Stranger Things 2 introduces a medley of new characters and branches the storyline established in the first season into a few different directions. For one character in particular, that direction has been squandered in favor of boring, theatrical special effects.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for all of Stranger Things 2.]
After vanishing at the end of last season, Eleven’s return and the explanation of everything that has happened to her since is instrumental to the show’s continuation. For most of the season, the Duffer brothers keep Eleven’s story largely separate from the rest of the cast and, credit where credit is due, use that time to expand on her origins. Eleven learns that her real name is Jane and finally meets her mother, though she is in a near-catatonic state. She learns about the existence of another girl who was also held at Hawkins National Laboratory and seeks her out, traveling to Chicago to track her down.
Eleven could be one of the most interesting characters, but the Duffer brothers never let her be more than something to gawk at. Her powers are the least interesting aspect of her character, but without the chance to grow, they're the only thing that she has to define her.
It’s not that Eleven doesn’t get her fair share of deserved attention, but rather it’s how her character is treated. Eleven is desperate for more freedom. She doesn’t want to be cooped up at Hopper’s house, waiting on him to come home and hang out with her. She doesn’t want to be held within her mother’s house by a woman she doesn’t know, worried that she’ll be taken back to the laboratory from which she escaped. Eleven doesn’t want to go on dangerous outings with weird teens in Chicago, just so she can feel like she’s connecting with someone who finally and actually understands what she went through.
Eleven has been fighting for her freedom since Stranger Things began last year, trying to figure out who she is and where she’s supposed to be. The second season was supposed to represent a period of flourishing for Eleven, but it never really gets there. Instead, Eleven’s story is mostly told on other characters’ schedules. She does what Hopper wants because he’s the adult. She does what her pseudo-sister, 008, wants because she doesn’t want to give up a connection to the one person who understands her.
By allowing others to govern who she is, what she does and where she goes, Eleven never gets to become her own person. It’s not until the very end of the season, when Eleven makes the decision to give up on the possibility of a family and return to save her friends, that she finally does something that she wants to do, instead of feeling obligated.
Even before this, after Eleven runs away from Hopper’s house to find her mother and then again to find 008, everything is done out of an obligation. Everything about what she does is dedicated to rectifying her past instead of moving forward. This stagnation and inability to move forward mirrors issues that Eleven had in the first season. Like the movies that inspire it, including Stand by Me and Goonies, there’s a focus on a group of young boys going through puberty. They’re developing crushes and fighting for the attention of the new girl, Max.
Eleven doesn’t really get there until the end — until it’s too late. The growth, once again, occurs on the boys’ side while Eleven is trapped in her traumatic past. Eleven wants to move forward, much like she wants to be free from the hold the lab has over her, but the Duffer brothers never give her the time to get there. Everything about Eleven’s development is rushed. By the end of the season, Eleven is ready to date Mike Wheeler, giving him a quick kiss while dancing at the school’s winter ball, but with the two having such little screen time together this season to show growth or reinforce the chemistry, this moment feels tacked on.
The Duffer brothers substituted emotional growth for intelligence and awareness; Eleven became more resilient and aware of who she was, but she never really grows. She just marches along from one clue to the next. The clues have replaced the boys’ direction from the first season, and she’s bound to them. Her obsession with the past means she’s not allowed to have a future, and that’s upsetting to see.
It’s not that Eleven isn’t given anything to do this season; her role is much better than it was in the first, but it’s still not great. This is still a series about a group of boys and the weird alien girl instead of a series about a group of friends. Eleven is more than that, and she’s earned her own growth by this point. Unfortunately, while strides are made with her character, she’s still a shadow of other people until the very end.
I have hopes that Stranger Things’ third season will finally allow Eleven to be the character that we all want her to be, but I can’t hide my disappointment that we didn’t get to see the real her this season.
Stranger Things 2 is streaming on Netflix now.