All stills via Netflix
Maxine Mayfield, also known as Mad Max, was a much-needed addition to the second season of Stranger Things. The show was lacking in young female representation, apart from Nancy and Eleven, and after "Justice for Barb," adding a female co-star seemed like a smart and calculated choice. Only, what was supposed to be Stranger Things making amends for past mistakes actually ended up creating a new problem altogether.
Last October, Netflix announced that the talented Sadie Sink would be joining the cast of Stranger Things as Max, a 13-year-old girl who showrunner Matt Duffer called "a cool new character." She was Not Like Other Girls, with her official character description being "a tough and confident girl whose appearance, behaviour, and pursuits seem more typical of boys than of girls in this era." She could skateboard, gave her brother the bird, and even beat Dustin's high score on a video game, much to his chagrin.
This kind of character can be a stereotype, but it seemed like a fine addition to the show. Mad Max was someone who could hang out with the boys, positioning her to be part of the regular storyline. It also gave hope that the new character wasn't just there to be a girlfriend, and that she could challenge norms of what's considered ok for girls to enjoy. Only that's not what happened. Max is a major player in the second season, appearing in all but one of the episodes - but as the series went on, it felt more and more like the writers had no idea what to do with her. Instead of being a fleshed-out character with her own thoughts, motivations, and actions, Max is reduced to a plot device. The sad truth is that Max's entire storyline isn't for herself, it's for the characters around her.
Admittedly, this isn't how she was introduced. I actually liked how they brought Max into the story, even if later reveals tended to spoil most of the anticipation. When we first meet Max, she's unconventional, confrontational, and lonely. It's clear she's curious about the boys, even while calling out their stalker behaviour, but she's afraid to get close because of her aggressive stepbrother, Billy. The two of them are purposefully clouded in mystery, which I loved. The reason they moved to Hawkins is vague, which I thought could lead to the revelation that maybe someone in their family is connected to the Upside Down situation. She also has some skills that the boys don't, things that could prove valuable in the fight against the monsters.
Unfortunately, hardly any of this is followed up on, because it's not why she's in the story. Max mostly exists to have stuff explained to her, to sow discord between the boys, and to become someone's girlfriend at the end. She has little influence on the plot itself, simply going where it directs her to so the other characters have a reason for their actions.
For example, it's never clearly stated when or why Max decides to go trick or treating with the boys. She doesn't even reply to Lucas and Dustin when they ask her out in the hallway - she simply walks away from the conversation and then shows up randomly while they're out on the town. That's because she doesn't have a reason, the plot does. Max goes trick or treating not because she wants to, but because we need to see Dustin and Lucas' budding love triangle (which she is neither participating in nor even aware of), and because the show wants a reason for Mike to get upset about how dynamics in the group are changing. This helps split up the characters into their own stories and pairings, which last through a good portion of the season.
Likewise, there's little reason presented for why Max tolerates Mike's repeated shittiness to her, other than it's needed for his and (eventually) Eleven's storylines. This is especially noticeable when Mike finds Max in the locker room and they argue, only to follow up with what seems like light flirtation in the gym. It doesn't serve much of a purpose for Max's character - she doesn't seem to have feelings for Mike, and she's not framed as the type of girl who would need or seek his approval. It's solely because, at that moment, Eleven is walking down the hallway, and she needs a reason to keep herself isolated from the rest of the party. This puts Max at the center of yet another love triangle, which is incredibly unfair to her, seeing as how she's not an active part of either one. And in the end, Eleven blames her for it, rebuffing Max for a crime she didn't even know she committed.
Throughout the season, Max stands around with the boys and looks at stuff. She doesn't solve any major problems related to the Upside Down, something all the other heroes have done at some point. The only time Max really gets agency in her story is through the conflict with her abusive stepbrother, which was poorly handled and opened up a lot of problems by itself. As mentioned, I thought that Max and Billy might be connected to the larger Upside Down conspiracy -- but if that's actually the case, the Duffer Brothers are keeping those cards close to the vest. Instead, the big reveal is that Max's new stepfather is likewise an abuser, assaulting his son Billy right in front of Max's mother, who does nothing to stop it. This seems to inform Billy's own behaviour toward his stepsister, who verbally abuses her, endangers her life, and lashes out when she doesn't do what he says.
This is problematic in several ways, not least of which because it promotes a reckless stereotype. (Witnessing domestic violence can trigger sibling abuse, but it's an unsupported myth that adults who were physically abused as kids are any more likely than non-victims to abuse their own children, as this study showed.) In terms of the story itself, it serves to take more power away from Max and remove her agency. It frames the abuse she's experiencing through what's happening to Billy, making her situation more about him. By the time Max stands up for herself, drugging Billy so he stops beating up Steve, we've seen enough of Billy's backstory to sympathise with his pain, muddying the impact of Max's biggest moment in the entire season. Furthermore, the stepfather is the source of the conflict, yet we never get a sense of how Max and her mother are impacted by his behaviour - Max is never seen in the same room with him. Granted, parents can target individual children for abuse, so it's possible he's not assaulting either of the women in his family. But it's still happening in their home, so of course it affects them, only we never see how. The only scene between Max and her mum is about her hair.
If the show wanted to give Max more agency, which they should have, there were a number of obvious missed opportunities that would have turned Max into a character as vital to the plot as the returning characters. For example, Max is brought into the story as a video game champion, having beaten Dustin's high score in Dig Dug. But this serves no purpose other than to get the boys' attention. Unlike the boys who use their Dungeons & Dragons knowledge to defeat the monsters of the Upside Down, it would have been just as reasonable for Max to use her Dig Dug skills in the Hopper rescue scene with Joyce, having her figure out they need to dig into the tunnel underneath the pumpkin patch to find the sheriff. It's a small, even silly thing, but could've given her some role in the mystery instead of just being a spectator.
Max is also the only skateboarder in the party, but that skill never comes into play during a battle or escape - again, when it so easily could've happened otherwise. They could've reframed the Demodogs junkyard scene to including her needing to make a break for the bus, or perhaps they could have used the skateboard as a meat pulley to lure Dart to them. Instead, her tricks are mere character dressing, and also the basis of her scene with Mike that makes Eleven jealous. By the time she actually could've used her board for the plot, it's been rendered useless. When the Demodogs showdown is about to happen, her stepbrother Billy has broken her board and Max has to ride on the back of Lucas' bike. She's rendered helpless, and in need of a rescue.
Why did all of this happen? Why was this character brought into nearly the entire season, only to get nothing out of the deal but a dance? Because they wanted Lucas to get a girlfriend - and also to bring the '80s tomboy archetype on board and have a character for the boys to explain Upside Down stuff to. But an understandable desire to increase female representation on the show means they should have made her a fully fleshed-out character, instead of giving her nothing to do other than help other characters say what they needed to sat and get where they needed to go.
Max was there, but she didn't matter. If the show really wanted justice and its other female characters, Stranger Things should have worked harder to make Mad Max a person.
Clarification: Post originally had her name as Maxwell, not Maxine. This has been fixed.