A year ago we were loudly singing the praises of Stranger Things' Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), but the pint-sized, breakout star of the show's first season has now become the '80s-set series' weakest link. What happened?
It's quite simple really: Eleven's story, which found her sidelined in a slow-moving plot for much of the show's satisfying sophomore season, felt at times like it existed in a completely different series. If the character had spent a considerable amount of time trapped in the Upside Down in Season 2, overlooking her separation from the main cast would have been simple as it would have opened up the possibility to learn more about the mythology of the show. But Season 2 revealed by Episode 2 that she was living with Hopper (David Harbour) in the year-long gap between seasons, and that it took her approximately one whole minute to escape the Upside Down after defeating the Demogorgon in Season 1. This retroactively removed some of the danger of the climactic final battle while also revealing the worst possible scenario for Eleven: the writers clearly didn't know what to do with her.
What made Eleven a powerful character in Season 1 wasn't just that she literally had telekinetic powers, but her central role in the show's overall narrative, a subversion of the gender tropes of the '80s films from which the series draws its inspiration. But Eleven also stands out in Season 1 because she exists simultaneously as a victim of scientific experimentation and the show's obvious hero. It's not a particularly novel idea — we need only to look at comics to recognize the trope — but Eleven was both terribly vulnerable and incredibly powerful, and the complexity of her character quickly launched her to fan favorite status. The show's second season tried to further develop Eleven's character by digging into her tragic backstory, but the story inevitably falls flat since she is removed from the show's main narrative in order to do it.
By the time Eleven embarks on the search for her mom halfway through the season (after pushing back at Hopper's overprotectiveness stemming from the death of his daughter), there's very little reason to care about her storyline given the magnitude of everything that's happening in Hawkins. Perhaps if the season started with Eleven on her road trip or had waited to reveal Eleven's whereabouts after Season 1 rather than pull back the curtain immediately, the fact most of her story takes her outside Hawkins and puts her on a collision course with Kali/Eight (Linnea Berthelsen) would resonate more. But as it's written, Eleven's story was already crawling by the time the narrative took her away from every character viewers care about in the name of self-discovery, and there's very little to be gained from it as a result.
In theory, digging into her past by expanding upon the scientific experiments at the heart of the series and introducing another victim of Hawkins Lab had the potential to be interesting, but in execution struggled to feel like little more than the series setting up the pieces for Season 3. That Eight and her group of misfit punk friends — who were more than a little silly but exactly what you'd expect from Stranger Things at this point — immediately set out to exploit Eleven's powers for their own gain also barred viewers from engaging with them. In the end, Eleven's story started out slow and only got further and further from the main narrative until a predictable turn — she realized her place was with her friends in Hawkins — put her on the path viewers all knew she'd end up on anyway, allowing for Eleven to be a deus ex machina in the penultimate episode of the series.
That's not to say that a predictable story isn't a story worth exploring — the entertainment industry would collapse in on itself otherwise — but this is an unfortunate turn of events for a beloved character who led Stranger Things' rise to the top last year. And it's especially upsetting after taking a step back and considering the way the series has treated all of its other female characters, which were already the minority, in Season 2.
Joyce (Winona Ryder) essentially lived the same arc she lived in Season 1, while Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who was at the forefront of a major storyline in Season 1, was relegated to a thankless D-plot, which seemed to exist almost solely as a vehicle for Nancy and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to hook up. Meanwhile, new girl Max (Sadie Sink) wasn't given any character development that evolved her beyond a set list of tropes (One of the Boys, Love Interest, etc.) that served only as ways to move the boys' emotional stories forward. And let's not forget: Barb is dead.
For the women of the show, what made Stranger Things such a phenomenon in Season 1 — its ability to depict the '80s accurately while subverting the tropes around the show's central characters — didn't quite make it to Season 2. Nowhere did a scene as powerful as Joyce grounding Eleven in the kiddie pool as she hunts for Will (Noah Schnapp) appear. Until then, Joyce was a flat trope of an anxious mother who couldn't hold it together, but in that moment she showed viewers her true strength by helping Eleven discover hers.
In Season 2, however, women rarely interact with each other, and when they do, it doesn't leave a lasting impression on either the viewer or Eleven, who leaves her aunt, her mom, and her sister behind on her journey to self-discovery. To make matters worse, the series bungles things further when Eleven treats Max poorly upon their first meeting in the finale. Her actions — Eleven purposefully ignores Max, who is nothing but polite to her, because she thinks Max likes Mike (Finn Wolfhard) — are arguably in line with the actions of a young girl on the brink who doesn't fully understand jealousy or the complexity of romantic feelings. But that is also the harmful stereotyping of young women that Stranger Things deftly subverted in Season 1, and considering that complex female friendships are already in short supply on television, the series should avoid this.
Still, there is hope for the show moving forward. Now that Eleven has been reunited with the rest of the cast and rejoined the main narrative, there exists a strong possibility for a more balanced, better represented third season. If the writers don't banish them to tertiary plots that steal time from the more engaging main narrative — or relegate them to being love interests — it should be relatively easy for the Eleven and the rest of the show's female characters to bounce back.
Additionally, if the writers bring the show's various outside characters — Eleven's siblings who were once experimented on at Hawkins Lab — into Hawkins rather than have people seek them out, Season 3 should be just as exciting as the show's first two seasons. If not, well, we'll always have the Upside Down.
Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix.