characters (the Season 2 debuts of Erica, his sister, and Max, his love interest, among many other things).
And now, Lucas is faced with one of the more relatable conflicts of the show: staying loyal or “selling out.” In Stranger Things Season 4, Part 1 (*eye roll emoji*), it’s revealed that Lucas joined the basketball team but remains in the Hellfire Club (Hawkins High’s Dungeons & Dragons club) with Dustin and Mike, after Will and Eleven move to California. The issue arises when the championship basketball game lands on the same night as the end of Hellfire Club’s semesterlong D&D campaign. Lucas asks Dustin and Mike to convince the Hellfire Club’s leader, Eddie, to postpone game night. It doesn’t work (though, if you ask me, they didn’t try that hard.). And so Lucas must choose.
Rarely is the stay-a-happy-nerd-or-become-a-sellout-jock conflict so well set up and earnest. We’ve been with Lucas and the gang for years now; we know how close they are and how important D&D is to their identity as a loyal and solid friend group—and how it’s also helped them save the world a couple of times. We’ve also seen how they’ve been bullied and ostracized. So even though Lucas has warmed the bench for Hawkins’ entire basketball season, he claims that he wants to try and get in good with the team to elevate him and his friends to a new level of popularity. But there’s also a glimmer of how much basketball actually means to him, how he believes he might find his place on the team, a sense of belonging—and maybe even importance, given how the show has entirely focused on all of the other characters except him.
Lucas shows up for the game, unaware that his friends were unable to postpone Hellfire Club, and he finds his way off the bench to make the game-winning shot that clinches the championship for his school. But when Lucas sees Mike and Dustin leaving school in their Hellfire Club T-shirts celebrating their D&D victory, there’s an honestly heartbreaking sadness as the audience watches Lucas realize that not only did his best friends go ahead without him, but they also missed his big moment.
Lucas’ disappointment perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of being torn between two friend groups and identities. So you can imagine how much I was anticipating the conversation Lucas will have with his friends once they all reunite, as we know they will. But it never comes. All of this wonderful tension is squandered and not even remotely addressed by Lucas or his friends once they reunite. Sure, they were kind of busy saving Max’s life at the time, but still. How great would it have been to have them hash out the ways in which they’ve hurt one another during a life-or-death situation, illuminating the gravity and importance of belonging and friendship in high school. Lucas’ closest friends missed his big star moment, while Lucas prioritized the group who tormented him and his friends for years. Watching them air their grievances could have been an incredibly touching and honest exploration of growing up: deciding where you belong, what’s important, and who you maybe want to be—and more importantly, seeing if you can carry important relationships with you through all these changes.
This could have been really interesting. Consistently Lucas is the character of the main group who experiences the most change, who is set apart from the group in a major way but finds his way back by overcoming something big (his own fear, his friends’ narrow-mindedness, etc.). But the potential is entirely wasted, as it always is with Lucas. We don’t see him grapple with being wrong about Eleven in the first season, or how it changes his perception of trust or the supernatural. Even the gravity of the choice this season (Basketball or Hellfire) is cheapened when the show turns the basketball team from a group that welcomes Lucas as their teammate and real friend, to a bloodthirsty murderous mob of vigilante teens? He had an actual believable conflict, trying to evolve while feeling seen in multiple communities—not to mention, his short stint on the basketball team showcases him talking to another Black kid that he’s not related to for what may be the first time—but the show even erases the validity of that choice (and also the other Black kid dies a gruesome death).
There’s still time for Lucas and his friends to have a more honest and upfront reconciliation, maybe once they reunite with Will, Mike, and Eleven—the last two episodes of Season 4 are due July 1—but considering the past history of Stranger Things, it’s unlikely. And that’s a shame, because characters figuring out who they are is what the show was uniquely good at in its first season, and occasionally since. Now, it seems like the show doesn’t know where its most intriguing conflict resides, but here’s a hint—it’s not in the Upside Down.