Stranger Things 2 doesn't work without Eleven's road trip

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Warning: The following post contains spoilers from Stranger Things 2.

Early in “Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister,” Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) sits on a roof with Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), who has the gift of making people see what isn’t there. She shows Eleven a butterfly; Eleven grabs at it and catches only air. “Are you real?” Eleven asks, reaching out to touch Kali’s face. It’s childlike and sad, and it speaks to a lifetime of good things being dangled just out of reach.

It’s also how it feels to find other people willing to admit they like “The Lost Sister.”

Stranger Things 2’s Eleven-centric hour has become the series’ most polarizing episode yet. In it, Eleven flees Hawkins to chase down a girl from her mother’s memories, her “sister” in a childhood of laboratory testing: Kali. She finds her in Chicago, hiding out with a gang of ’80s punks who help Kali get revenge on the people who’ve wronged her, all while apparently spending whatever cash they can steal on keeping their hairstyles “bitchin’.”

Clearly, these characters are clichés. All but Kali are flat; all but Kali and Funshine (Kai Greene) are unlikeable, and 90 percent of Funshine’s likeability comes from the fact that his name is Funshine. They are a crew of Billys (you know, the new one-dimensional edgy guy played by Dacre Montgomery) on the show that brought us Steve (Joe Keery’s onetime Cool Guy and now Mom of the Year 1984), and “The Lost Sister” suffers for not giving all of its new ensemble the same depth it affords Kali. When Eleven inevitably decides to go home to her old friends, there’s nothing bittersweet about it; it’s hard to imagine her finding a lasting community among people who make fun of her for wearing overalls.

But Kali is a version of El who never found a strong support system, and although her “friends” didn’t have to be cardboard cutouts with eyeliner, her bond with them is weak for a reason. When Kali tells El about a family she left behind when she realized they “couldn’t save” her, she describes her life since then as a performance: “I decided to play the part.” In her theater of revenge, her crew are just background players.

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Kali and her gang take in Eleven (the rest only warm to her after she proves she’s useful), and Kali offers her “sister” a home with them, channeling her anger into murder. It’s the third home Eleven has been offered this season: Hopper (David Harbour) protects her by hiding her away in a cabin, while her aunt Becky (Amy Seimetz) is the opposite, always seconds away from calling in reinforcements. Only Kali thinks to tell her, “This isn’t a prison.”

Eleven’s pursuit of a home is fitting given that for most of the second season, she and Will (Noah Schnapp) essentially switch places in the narrative. (Her first line in episode 7 is especially Will-like: “Mom?” whimpered in darkness.) While Will drives the plot forward via his connection to the Upside Down, Eleven becomes the show’s absent heart. Left mostly on her own, she searches for home and fights demons. El’s demons just happen to be her memories.

In a season that engages so much with trauma, it’s key that Stranger Things gives Eleven space to sort out her issues. When Kali’s friends question whether Eleven is cut out for their way of life, El insists, “I’m a fighter. I’ve killed.” But “The Lost Sister” gives her the chance to reconcile with having killed and draw the line at becoming a killer. She leads the gang to the home of Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), one of the men who tortured her mother and Kali, but ultimately spares him when she learns he has kids in the next room. Kali objects less to Eleven showing mercy than she does to Eleven whipping her gun out the window, literally taking a choice out of Kali’s hands.

The power to choose is central to this episode, and the rest of the season hinges on the agency it gives Eleven. In the seventh chapter of season 1, Eleven was willing to go back to the Upside Down to find Will, but she did so because Joyce (Winona Ryder) asked, and the story invited us to feel uncomfortable with the fact that — even if she’d found people who were nicer about it — she was still being used for her powers. Now, faced with the opportunity to run away from that kind of responsibility and get revenge, Eleven instead takes it upon herself to return and help. Saving Hawkins isn’t just the best option this side of being stuck in a cabin, it’s what she wants to do.

When defending this episode to EW, creators Ross and Matt Duffer argued that when they tried pulling it out of the season, “Eleven’s journey kind of fell apart.” This is because, to its credit, season 2 shapes Eleven’s arc around her emotions rather than her utility. With Kali, Eleven learns how to consciously channel her anger, using it to move a train car. (She’s pulled off grander stunts in the past, sure, but always in the heat of the moment; there’s a difference between experiencing feelings and learning to name them.) Kali gives El the tools she ultimately uses to save Hawkins, screaming out her pain as she closes the gate to the Upside Down.

As she does, she remembers Brenner (Matthew Modine) — a projection conjured by Kali — telling Eleven that she’ll “rot” inside if she doesn’t tend to her spiritual wounds. But Eleven, unlike Kali, is ready to feel more than anger. The emotional turning point of episode 7 comes when she flashes back to her time with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and his friends: not to her heroics, but to their acceptance. Eleven goes back to Hawkins because, she says, “I can save them,” but she calls it “home” because she realizes they already saved her.

“The Lost Sister” has been criticized for how late it falls in the season, diverting momentum from the action back in Hawkins. But the chaos rising on the home front makes El’s aimlessness more poignant, emphasizing how disconnected she’s been from the people she cares about. By saving Eleven’s detour to Chicago for the season’s third and final act, Stranger Things 2 puts the loneliness of a powerful young girl on the same level of importance as a mind-controlling shadow creature. She can’t fight the monsters until she knows she isn’t one.

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