Up front, I want to say that I absolutely adore Stranger Things. It does this weird thing, in that it generates a feeling of nostalgia for a childhood that a) I didn’t really have and/or b) I only feel like I had because of all the movie and TV references it makes. Not that I wasn’t a miscreant, riding bikes all over creation and cursing profusely, but that Middle America, Stephen King style township and the surrounding geography abound were hard to come by in Florida. Still, it’s difficult to not see yourself and your friends in the Stranger Things kids, which I think is a huge part of the overall charm.
When deciding what I wanted to write about after power binging this most recent season, it was pretty easy to imagine a gushy puff piece, praising the effectiveness of the series’ stranglehold on ’80s nostalgia and lamenting the impending time between seasons two and three. My immediate reaction to things I like is to tell people how much I like it and exactly why, with as many metaphors and made up words as possible. It was also easy to imagine nitpicking it, taking up my mantle as Lord Protector of Nerddom, because nothing shows how much you love something quite like poking holes in it.
None of these options felt scholarly, more subject for a podcast or vlog, but without an immediate outlet, without a netherly void to scream into, how could I ease my mind of the burden of the binge? Luckily for me, the Internet always has enough opinions to last a lifetime, and the one I’m going to be talking about today is “That Episode” namely episode seven of season two of Stranger Things. Obvious Spoiler Alert at this point, so you have been warned.
Due to super uncool reasons, I was home all day Friday and in the midst of that uncool reason, I was gifted the opportunity to park myself on my couch and tear through season two at breakneck speed. As mentioned above, I dug it big time, feeling that the sophomore effort built upon the promises and world established in season one, striking a great balance between giving us more of what we wanted but changing and evolving enough that the audience didn’t feel like that we were watching season one all over again. Being lucky enough to experience the new season in a vacuum afforded me a world untarnished by anyone else’s opinions, good or otherwise, which made coming out the other side to very specific scrutiny all the more confusing.
Emerging into a post binge world, I noticed that one specific episode was being spoken about in hushed tones, being labeled the bad episode but, with credit to my mostly spoiler-averse corner of the Internet, I wasn’t sure which episode it was. Rose tinted glasses fully strapped, I didn’t see any part of the story this year as bad, much less an entire episode. Some twitter sleuthing and nerdy website patronizing led me to the answer: episode seven.
Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister, is definitely a series departure, taking place outside of series home-turf Hawkins, Indiana. Paying off on the opening scene from season two, Eleven makes her way to Chicago to track down the other little girl from her mother’s fractured memory. Right off the bat, I can understand why people would be flustered by this approach. Even though Hawkins is just one town, being where the majority of the series takes place and considering the seriousness of what’s going down in Hawkins-town, it is essentially the universe of Stranger Things. Add to that, actively moving Eleven away from her friends and delaying the reunion we’ve all been waiting to see since she pulverized the Demogorgon at the end of season one and you can see why fans would be upset. But I think it’s more than just that.
This episode feels like it’s from a different show, but with the exact style and feel of Stranger Things. It gets uncomfortable at times, it rushes through the development of three to five brand new characters, and the development that Eleven goes through, while crucial, seems to be coming from a place that hasn’t been earned. Eleven meets Kali, patient eight from the same experiments that brought us Eleven. They see each other as sisters through their shared struggle but what Kali asks Eleven to do throughout the episode borders on exploitation.
This isn’t a trope we’re unused to, even in Stranger Things. In fact, this power dynamic is part of what made the Eleven/Papa relationship from season one so scary and compelling. Seeing Eleven as this dynamo, this human with superhuman abilities, mentally powerful enough to slay demons and flip vans, stricken down by the mere memory of a man who controlled her life was thematically powerful. It felt chilling in part due to all the flashbacks in season one, and reminded us that although Eleven is essentially a Jedi, she’s also a little kid.
Having Kali have a similar affect on Eleven as Papa did, seemingly brought up from a flimsy connection seems tenuous at best. I don’t think it’s fair to discount their rapport due to the nature of trauma, the effect it has on people and the bond it can create from fellow survivors but that’s a lot to build into one episode alone. It seems a bit forced, but I understand why it needed to be. Episode seven is incredibly important, at the very least, for one specific reason alone: there’s more than Hawkins.
If you’re a fan of Stranger Things, you want more Stranger Things, simple as that. But, with most series, even fantasy and sci-fi, you get to the point where you wonder, why are they still there? Buffy fans with a critical mind will wonder how the squeezed seven seasons out of one town alone, particularly when you realize that the town’s High School was essentially built right on top of Hell. That at some point, even people whose job it is to fight demons would move away from a literal demon nest. So if Hawkins is all of the sudden this nexus point to the upside down, eventually people would start to leave, our gang included. But only the characters can take us elsewhere.
Narratively this is obvious, we can only know about new places in a story if the characters tell us about them or take us there. And even though Indiana is a real place in the real United States, meaning that every other place in the United States exists in the Stranger Things universe, if we don’t see it, it isn’t there. So Eleven was the vehicle that showed us there’s more than just Hawkins and now the ground work is set for where the series could go from here.
As soon as Millie Bobby Brown turned over her malnourished wrist and showed us the 011 tattoo, common sense dictates that there could be at least 10 other kids with similar powers. Who wouldn’t want to explore that string? And having us meet another child, all grown up and with different powers than our main girl Eleven opens up a whole new world of opportunities. As much as I love Hawkins, the Veil of Shadows and the inevitable return of the Mind Flayer, the thing that makes Stranger Things such as revelation is characters development, which brings me to my final point.
Eleven needed to leave Hawkins, leave the protection of Hopper, leave her friends and try and find out more about herself before she could return, triumphant. It’s simple and obvious and cliche to make this comparison but she’s just like Luke in Empire, just with superior results at the end of her showdown. Interestingly enough she taps into her fear and anger to generate the double fisted, levitating power surge needed to close the gate but that’s another nerdy discussion for another nerdy day.
I’ll take a tangential story line for the sake of character development and future plot lines. Sure, tonally it was a little off the mark and possibly a bit of misplaced fan service, but the payoff is so worth it. Remember that moment, when a Demodog’s lifeless corpse is flung through the front window at Will’s house, and we get that slow pan up to this punked out and pissed off Eleven and tell me you didn’t get chills. For better or for worse, this shot, this reunion wouldn’t be the same without episode seven.