Photo: Netflix

Stranger Things’ “Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister” could have worked. It should have worked.

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El has plenty of history, heartache, and internal conflict to mine for a stand-alone episode, and Millie Bobby Brown has more than enough talent and presence to carry one. Ripping the audience away from the terrible action unfolding underneath Hawkins needn’t have destroyed the season’s momentum; it could have provided a fertile interlude for tension to grow. The universe of Stranger Things successfully opened up to let Nancy and Jonathan spend two risky (in more ways than one) nights away from Hawkins to team up with Murray Bauman.

El’s already largely isolated from the larger plot unfolding in Hawkins, and she deserves (and needs) some expansion of both her character and her story, both of which should blossom this season, and both of which has been largely stagnant. There’s potent drama as well as dramatic irony in Becky’s message for Hopper spurring El—or Jane, as she’s called throughout this episode—to flee the relative safety of the Ives house. And spending time with another fugitive from Hawkins Lab should have the valuable effect of showing El she’s not the singular freak she imagines herself to be. “The Lost Sister”’s greatest (only) triumph lies in anchoring a sense that El, too, can find a home with a chosen family.

“We’re going to continue to do risks moving forward to keep us on our toes,” Ross Duffer told Entertainment Weekly in discussing “The Lost Sister.” It’s not the risk that makes “The Lost Sister” such a failure. That risk—the sheer daring of plunging El into a chaotic new environment, and the chance to introduce her to a mentor who understands both her gift and her isolation—just makes the lost opportunity more devastating.

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“Spiritual advisor” reads the sign behind Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) and El (Millie Bobby Brown) (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

The episode serves some obvious functions. It opens the door for a return of Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). Her very existence cements the question originally posed by Eleven’s numerical name: Just how many children did Hawkins Lab abduct for their experiments? The episode’s expansion of Kali’s powers raises another question: How varied are their abilities? These are valuable questions, and it’s good to raise and reinforce them. If Kali’s coming back sooner, not later, it’s important to introduce her to El and give her some reason—emotional, intellectual, self-serving, or self-sacrificing, why doesn’t really matter—to show up. But she needs to be a rounded character, not a device. Berthelsen uses her expressive eyes to endow Kali with both understanding and rage, but there’s not much inside the character or her boilerplate dialogue (alternately sappy and malign, like a Sith Stuart Smalley) for the actor to cling to.

From their first appearance, I’ve thought Kali (as Stranger Things is still calling her, for now) and her crew were stupidly conspicuous for a self-designated special-forces team. (I came of age in and around a punk scene. I know how committed to a counterculture appearance people can be. I also know that a covert team of killers targeting members of a highly classified, murderously secretive government agency should find a way to disguise that appearance for the actual hit.) They look less like an actual gaggle of punks and more like an artist’s rendering of “a gaggle of punks.” Watching the premiere, I trusted that their flamboyance would be justified or at least lampshaded. I was wrong.

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Gabrielle Maiden, James Landry HĂ©bert, Linnea Berthelsen, Kai L. Greene, Anna Jacoby-Heron (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

It’s not just their hair and clothing that’s needlessly, recklessly ostentatious. It’s everything about them. Mick (Gabrielle Maiden) squeals the brakes of their distinctive panel van (their current stolen vehicle) at every opportunity, making sure they can be conveniently tracked back to their hideout. That hideout is an abandoned warehouse that appears to be former storage space for… I don’t know, discarded signs, scrap metal, and graffiti? Even their gaudy patter is as predictable as a non-player-character’s cutscene.

Kali’s “family,” as she describes her team, comes off less like the Class Of 84 hooligans and more like the dopey muggers in Howard The Duck. As they’re written and performed in this episode, her hangers-on have no presence beyond their shrill air of menace and no motivation of their own beyond spreading mayhem. The gang member who makes the most impression isn’t vocal, flashy Axel (James Landry Hébert), but Funshine (bodybuilder Kai L. Greene), whose quiet acceptance of the girl he knows as Jane makes an even bigger impression than his physical presence.

I recently praised Stranger Things use of literal flashbacks, the unbidden immersion in previous danger that can haunt survivors of trauma. But “The Lost Sister” relies on traditional narrative flashbacks to show both El’s season-one arc and the raid Kali and friends performed in season two’s opening sequence. These clips of earlier events highlight both how throw-away the premiere’s cold open feels now and how disconnected El has become from the story driving this season, if episode writer Justin Doble and director Rebecca Thomas believe we need a crash course in her suffering.

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Screenshot: Stranger Things

And then there’s that makeover montage.

Look, I get it. (I’ve said that before about another El makeover, in another episode credited to Justin Doble.) Whatever her situation, whatever her wardrobe, El’s always sported an austere, haphazard style, from her oversized “Benny’s Burgers” T-shirt to the E.T.-inspired wig and dress to the ill-fitting old flannels and velour jerseys Hopper provided. It’s fun to see her slicked down and dressed to kill. Unlike her new gang members, El’s new look makes her less conspicuous than her country-mouse lost-child ensemble. But it’s so on the nose, it would fit better in The Breakfast Club. (If there’s a Hawkins Lab subject out there who has the power to go back in time, please use that gift to direct a montage of Ally Sheedy’s character making over Molly Ringwald’s.) Why, when Kali is so eager to track down another of their miscreants, is it a good use of time to doll up El for the assassination? If she’s wearing a mask (a baby mask, for contrast with her newly adult look), why put eye shadow on her?

Screenshot: Stranger Things

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In the EW article quoted above, Ross Duffer says, “Just like Luke Skywalker, [El] needed to go off on her own and learn something about herself.” But what does she learn in Chicago? She learns she can’t be motivated by vengeance. No, she learns that even for vengeance, she can’t bear to kill a man with children. She learns that she can trust Kali. No, she learns that even her self-proclaimed sister who talks a good game about chosen family will violate her mind with images of her most feared tormentor. She learns more about her own power. Only if the power in question is the power to look “bitchin’” in a marled blazer and smoky kohl. And she learns that she needs to return to save her friends. Again.

“Find that anger. Focus on that.” (Screenshot: Stranger Things)

On their first morning together, Kali urges El to “find that anger. Focus on that. Not the train, not its weight. I want you to find something from your life. Something that angers you.” I’ve found my anger. I’ve focused it. And even the power of my anger at this wasted opportunity of an episode and its vaguely insulting way of portraying chosen family couldn’t drag the derelict train car that is “The Lost Sister” more than few feet. Certainly not all the way from Hawkins to Chicago and back.

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Stray observations

Screenshot: Stranger Things
  • Among Terry’s files, El finds an index or a concordance. Fellow obsessives, enjoy this screenshot.
  • In case Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” playing over El’s running-away scene isn’t on the nose enough for you, her dressed-to-kill makeover is set to “Dead End Justice” by (wait for it) The Runaways. (Yeah, I chose that link for maximum irony re: makeovers.)
  • Kali’s speech about “the war-criminal billionaires who own this place” might go over better in a chain gas station than in Oscar’s Gas N Go.
  • Ray Carroll is written as a blank slate, or more accurately, he isn’t written at all. He’s an empty space upon which Kali and El can project their fury (or their, ahem, Fury). Casting the excellent Pruitt Taylor Vince is a smart, if lazy, way to invest this void of a character with a flicker of complexity. His history as an actor immediately signals “shifty but sorrowful.”
  • Does Kali believe Dr. Brenner is alive? She dismisses Ray’s bargaining chip as a lie, but she’s quick to use the lure (and the threat) of “Papa”’s existence as ammunition against her “sister.”

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