WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the second season of Stranger Things, streaming now on Netflix.
Fueled by its 1980s nostalgia, childlike sensibilities and note-perfecting casting, Stranger Things was propelled to the status of pop-culture phenomenon with its first season, leaving series creators the Duffer Brothers with the herculean task of crafting a follow-up that would somehow meet, or exceed, expectations. They largely accomplished that with Season 2, but at a cost to the breakout character of the Netflix drama.
Eleven, the mysterious girl with psychokinetic abilities and a connection to the Upside Down, was the E.T. of Stranger Things, representing a wondrous dichotomy: She’s both a naif who required protecting — from government agents and the scientist she heartbreakingly referred to as “Papa” — and a fierce protector who used her abilities to defend her newfound friends against bullies, her pursuers and the monster that stalked Hawkins, Indiana. She disappeared in the finale, seemingly sacrificing herself in a fight against the Demogorgon, only to reemerge in Season 2, secretly in the care of Police Chief Jim Hopper.
But Eleven, portrayed by Millie Bobby Brown, has been changed by her experiences, first by her time with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the other boys, then by foraging for food and warmth in the woods, and finally by living in a secluded cabin with Hopper (David Harbour), forbidden to leave, for her own safety. This is a different Eleven, a teenager who’s desperate for freedom and, more importantly, answers. She finds them, too, although the journey isn’t easy, for her or the audience.
At odds with her new father figure, Hopper, and her circumstances, Eleven lashes out against his rules, which forbid her from leaving the cabin or from making contact with Mike, and against his string of broken promises — about what time he’ll be home, and when she can go out into the world. “Soon,” he invariably answers, which she throws back at him by asking when, exactly, is “soon,” in the process revealing she’s been counting the days like a prison inmate. And that’s what the cabin is, another prison, and Hopper another warden, albeit a nicer one than the “Papa” who raised, manipulated and used her at Hawkins National Laboratory.
After the parent-child conflicts escalate, Eleven sets out first to spy on Will in person — she’d been periodically visiting him psychically, which only increases his belief that she’s out there, somewhere — then goes in search for her mother and, in turn, answers about herself and others like her. She finds them in a thread that leaves her separate from the main storyline, and from most of the central characters, until she returns like Gandalf at Helm’s Deep to help save the day.
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