OK, that might be an exaggeration. Still, it was fascinating to see another side of Karen Wheeler explored as she contemplates having an affair with Billy. Though the two don’t ultimately get together, it’s hard not to imagine what could have happened. Of course, as Cara Buono points out to Glamour, Stranger Things is a show for all ages. In other words, there was a limit to how far things could go with Billy and Karen.
Forget the Russians, the Mind Flayer, and the rats – one of the most interesting storylines at the beginning of Stranger Things season three is the flirtation between Cara Buono’s Mrs. Wheeler and Dacre Montgomery’s Billy. Their chemistry, which was first introduced in a brief scene in season two, could have easily defeated every threat to Hawkins and then some.
“When we inch toward each other at the pool and things become more intimate, it was a real line to toe because it’s still a family show,” Buono says about the scene where Billy invites Karen to join him for “private swim lessons.”
“Billy and Karen do have great chemistry – this very sexual attraction – so you balance that with the fact that there are other people around, other moms around, Karen’s daughter Holly is in the pool, and there’s an audience watching.” Buono says her goal was to contain the heightened attraction rather than play into it. “That way it’s thrilling to watch, but not uncomfortable.”
Billy persuades Karen to meet him later that night at a local motel, and she returns home to prepare. She spends a considerable amount of time applying makeup, teasing her hair, and finding the perfect outfit; it’s clear in the scene that Karen – who, it’s implied, has been sexually unfilled in her marriage to Ted – relishes the opportunity to dress up for someone who will appreciate the effort. “Of course you want to see her fulfilled,” Dacre Montgomery (Billy) tells Glamour. “It’s like the fantasy.”
But that fantasy ends for Karen when she comes down the stairs and sees Ted asleep in a recliner with their daughter Holly in his arms. In the following episode, we learn that’s all it takes for Karen to decide it’s not worth going through with the date.
“In that moment you see her partner with their kid and it’s like, ‘Jesus, don’t do it,'” Montgomery says. “And she doesn’t, which I think is really redemptive. Because for Billy, he’s not really going out on that much of a limb. He’s a single guy, a young dude. He’s flirting with her – but for her, there’s so much more at stake.”
Buono says the scene wasn’t originally scripted that way, though. Karen was supposed to walk down the stairs and only see her husband, Ted, sleeping in his chair. But Buono felt that actually could have given her more reason to meet up with someone, so she asked co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer to include Holly in the scene. That way Karen would really have motivation to stay.
“There are few things that really spark a strong feeling for me, but it was important,” Buono says of her decision to ask the Duffers to alter the scene. “I immediately said to them, you have to put Holly in there. If not, it might give her pause. But to see Ted with their daughter, it’s like, ‘That’s my family.'” Buono points out that Karen is the head of the household, and the Wheelers are a source of stability in Hawkins. “People have family meals there. It’s safe, it’s together, and she realizes she can’t do this to her family. She realizes it’s not about her. She’s the grownup, and she has to make the grownup decision for her and Billy.”
However, Buono says she would have liked a few more flirtatious scenes with Karen and Billy. “That flirtation would have been fun to do,” she says. “Maybe a scene in a diner…you know, not straight into a hotel room. Like, ‘Let’s have a cheeseburger and flirt a little bit more!’ Just a little more courting.”
That said, Buono says she still sees Karen turning Billy down in the end. “It’s a different show if it goes in that direction of Karen having an affair, as fun as it would have been to explore.”
And while it seems Karen and Billy’s storyline has ended – although, it’s not called Stranger Things for nothing – Buono hopes her character will get a chance to evolve in season four. “I always thought Karen was someone who would have gone to law school and be a public defender to give people a voice. Or, after everything that happens in Hawkins – because people are moving away and real estate has gone down – she becomes a realtor. Like, ‘I know things seem a little unstable here, but now’s a great time to buy!'”