In the first episode of Netflix’s Stranger Things, Will challenges Dustin on a race home, with the winner getting Will’s copy of Uncanny X-Men 134. The issue is near the beginning of the Dark Pheonix Saga, and is one of the earliest issues where longtime X-Men psychic Jean Grey turns against her teammates. It seemed obvious by the end of that episode and has been pointed out by Redditor BillyBBC that the show was making a nod to El’s future: she was sooner or later going to turn on the boys. But as the season went on, I came to believe that El isn’t Stranger Things‘s Jean Grey, Barb is.
And El’s lack of social development – a smart and sad way to characterize a child who’s grown up in captivity – separates her further from Jean. Jean, like the rest of the X-Men, is loquacious, frequently quipping during battles. El barely speaks, again, because of the social stunting caused by not interacting with other children.
Jean actually has a fair amount in common with Barb though. They both have red hair. Stay with me though, there’s a lot more. They’re both extremely intelligent and responsible, caring for their teammates and trying to protect them. We can see that in Barb when she tags along to the party in episode 2 and in Jean when she frequently uses her powers to shield the team, and more in Uncanny X-Men #101.
In that issue, she piloted a spaceship through a radiation field while the rest of the X-Men on board stayed safe in a lead-lined chamber. She could protect herself from the radiation long enough to land the ship, but she started the descent through the atmosphere believing that she would die. And she may have actually died, but she flew out of the water after the ship skidded over the ocean, reborn as the Phoenix.
And that’s what I believe is happening with Barb on Stranger Things. When El finds Barb on the astral plane (borrowing that term from the X-Men), Barb looks to be in the same situation that Hopper and Joyce find Will in when in the upside down. There’s something going down or crawling out of her throat, and she’s cocooned away. Her eyes are glazed over, but El, the person who knows the most about the upside down on the show, doesn’t say “dead.” Instead she yells, “Gone” again and again.
Later on, Will, who wasn’t killed by his embalmment, coughs up a larva identical to the one that’s crawling down Barb’s throat, which implies that the monster from the upside down wasn’t eating the people it took, or even killing them. It was using them to incubate its larva like a parasite, taking them over. Exactly like the Phoenix did with Jean Grey.
It also needs to be taken account that this isn’t the first time the Duffer Brothers referenced another piece of iconic pop culture to foreshadow what’s going to happen on the show. In the second episode, Joyce reminisces about taking Will to see Poltergeist, and her story ends the same way as the mother’s in Poltergeist: both women go into a different dimension to get their child back. Meaning that using iconic pop culture to foreshadow is a part of the Duffer brother’s style.
Combine the red-headed parallels, the image of Barb “gone instead of dead,” Will Byer’s entrapment instead of death, and confidence in the Duffer Brothers not dropping the ball on Barb’s disappearance is enough evidence for me to predict that Barb is going to come back with some super powers of her own next season, much like the Phoenix.
Agree or disagree, we’ll all find out for sure next season of Stranger Things. If only it would come a bit sooner.