Last year, Stranger Things managed to defy expectations by not having any. The series was dripping in ’80s nostalgia and a bitching soundtrack, yes, but at its heart was about a band of outsiders coming together to protect one another, and in turn, upended many of the clichés associated with the genres it heavily borrowed from. It helped that the series was steeped in pulpiness and stories reminiscent of your favorite childhood comics.
Season One was, of course, a runaway hit, leaving the second season with outsize expectations entirely alien to its predecessor. And while Stranger Things 2 eventually sticks the landing, it messily stumbles its way toward a conclusion by summoning more pop-culture influences than it can adequately handle. Unfortunately, most of that blame lies at the feet of Season One’s breakout character: Eleven.
Eleven’s backstory drew heavily on ones we’d seen in sci-fi before. She was a scientific creation, much like X-Men’s Wolverine or Dark Angel’s Max. But she also exhibited reminiscent of Jean Grey, with her psychokinetic abilities. Jean Grey is a member of the X-Men who would eventually become the uncontrollable Dark Phoenix; and if the parallels weren’t obvious enough, a copy of X-Men No. 134 pops up during Stranger Things’ Season One premiere, an issue that took place during the 1980 Dark Phoenix saga. If the second season had leaned into Eleven’s reintegration into life with her friends and her adjustment to society overall, it might have felt more cohesive.
The character she leaned more toward this season is Wolverine, the man made into a science project in the pages of X-Men who spends decades searching for the secrets of his past. It’s a common sci-fi trope, to look for your past after powerful men have made you suffer for their experimentation and pleasure. But when it comes to Eleven, was it really necessary? The series borrows so liberally from ’80s popular culture that we could almost assume Eleven’s backstory without ever having to see any of it unfold onscreen.
Furthermore, keeping her sidelined from the rest of the cast had an alienating effect similar to Arrested Development’s last season. I spent much of Stranger Things 2 wondering if actress Millie Bobby Brown was ever on set with any of her castmates, save the filming of the finale. During the first half of the season, she’s kept under lock and key by Chief Hopper (David Harbour), who we know wants to protect her because he lost a daughter of his own. But his concealment of Eleven borders on abusive, as he shuts her out of her friends’ lives and refuses her even a breath of fresh air.
Season Two goes bigger and bolder than most sequels dare, but in doing so, it splinters much of the cast into separate stories—with wildly varying results. Steve, last season’s bully with fabulous hair, shines as he embarks on an Adventures in Babysitting-esque quest with the kids. Nancy and Jonathan, on the other hand, spend the entire season looking for justice for Barb and will probably give casual viewers’ fast-forward button a workout. But Eleven’s is the most mystifyingly preposterous. She’s separated from the rest of the cast save Hopper for the initial crawl of the season, and then by mid-season she’s off on her own, interacting with people we’ve never seen in service of unfurling her backstory for the audience.
Contrary to popular belief, more backstory is not always great. It’s why superhero origin stories are often the worst installments of a franchise and why no one is particularly interested in reboots of classic franchises that promise to tell you how a beloved character got, say, the name “Han Solo.” That Eleven’s hunt for her mother takes so many episodes feels like series creators’ The Duffer Brothers spinning their wheels until the finale.
By the time Eleven stumbles across an ABC television spinoff of Stranger Things with a bunch of street toughs who look like The Warriors, you’ll have long checked out of her storyline. There’s plenty to mine from the idea that there are other test subjects besides Eleven, and introducing Eight to the series was a promising idea. It might have proved fruitful, even, if Eight had any bearing on the series whatsoever and didn’t feel like she was plopped into it to road-test a potential Stranger Things spinoff.
In the penultimate episode, Eleven finally arrives back in Hawkins to save the day. It’s supposed to be a surprise, but there’s only one episode left and how else were these mere mortals supposed to stop something called a Shadow Monster without the help of their superpowered friend? Eleven was a character who inspired countless Halloween costumes and a fierce fandom last year, but in Stranger Things 2 she’s sidelined until it’s absolutely necessary for her to step in and bring the season to its conclusion. In turn, she transforms from the show’s breakout character to its largest burden.