There are spoilers about Stranger Things 2 all over this article. Please proceed with that in mind.
Bob Newby, the boyfriend of Joyce Byers in the second season of Stranger Things, is the equivalent of dad jeans in human form. He is unabashedly dorky but comfortable, someone who initially elicits snickers but also hints at the person all of us might turn into as we age. He’s also pretty awesome.
Actually, wait. Maybe Bob Newby isn’t a pair of dad jeans so much as the ’80s-throwback-streaming-TV version of Barack Obama wearing dad jeans — a little goofy at first glance, but still really admirable.
Within the context of the Stranger Things universe, Bob — played by Sean Astin in a role that wasn’t written for him, but certainly seems like it was — is also something else: He’s the Barb of Stranger Things 2. Like Barb, his social experience as a kid was not entirely fulfilling. (“I struggled a lot, like Will, when I was a kid, with bullies,” Bob tells Joyce. “It’s the ones like us, that don’t punch back, that people really take advantage of.”) He’s awkward in a way that, at first, makes you think, “Oh, this poor individual needs help.” Last year, Barb’s unfortunate hair, eyeglass frames, and blouse choices elicited a reaction that isn’t entirely dissimilar from the way I felt when Bob referred to his own car as “the Bob-mobile.”
But much like Barb, Bob seems confident in his own judgment and in who he is. Had she lived longer and gotten past the peer pressure of her teen years, Barb likely would have grown up to become the kind of person Mr. Newby is: one who happily stays in for the night and rents Mr. Mom, thereby avoiding situations in which one might get kidnapped by Demogorgons while waiting for her best friend to finish having sex. The name Barb even sounds like Bob, especially if you pronounce it with a Boston accent. (I’m not sure why anyone would do that since Bob and Barb are/were from Indiana, but you get my point.)
Because we spend more time with Bob than we did with Barb, we also understand that he’s great on his own, non-Barb-related terms. First of all, the dude is cutting-edge. He both owns and knows how to operate a JVC video camera almost a full year before Marty McFly and Doc Brown would get their hands on one in Back to the Future. He’s fluent in BASIC computer programming, which comes in handy when there’s a power outage and a Demodog invasion at Hawkins Lab. (BASIC: Who knew it could save actual lives?!)
As implied earlier, he fully grasps the comedic greatness of Michael Keaton, and he embraces a quality vampire pun at every opportunity. (“I hope it doesn’t SUCK!” Ah, classic Bob.) He also knows a totally hot jam when he hears one, and yes, I am referring to the sizzling track “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. You might say that digging a totally mainstream, country-pop crossover proves that Bob is a lame middle-aged man. I say he’s just showing his appreciation for “Ghetto Supastar” 14 years ahead of his time.
But perhaps what makes Bob such a lovable figure is the fact that he’s played by Sean Astin, an actor best known for playing earnest, unerringly optimistic characters. Astin was Rudy Ruettiger, the determined football hopeful who got into Indiana’s University of Notre Dame against all conceivable obstacles, managed to sack a quarterback during his scant amount of playing time, and got the NCAA version of a standing ovation.
Astin starred in the Lord of the Rings movies as Samwise Gamgee, the kind of hobbit who would carry his best friend Frodo on his back all the way up Mount Doom if he had to, and who reminded us “that there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Most relevant to Stranger Things, Astin was Mikey Walsh in The Goonies, a classic ’80s adventure in which he deciphered a map (!), refused to emerge from tunnels until he and his cohorts did what they set out to do (!!), and who insisted that Goonies never say die.
The highlights on Sean Astin’s filmography are synonymous with the audacity of hope. Like I said: He’s Obama in dad jeans.
Even if you believe that an ’80s version of Winona Ryder would never wind up with an ’80s version of Sean Astin — especially considering that Christian Slater at peak Christian Slater–ness was more her speed during that decade — you can’t help but root for their relationship because you want Bob to be happy. You want him to be happy because he seems like such a decent guy, who’s trying really hard to take care of Joyce and her kids. You also want him to be happy because when you look at him, you still see Rudy, Mikey, and Samwise. What kind of monster wants anything less than the best for that combo platter of onscreen underdogs?
Ultimately “Bob Newby, Superhero” does emerge in full, just as we suspected he would. But unfortunately — and this is where, again, I say spoiler alert — that heroism leads to his tragic death in the penultimate episode of Stranger Things 2, taken out by a Demodog and eaten alive. Which is even more cruel and brutal than what happened to Barb.
Bob’s harsh demise is yet another thing those two have in common, and it’s what cements his status as the Barb of the second season. But just as Barb will live on forever as an unexpected internet icon and nerd heroine, an icon for 2016 as much as an example of poor 1983 fashion sense, perhaps the same will happen for Bob Newby.
I know this much: Bob will never be forgotten, not as long as we live in a world where the word easy is nerdily, endearingly, and inevitably followed by the word peasy.
Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival L.A. panel on November 18! Tickets are available here.