I stormed through the second season of Stranger Things during a nine-hour flight back from a social media-free holiday, so I wasn't around to see how people were reacting to the latest visit to the Upside Down. When I reached the seventh episode, "The Lost Sister", I remember thinking it was all right. Not the finest hour of television I'd ever seen, but it had some elements I genuinely liked, and I understood its place in the series. Lo and behold, once the internet was restored, the entire world was buzzing with how wrong I was about everything.
All Stills via Netflix
I have to admit, I was genuinely shocked at how much people seemed to loathe "The Lost Sister". It's now the most polarising episode of the series, with so many people feeling it should have been taken out that the Duffer Brothers have had to come out and defend its very existence. I - I don't get the problem, people. Sure, this isn't the best thing we've seen come out of Stranger Things, but I feel it deserves to be part of the show. Could it have been tweaked? Absolutely, but so could a lot of other things on this show (such as Max's entire character).
"The Lost Sister" may not be an award-winning piece of television, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. And I'm not just talking about the endgame, which was to show Eleven how to maximise her powers to close the gate. There's a lot here, both for Eleven and the audience, even if the final product wasn't all that stellar. It's an example of how the sum of something's parts can be, in some cases, greater than the whole.
It expanded the world, physically and metaphorically
My family has a saying that whenever one of us needs a break from the group, that "[they've] gotta get out of the van". Stranger Things desperately needed to get out of the van. Hawkins, Indiana, is fine and all, but it's an incredibly static place with, let's be honest, a fairly static threat. The only thing that really happens this season, apart from the Demodogs, is the Mind Flayer carves out some tunnels that kill a bunch of pumpkins. Since the Hawkins Lab conspiracy didn't play a part this season, "The Lost Sister" not only gave the show an opportunity to explore the lab's other misdeeds, but it also showed they're affecting the world beyond Hawkins.
Taking Stranger Things to Chicago wasn't just beneficial as a change of scenery, but also as a representation of the larger, more conflicted world. As the series' stakes continue to grow, the scope of its storytelling has to keep pace. We can't keep revisiting the kids and their small town of Hawkins - it's going to become repetitive. (Hell, in a way it already is.) This episode teased a story where there are more labs, test subjects and experiments related to the Upside Down, which could carry us into multiple seasons. It hints at a bigger world in a way that doesn't restrict itself to: "How does it connect to Hawkins?"
The big city location is also something that plays well into one of the second season's main takeaways: Children growing into adults. A major theme in the series is innocence challenged by experience, as represented by a big problem coming to a small town. Eleven has been a major player in that, taking on the role of a wide-eyed child surrounded by people who want to prevent her from seeking out her own path. Throughout the second season, the kids started growing into adults in their own ways. As the boys did things such as lie to their friends, lash out in anger, and pursue a relationship, Eleven's path grew her up by growing her out of her bubble.
It gave us Eight, the (second) best new character
Of course, my favourite newbie this season was Bob, RIP, but Eight/Kali definitely came in at a close second. Played by Danish actress Linnea Berthelsen, Kali was both sincere and selfish, wanting to help Eleven but partially because she assumed Eleven's conflicts echoed her own. This made their relationship ultimately toxic, but you still wanted them to work it out because, unlike anyone else we've met, Kali is the only one who gets it. It was also nice to get Eleven interacting with another girl for more than a sentence, something that was long overdue. Stranger Things might have some strong female characters, but it's been crap when it comes to having them actually talk to each other.
While I enjoyed Kali's scenes with Eleven, I especially loved her introduction in the first episode, when she fooled a cop into thinking a tunnel was collapsing. This gave us a taste of her optical illusion ability in a way that mirrored Eleven's talents. Granted, that was designed to be a fake-out and confuse the audience, but it also hinted at her and Eleven's future relationship. Kali and Eleven might have the same origin story, bonding them as sisters, but in the end their connection was an illusion that couldn't last.
