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What the Netflix hit “Stranger Things” Season 4 has to say about sibling loss: Max and Billy

A scene from season 4 of Stranger Things where Max reads out a letter she wrote to her dead brother, Billy. Obviously, Netflix has the copyright and all that jazz.

I know this is a book blog, but since this is my blog I sorta get to talk about what I want. And today, I wanted to have a deep dive into the hit Netflix show, Strange Things. I just finished season 4, vol. 1 and I have some things to say. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the relationship between Max and her brother, Billy.

Billy dies at the end of season 3 in a rather gruesome battle. In season 4 Max shuts down. For the first few episodes, she doesn’t really talk to anyone. She is always seen with headphones on, listening to a Kate Bush song on repeat. As the story progresses, we learn that there is a new dark force coming from the upside down and the gang decide to call him Vecna named after a D&D character The Hellfire Club created. Vecna starts to kill people, but he only picks a certain kind of person – people who have experienced great loss and trauma. Max catches Vecna’s eye. She is wracked with guilt, grief, and pain after Billy’s death. She silently mourns the future she will never have with Billy. All of their possibilities together as siblings are gone. Her grief goes unacknowledged and although she is seeing the school counsellor, the counsellor’s words never really seem to get through to her. Max starts being drawn toward Vecna and he seems to cast a spell over her by using her own grief and guilt against her.

When I saw this plot unfold in the series, I saw some of my own grief and pain acknowledged. I am always in awe of how fiction, whether it be on-screen or in a book can give us permission to explore our emotions in ways we never thought we could in the ‘real world’.

It was no surprise to me that Vecna would target Max. After doing a lot of reading about sibling loss (something I plan on touching on again later), it is widely acknowledged in the literature that sibling loss goes largely unrecognised by friends and family of the bereaved sibling/s. The sibling isn’t the parent. For adult siblings, they aren’t the grieving spouse, the child. This hierarchy of who has ‘more valid’ grief is toxic and oftentimes it creates disenfranchised grief for siblings. This specific kind of emotional shut down that Max goes through is in part, an exploration of that disenfranchised grief.

When Max finally goes into a trance and is taken to the upside down by Vecna, he is ready to make his final blow and kill her. The only thing to bring her back is a song. Now, it is important to note that the song is a Kate Bush hit, and I’m not going to argue that the sheer genius of Kate Bush isn’t more than enough to defeat the dark forces of interdimensional worlds… but I also want to talk about why this specific song was so powerful for Max. Why it saved her, and why it might save any sister feeling lost and heartbroken after their brother is gone.

The song is called “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”. The riff that plays over and over as Max runs frantically to the portal back to the real world is as follows,

“And if I only could, I’d make a deal with God, And I’d get him to swap our places. Be running up that road, Be running up that hill, Be running up that building, See if I only could…”

Kate bush – “Running Up that hill (A DEAL WITH GOD)”

Ignoring the obvious parallels with Max running to freedom as the song’s lyrics which are also about running tumble over the melodic synth music playing at a perfect runner’s pace as Kate Bush crescendos through the chorus – the reason why this song is so powerful for Max is that it validates her pain. She feels terrible guilt that Billy died and that he sacrificed himself for her and her friends. All of which she confesses to Billy at his gravesite. The guilt of outliving a sibling is real. You play it over and over in your head, why them? Why not me? Who decided this? I personally spent so much wishing I could take some of my brother’s pain from him, “and if only could, I’d make a deal with God…”

The opening of the Kate Bush song, “Do you wanna know, know that it doesn’t hurt me?” is really about lying to the people around us. The people who love Max don’t want to see her in pain, it is also really easy for Max’s friends, like Lucas, to turn away from her pain. Max tells everyone around her she is fine, even though she is plagued with nightmares and is literally being stalked by an otherworldly demon-like creature hell-bent on killing her. If that isn’t making your needs so small that no one can see you, then I don’t know what is. It isn’t until she is almost killed that her friends begin to truly take her pain and grief seriously.

I hope that people see Max’s loss and realise the weight of it. I hope that if you’re reading this and you’ve lost a sibling, you find some comfort in Max’s portrayal of grief and love for her brother, Billy. I hope, that if you’ve never found the power of Kate Bush, you use this as an opportunity to immerse yourself in her musical catalogue. We can all sometimes feel like Vecna is at our heels, but trusting the love we have for the people no longer with us, along with the power of Kate Bush goes a long way.

Kate Bush film clip – “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)”

Let me know if you have watched the latest season of “Stranger Things”. Are you excited for vol. 2? Stay tuned for regular bookish posts to come. As always, share the reading love.