Picking up one year after the events of the first season, Stranger Things 2 sees Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) pining for Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has been missing ever since they confronted the Demagorgon. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has grown his front teeth, and he and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) spend their days playing Dig Dug at the arcade. And Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) make regular trips to get Will checked out at the Hawkins Lab after his week spent in the Upside Down. Life in Hawkins has returned to relative normal, and Joyce even has a new boyfriend, the hopelessly nerdy Bob (Sean Astin). Meanwhile, Eleven is cooped up in Jim Hopper’s (David Harbour) cabin in the woods, missing her friends.
Hopper and Eleven are not quite father-daughter, but they have forged a bond of dependence—flashbacks show how Eleven arrived on Hopper’s doorstep—and Hopper’s over-protectiveness is understandable, given his daughter’s death. But Eleven is itching to return the world and rejoin her friends, and her tween angst is a bad match for Hopper’s controlling parenting. (Quite frankly, at his worst Hopper comes off as borderline abusive, which I doubt is the intent but that’s what it looks like when a grown man locks a little girl in a cabin indefinitely.) The conflict between Hopper and Eleven is solid, and much of ST2’s best emotional beats come from these two.
But Eleven barely spends time with anyone else throughout the season. She is, in fact, sent on a pointless side-quest to reconnect with her semi-comatose mother, whose big secret turns out to be the existence of another victim of Hawkins Lab, Eight, now going by Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). Episode 7, “Lost Sister”, is basically an Eleven bottle episode and also feels like a backdoor pilot to a spin-off no one wants or needs. By virtue of the “011” tattooed on her wrist, we know Eleven isn’t the only one. Did we need a whole subplot about it?
The Eleven Problem in ST2 is similar to the dragon problem on Game of Thrones, in that a super-powerful character negates the need for anyone else to ever do anything. But the dragons are really just cool props, so it doesn’t matter when they get sidelined. Eleven, however, is an actual, central character, and removing her from the Hawkins storyline makes her a worse character. Similarly, once Eleven is out of Hawkins, Hopper starts spinning his wheels, too, because his whole arc depends on her. By not solving the problem of what to do with Eleven when she’s not using her powers, two main characters flatline mid-season.
And it’s not like the writers didn’t see the problem, because a new girl arrives in town to fill the void left by Eleven. Tomboy Max (Sadie Sink) provides a nice foil to the boys, especially Dustin and Lucas, who both like-like her, and have to deal with each other and her as they figure out their feelings. ST2 really gets at the feelings and angst of first crushes, and the first time you fight with a friend over a crush—actual emotions, not nostalgia! Max is a perfectly likeable character, but she is only here because Eleven isn’t. And it’s really annoying that when Max and Eleven do meet, Eleven doesn’t like Max because she has ingratiated herself into Eleven’s place in the group. Can we not do better than having the only girls in the group hating each other?
Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) are also on a stupid side-quest, to get #JusticeForBarb, which frees up Steve (Joe Keery, legit the unsung hero of Stranger Things) to have an Adventures in Babysitting-style plot with the younger kids. It was refreshing in season one when Steve turned out to not be a total Blane, and it’s even more refreshing in season two to see Steve struggling with his pending graduation, the potential loss of Nancy, and all these f*cking monsters in Hawkins. And to top it all off, he also has to deal with Max’s psychotic step-brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who is a straight-up Eighties movie bully. (And maybe also abusing Max in some way.) Everything about Steve is an utter delight this season, most especially his relationship with Dustin, with whom he shares the secret of his Farrah Fawcett hair. Seriously, Steve is the best.
But Stranger Things is not about Steve (sadly), and in the end, Eleven returns. And when she does, it’s hard not to wonder why she couldn’t be there all along. Just establish she’s not using her powers in an attempt to blend in and leave it at that. Hopper doesn’t need to lock her in a cabin, which is gross and weird, and we definitely don’t need a trip to Chicago to waste an entire episode on people we don’t know and won’t see again. Integrating Eleven into the group from the beginning solves a web of character problems, from Hopper to Mike to Will stuck unconscious because no one is capable of dealing with him. Hey, there’s Eleven’s mid-season task: Deal with Will. And Max and Psycho Billy can still turn up, which gives Eleven an even bigger arc as she makes a new friend, her first real girlfriend.
The Eleven Problem is not insignificant, but it’s a testament to the strength of every other element of Stranger Things 2 that it doesn’t completely kill the series. ST2 isn’t as scary as season one—it’s more in the sci-fi/fantasy vein than horror/thriller. But it is more narratively and emotionally rewarding as many of the individual arcs and subplots pay off meaningfully by the end. The world of Hawkins feels even more tangible, from the hilariously oblivious parents to the fraught tension of a middle school dance, and the characters remain as delightful as ever (especially Steve). But there needs to be a real solution to The Eleven Problem. She deserves better—Millie Bobby Brown’s performance deserves better—than being reduced to a plot device.
Here's Millie Bobby Brown on Fallon last night and more from AOL Build earlier in the day.