It showed Eleven another path, and its consequences
"The Lost Sister" is, at its core, about choice. Eleven is torn between different homes and families, as well as what the idea of what family actually is. Her aunt and mother briefly show Eleven what could have been, a truly normal life, only for the real world to show how that's no longer possible (since her aunt calls Chief Hopper). Meanwhile, Hopper represents the prison of innocence, in that keeping her protected from the threats of Hawkins Lab not only stops her from growing into herself and her gifts, but also echoes what Hawkins put her through in the first place. Kali is the epitome of ultimate freedom - not only from innocence, but also from responsibility.
Eleven's time with Kali and her (admittedly ridiculous) gang is basically a glance into a crystal ball, showing Eleven what could very well be if she decided to, like Kali, let her emotions control her life. Both Eleven and Kali are angry at the people who abducted and experimented on them - Kali is a preview of Eleven's desire to act on it. It's a glimpse into what would happen if Eleven fully embraced her anger, not only as a method of strengthening her ability, but also as her default mode and motivation. It would mean the frustration and rage Eleven experienced in in Hopper's cabin, especially when he broke the TV, would no longer be inhibited.
At first, Eleven liked it, because it was freeing. But after a while she recognised the flaws in Kali's choices - how living without limits can be just as imprisoning, because you stop caring. Adulthood isn't just about doing whatever you want, it's about deciding your own path and taking responsibility for it. The final choice wasn't just about whether she'd kill this one dude who helped turn her mother into a vegetable, it was about the choice of what kind of person Eleven wanted to be. Choosing to spare him, and returning to help her friends, was the first adult decision Eleven ever made. It would have been hard to show this in just a couple of scenes, spread across a variety of episodes as a B-plot.
It gave Eleven a new hairstyle, which is more important than you think
This might sound weird to some of you, but I feel Eleven's new hairstyle was one of the greatest moments of the season.
In Stranger Things, Eleven's hair plays a very important role. At first, Eleven's bald head might seem like something the showrunners did so she would look cool, like Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, but it's actually designed to show Eleven at her most honest, vulnerable self. It's where she's both her strongest and her weakest, and giving her hair feels like dulling her down. When the boys disguise Eleven, they put a blonde on her to hide her identity in more ways than one. It isn't until she takes the wig off that she comes into her power. The same can be said of her curly locks that grow while she's with Hopper. It's a youthful, innocent look that, along with everything else, hides who Eleven is.
In movies and shows, getting a "Crisis Cut" is often used as a metaphor for growth and change - especially for young women. We saw this in Mulan, Felicity, the new Power Rangers. Hell, it happens in almost every one of Hayao Miyazaki's films. It's a common trope that's used to physically represent an emotional change - it's a sign of a woman who's simply had enough of it all. It's also a way for male filmmakers to convey something they can't understand about the female experience, but this isn't what happens in Stranger Things. In fact, the trope is subverted.
When Kali gives Eleven a makeover (some might have opinions on that trope, which is understandable), the hairstyle is notable. Eleven doesn't cut her hair, thus preventing her from falling back on that tired "Crisis Cut" trope or making her seem like she's regressing to her childhood form. But she does slick it back so that it harkens back to her bald head, that is, who she was, with a few curly tendrils at the end to show how far she's come since then. Her new hairstyle is symbolic because it embraces who she was, is, and continues to be.
It inspired my wildest fan theory yet
This is a bonus treat that isn't grounded in reality in any way, but made me laugh so I thought I'd share it with you. As I was watching "The Lost Sister", I couldn't help but grimace at how undyingly loyal Kali's crew was to her, to the point where they'd willingly kill a bunch of men who hadn't harmed them directly. They said it was because Kali had "saved" them, both in their heads and hearts, so they fought for her to restore justice. But the price they were paying seemed pretty high for what they got in exchange. Their loyalty felt weird and unnatural - almost supernatural.
My theory is this: Kali has formed a cult of outsiders, as their leader, using her abilities of optical illusion to both reward and punish them to keep them in line. When they help her, she makes them feel good with illusions that make them happy, such as the butterfly she showed Eleven. When they don't do as she says, she mentally tortures them, such as when she forced the mohawk guy to think he was being attacked by spiders. She's a drug and they stay with her, doing whatever she tells them to (including murder), so they can get their fix.
*Thanks to Charles Pulliam-Moore for his input.