Sometimes watching a TV show in a bubble means not winding up with the same opinion as what's trending on Twitter and in other think pieces.
Case in point: I quietly watched all of Stranger Things 2 alone on my computer (jealous?) and came away with what is, apparently, a controversial opinion -- I love Eleven's story this season, and the seventh episode, "The Lost Sister," is my favorite BY FAR.
In "The Lost Sister," Eleven travels to Chicago to meet a girl named Kali, who was also experimented on at Hawkins Lab. Eleven joins up with Kali's Warriors-esque crew to hunt down those responsible for torturing them in the lab when they were kids. The episode was not well received, and is considered by some the season's weakest.
And while, yes, "The Lost Sister" definitely stood apart, and was so different from the other eight episodes of Stranger Things 2 that it could have been a backdoor pilot for a completely different show, it's also incredibly emotionally potent episode and inextricably relevant to our world.
That Eleven was abused by her so-called "papa" has never been in dispute. He locks her away, forces her to visit monsters in a parallel world, and tries to make her crush a cat with her mind.
But I don't think the first season really gives Eleven the breathing room to process the anger and loss and grief she feels from that abuse now that she's escaped from it. Eleven barely speaks that first year, let alone actively works through her issues. She's also got to save the world, which puts healing on the back burner.
And the other problem Eleven endures is that, despite making new friends, she doesn't know anyone who could even approach understanding what she's been through. The Stranger Things kids are Midwestern suburbanites. About the worst thing they've endured up until the Demogorgon shows up is the angst of being dweeby (sometimes) latchkey kids.
So there's a huge amount of weight on this moment where Eleven finally meets Kali, the first person in her whole life to have been through the exact same trauma as her. And I do think, as a result, you need an entire episode at least dedicated to that. Prior to "The Lost Sister," the closest Eleven has to someone she can confide in is Mike, a boy who is crushing on her, and Mike's friends, who see Eleven as being awesome (but also crazy) specifically because of her powers and not the rest of her.
And the story here isn't just about a shared trauma, but how to cope with it without perpetuating a cycle of abuse.
Kali has united with a number of men and women who, like her, have been outcast from society. And by caring for them, Kali has convinced them to join her cause of seeking out everyone responsible for the experiments against her -- and then killing them.
One of the best things about "The Lost Sister" is that it doesn't give pat answers. Eleven and Kali feel a fullness in their lives where once there was an emptiness. Just knowing they aren't alone in what they went through is a positive and transformative experience. And Kali helps Eleven tap into the anger and pain she feels so she can begin to acknowledge that, yes, she was wronged, and that, yes, the world has betrayed her and that she is right to be angry. In one way, that helps Eleven grow her power, but in a much larger sense, Kali helps Eleven really come to terms with what she's been through in a way no one else ever could.
But Kali also wants Eleven to use her powers to kill. And the devil lies in the details here.
Situation: Kali and Eleven take their gang to the home of the man who electroshocked Eleven's mother's mind into oblivion. The goal is to kill him so he can never harm another soul again.
Dilemma: That man has two daughters and, by killing him, Eleven and Kali will definitively pass on the kind of trauma they are trying to prevent to those two girls. Kali still wants to kill this man anyway, but Eleven can't do it.
What's the right thing to do? This man may have only been following orders, but that doesn't make him innocent. And once someone is capable of committing harm in an absolute way, they always are capable of that.
Eleven prevents Kali from taking action, and Kali considers that an act of stolen agency. And it is! But also Kali was going to murder a father of two daughters! But that same man locked Eleven's mother's mind in a permanent cycle of torment.
This illustrates the complexity in how we deal with impossibly enormous consequences when there is no right way to do so. For me, that's more interesting than all the Demogorgons and all the Mind Flayers in the Upside Down.
The other thing the episode achieves is providing a genuine reason why Eleven would go back to Hawkins -- she learns through these events why and how she is an ethical person who wants to use the powers she has so that others will not endure the kind of oppression she experienced. And that, and not because of feelings for Mike, is what drives her back "home," the place she has been seeking this entire season.
In short: "The Lost Sister" is good, character-driven storytelling from start to finish.
THE METATEXTUAL AND THE PERSONAL
When Eleven and Kali showed each other the numbers on their arms, I cried so hard that my body began to shake. Leaving aside the obvious real-life parallel of having numbers tattood on your person as a means to dehumanize, I was struck by these two women's feeling of not being alone. There may be no more powerful feeling in this life than to have your own pain and shame truly understood in the eyes of someone else, especially when you've endured a life of never having that. Eleven calls Kali "sister" and they both weep openly, because an emptiness they thought could never be vanquished is suddenly gone for the first time in their whole lives.
Stranger Things is set in the 1980s, which is also when I grew up. As a child, I struggled with not feeling comfortable in my own skin, specifically because I did not indentify with the gender I'd been assigned at birth. Trying to explain this feeling to my family yielded shaming and a lot of deeply harmful language. I had no ally in this struggle. For more than the first decade of my life, I had no idea anyone else felt the way I did.
Like Kali and Eleven, I felt like a monster and a freak and was treated that way. And then I remember when the internet became a thing and discovering that, not only was I not alone, but that I could go to a city nearby and see people just like me in the flesh, thinking what I thought, and feeling what I felt. That moment of realization changed my whole life. Meeting those people, being told that it wasn't me that had been wrong that whole time, gave me a feeling of home like I'd never known before and an ability to embrace my own rage in a way I felt I would never be allowed.
Like me and so many others, Kali and Eleven spent their youth thinking they were alone. And then suddenly, they weren't. "The Lost Sister" is about the moment you look into another person's eyes and know for the first time that there are other people like you in this world. And that makes it so powerful. That moment is why, for me, "The Lost Sister" was the best episode from Stranger Things 2. That's an analog for a lot of oppressed people, but especially for those of us who grew up in an insular environment that allows for isolation through disinformation. It would be great if that kind of world were in the rearview, but it isn't, and that's why "The Lost Sister" is as potent now as it would have been had it come out in 1984.
In short: "The Lost Sister" bravely takes on the systemic abuse of oppressed minorities and does so in a way that empowers survivors while also still acknowledging the personal dilemmas they face.