Spoilers for Stranger Things 2, up through Episode 7, "The Lost Sister," below
An episode that focuses entirely on Eleven--and on her quest to reunite with another of Brenner's psychic kids, no less--should have been a highlight of Stranger Things Season 2. Instead it goes down as the opposite, in large part because it breaks the unspoken rule that makes every other episode of Stranger Things better: It all feels like it could really be happening.
Yes, Stranger Things is a fantasy horror show with pretty much actual magic. But the characters and settings all feel like real people and places, and a government conspiracy to develop human weapons and then cover up the botched results has grounds in our world too. The CIA has done some messed up stuff!
But a gang of off-brand X-Men living in a weirdly well-furnished warehouse, systematically murdering people for no real reason--and looking like a Hot Topic parody while doing it--stretches disbelief to the point of breaking. Kali's crew feel like cartoon characters from a much worse show--all but Kali herself, who, ironically, is the one with psychic superpowers. But well-drawn as Linnea Berthelson's character is, she's mired in a pointless, cheesy distraction of an episode, and her awaited return after a great introduction in Season 2's premiere episode is a disappointment.
That's not to say it was all bad. Millie Bobby Brown continues to sustain her fantastically idiosyncratic performance, managing an impressive balance between a vulnerable, naive child and a powerful outcast out for blood. Her scream when pushing her powers to the limit is still unbeatable. Whether that makeover worked is debatable, but on the other hand there was nowhere to go from overalls and curls besides up.
Dr. Brenner's return to the show was welcome, if a bit anticlimactic, considering he was simply a Kali-induced hallucination. Whether he's actually alive is, it appears, still up in the air.
Kali herself is a great addition to the show's living universe. Her power--to make other people hallucinate whatever she chooses--has potential for creativity, moreso than Eleven's vaguely defined abilities to slam doors and pop people's brains with her mind.
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Kali also proved a workable foil for Eleven, showing one possible path for our favorite psychic heroine, should she choose to embrace her anger and channel it into her powers. And despite being a merciless killer, Kali is sympathetic in her own right. She's had as hard a life as Eleven, and they both want revenge. Kali is manipulating Eleven, for sure, but there may be a genuine bond there too. If nothing else, it would be a surprise if child number 008 doesn't return in Stranger Things Season 3.
But their parting ways at the episode's end is still disappointing. This reunion may have been helpful for Eleven's journey to figure out where her home lies, but it felt like a detour in the context of the show as a whole. It was so, so far away from what's great about Stranger Things: the dynamic among the kids, the fun '80s references, the Spielbergian horror, and the complex characters, like Hopper and Joyce. If we were watching this week-to-week instead of as one long binge, it would be frustrating that Episode 6 left us on a cliffhanger for a detour that, despite all the build-up, was ultimately unnecessary.
Where Season 1 felt relatively contained--a standalone story, despite some teases in the finale--Stranger Things 2 is starting to feel more and more like set-up for the show's future. That won't turn out to be a problem if the final two episodes bring it home effectively. But in a season that numbers only 9 episodes, Stranger Things didn't benefit from a distraction of this magnitude.
Best reference or easter egg:
The guy Eleven and Kali almost murdered was watching Punky Brewster, an '80s sitcom about a young girl who was abandoned by her parents and is raised by a foster father.