This post contains spoilers for the second season of STRANGER THINGS 2. You should only read it if:
a) You have already seen the show
b) You actively like spoilers
c) You enjoy discussions of storytelling but have no interest in this particular show.
Moving on: episode seven, is widely regarded as the weakest episode of the entire show, for good reason. It steps away from the setting we, the audience, are invested in, and it drops all of the regular characters except one: Eleven. (I should start calling her “Jane” but I’m not ready to move on.)
Do we care about Kali and her band of punk murderers? We do not. Kali herself has a few nice moments, but the rest of the group never gets a chance to be funny, or charismatic, or to have a worthwhile goal the audience can root for. Their dialog isn’t clever or witty, either. They make fun of Eleven’s clothes, for god’s sake, by singing “Old MacDonald”.
The members of the gang say they’ve been “saved” by Kali, but that’s something that needs to be shown, not told. If you can’t actually show why these punks are so dedicated to her–and all it would take was to show Kali using her power to calm someone’s panic attack or withdrawal symptoms–then it seems that the real reason they’re with her is that they really enjoy is robbing and killing people.
And no cutesy slow-mo walk is going to make that palatable.
As 80’s nostalgia, it’s dumb and also pernicious, on the level of an episode of QUINCY, ME.
Frankly, STRANGER THINGS has always played with the other people’s ideas. The whole show is an homage of one kind or another, but those old tropes are either actively pleasant (like the boys riding their bikes around the neighborhood) or their given an interesting tweak (see: Steve Harrington). Kali’s gang has zero interesting tweaks, and all the barrel fires and in-jokey graffiti in the world can’t make them pleasant.
Authors like to encourage newer writers to steal anything they like, because each writer’s individual voice will make these old tropes their own, but this episode proves that’s not always true.
But why talk only about the episode’s flaws?
First, there are a number of lovely little storytelling moments that elevate the show above the schlock it’s mining. Not just the steadicam single shot that turns 180 degrees to show both the gang’s pov and the cops’ pov or the edit from Kali’s face reflected in the van’s window to Eleven’s in the bus window, but a bunch of smaller choices, too. Each little edit from the moment Eleven sees the picture of Ray with his kids to the moment she TKs the gun from Kali is perfectly structured. Brava to the director.
Second, the show gets some much needed girl-to-girl time.
One of the problems with STRANGER THINGS is that its female characters are so isolated from each other. The women and girls on the show are surrounded by dudes and maybe a mother. Eleven has Mike and his pals. Max has those same boys and her step-brother. Joyce has her sons and Hopper. Nancy has Steve and Jonathan.
I’m convinced one of the reasons fans had such a strong reaction to Barb was that, aside from being a sort of Everywoman among all the TV-beautiful actresses, she was half of the only woman-to-woman peer relationship on the show, and that’s not something they can afford to throw away.
The scene with Kali and Eleven on the roof is a moment that the show needed: a scene of bonding and caring between female characters. They had an opportunity to revisit that at the beginning of episode nine when Max met Eleven, but they shrugged it off for an understandable but unwelcome moment of jealousy. (If season 3 doesn’t open with Max and Eleven as the best of friends, I’ll be seriously disappointed.)
This episode was also a mentoring moment. The show has routinely showed how much stronger Eleven’s powers were becoming, but with Kali she managed the leap that justifies the climax.
Third, it provides space for an unexpected escalation of the stakes.
Most of us watching these Netflix miniseries recognize by now that the climax is spread across the last two episodes, and the big oh shit! moment comes at the end of the episode just before that climax.
STRANGER THINGS 2 thwarts that expectation in a pleasant way. I was genuinely startled by the end of episode six, when the baby demogorgons begin to climb out of the hole, and there’s Chief Hopper looking incredibly vulnerable in his hospital scrubs.
It’s a nice cliffhanger, arriving as it does an entire episode early, and all of episode seven leaves us dangling off the cliff. Personally, I enjoyed the anticipation, but I would have enjoyed it more if ep seven had been a little stronger.
Fourth, it expands the world and sets up Kali as the villain for season three.
The show wisely opened the second season with the gang on the run from the cops, then Kali’s nosebleed and tattoo. That it later fumbled those elements doesn’t negate their importance in continuing and expanding the story. Eleven can’t be the only test subject in this world, and the others can’t be duplicates of her.
Season three will need to introduce other kids with tattoos and powers (all of them little girls, if they’re smart), and it will need Kali as one of the villains. Establishing her as a betrayed sister in this season was a good move.
Besides, you can mine a lot of terrifying moments out of a horror show where people can’t trust their own senses. Season three can’t get here fast enough.
So, to sum up: the episode had a lot of necessary and worthwhile elements, but was hobbled by the thoroughly ham-handed way it handled the supporting characters. Definitely a weak moment, but still interesting.