The weirdest thing about the second season of Stranger Things, which hit Netflix Friday, had nothing to do with the Upside Down, monsters, or horror homages. Instead, the choices the Duffer Brothers made with what Eleven did throughout the second season made for an unexpected twist that built steam through all nine episodes.
Spoilers for Stranger Things 2
If you haven’t had a chance to dive into all nine hours of the new Stranger Things, this is your last chance to turn back before being totally ruined for the entire thing. Because though this season was a solid and worthy sequel to the original 2016 run, there is one biggish thing that no one was expecting: Eleven, played by Millie Bobbie Brown, is somewhat isolated for the majority of the season, meaning her character was thematically in the same predicament she was in during the first season. Only this time, she didn’t have Mike, Lucas, and Dustin to keep her company.
That’s right. Stranger Things 2 sidelined Eleven from the beloved boys from season one. And while this might have worked dramatically, it was almost too painful to be reasonable. If you’re hoping for a teary reunion between Mike and Eleven, it doesn’t happen until the end of the eighth episode, which means, she’s apart from him for the entire story.
This isn’t to say Eleven didn’t get a lot of interesting stuff to do this time out. It’s just jarring how her story was written to be parallel from the rest of the gang. It’s as though the Duffer Brothers decided that Eleven is a more interesting character when she is cut-off from society, just as she was in the first season.
In episode 3, “The Pollywog,” when she sneaks back over to Hawkins Middle School, we think for a moment that she’ll be reunited her buddies. But it’s all a big tease. Eleven grips the handles of Mike’s bicycle when he’s not around; the boys just miss her as she sulks around the hallways of their school.
In almost every way, these near-miss scenes encapsulate Eleven’s relationship and the audience’s expectations of her. We want her to see Lucas, Dustin and Mike again, but were forced to just deal with her going solo. This time out, Stranger Things decided that keeping the action exclusively in the town of Hawkins wasn’t enough. And so Eleven was sent out on her own hero’s journey of personal discovery.
What Eleven discovers is that her name is really Jane, and there are other kids who escaped from the experiments in season one. In episode 7, “The Lost Sister,’ Eleven meets Kali, an older woman, who immediately becomes a combo maternal figure and, obviously, big sister to Eleven. Kali lives in Chicago with a gang of hoodlums straight from central casting, or perhaps, the original Mad Max.
It all works, and certainly makes Eleven’s character arc more epic and surprising than any of her buddies, but it still feels off. The first season of Stranger Things worked because of the seemingly limitless amounts of charm Millie Bobbie Brown had when she was onscreen with Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, and Gaten Matarazzo. But, in this “sequel,” that core element is absent, meaning the foil that made Stranger Things so good, has been removed. Eleven is an outcast, still. And this time, she is relegated to being an outcast for the majority of the story. It’s a bold move by the Duffer Brothers, though one that might not tug at the heartstrings quite as much as it could have.
When the big reunion happens at the beginning of episode 9, “The Gate,” it feels like a payoff. And yet, if we wanted to see Eleven back with the gang again, we could easily just go back and watch the first season. Was the protracted absence really worth it?
When a new addition to the gang — Max — reaches out her hand to greet Eleven in episode nine, Eleven ignores the handshake. And in many ways, the audience might have felt exactly the same way. Max — and the rest of Stranger Things 2 — was great. But in the end, keeping Eleven away from Mike for so long almost felt like a punishment.
Stranger Things Season 2 is streaming no in its entirety on Netflix.