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Stranger Things took a leap with an Eleven-centric episode. It should do that more often.

“The Lost Sister” is the show’s most jarring, distinctive episode to date.

Kali, a.k.a. Eight (Linnea Berthelsen), and Jane, a.k.a. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown).
Netflix

The most consistent criticism levied against Stranger Things when it debuted in 2016 was that it didn’t really do anything new. The Duffer brothers’ Netflix series has been called a retread of film tropes, a series of homages, and a throwback that’s fun but not exactly satisfying beyond its immediate consumption.

And for the most part, Stranger Things 2 doesn’t do a whole lot to challenge those claims. Most of it revolves around the same elements as season one — the Upside Down, the Dungeons and Dragons parallels, the mysterious girl with extraordinary powers — except this time, everything is bigger.

But if there’s one thing Stranger Things 2 does to set itself apart, it’s giving Eleven an entire storyline, and then an entire episode, all to herself.

The season’s seventh hour, “The Lost Sister,” is the only one like it throughout all of Stranger Things so far. It hits pause on every ongoing Stranger Things plot except Eleven’s, following her out of Hawkins, Indiana, and eventually to Chicago. There, she’s reunited with one of the Hawkins Lab’s pet projects — Kali, or “Eight,” played by Linnea Berthelsen — and learns more about the range and limitations of her power.

Eleven was arguably the biggest breakout character from season one — that is, besides Barb — but Stranger Things’ decision to devote a whole episode to her experience and backstory has nevertheless proved divisive. Is “The Lost Sister” a welcome diversion from the show’s norm, or a disorienting and unnecessary tangent?

I don’t think “The Lost Sister” is perfect. But after watching Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2 back to back, I can safely say that it’s at least a relief.

“The Lost Sister” is a welcome break from Stranger Things familiar pattern of pastiche

Eleven’s solo jaunt to the city and tumultuous reunion with her spiritual sister represents a huge departure from Stranger Things’ typical MO. “The Lost Sister” ditches the show’s central group of lovable geek misfits and the adults who care for them and puts an entire episode squarely on Millie Bobby Brown’s shoulders. It homes in on female friendship — and specifically the thorny kind born out of shared trauma. It even trades in the triumphant ’80s power ballads that tend to score the Hawkins AV Club’s misadventures for the gnashing punk chords of the Runaways’ “Dead End Justice,” and gives Eleven a raccoon-eyed, New Wave makeover. It’s directed by Rebecca Thomas, making it the only Stranger Things episode directed by a woman to date.

“The Lost Sister” purposely breaks up Stranger Things’ established rhythm — for better and for worse.

Let’s get the “for worse” side out of the way first. For starters, “The Lost Sister” is pretty poorly timed within the larger season, as the seventh of nine episodes. On the one hand, Eleven’s entire season two arc is so isolated from everyone else’s — by both design and her new guardian Hopper’s command — that it might have felt weird to follow her for a whole hour regardless of when it happened.

Sisters.
Netflix

But on the other hand, Stranger Things 2 has so much momentum going into the back half of the season, as everyone starts to figure out the truth about the shadow monster lurking within Will, that taking a sharp left turn to follow Eleven for an episode feels jarring. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we suddenly learned that “The Lost Sister” was originally meant to air earlier — closer to the premiere, when we first met Kali in the season’s explosive cold open — only to be pushed back as the story in Hawkins grew more complicated.

Beyond the issue of where the episode landed within the season, some critics, like Vox’s own Todd VanDerWerff, have deemed it “not very good.” “The Lost Sister” aims to accomplish a lot within a relatively short time frame, between Eleven traveling to find her long-lost, effectively comatose mother and learning about Kali, then finding Kali, trying to understand Kali, being tempted by Kali to use her telekinesis for revenge, and deciding that her top priority must be to return to Hawkins to help her friends. It’s ambitious, but it’s rushed.

But on the “for better” side, “The Lost Sister,” again, isn’t like anything else Stranger Things has ever done before or since. To me, that automatically makes the episode intriguing.

Thomas’s directing style is a little more intimate than that of Stranger Things’ other directors; in the moments between the episode’s action scenes, she lets the neon light of Kali’s warehouse hideaway fall over everyone’s faces in close-up, illuminating each character just enough to show that they’re all still young, still achingly vulnerable.

Then there’s Kali’s supernatural ability and place in the show’s mythology at large. Introducing another character who was kidnapped and abused by the Hawkins Lab opens up the possibility that there are countless more out there that the show could drop in on. This widens Stranger Things’ potential scope more than anything else we’ve seen so far; otherwise, it’s remained firmly rooted in the town of Hawkins and its attached Upside Down.

Plus, giving Kali the power to manipulate what people see (or don’t see) is a smart way to differentiate her powers from Eleven’s, and to underline how she prefers to exploit people while Eleven tries to save them from themselves. For however quickly Stranger Things dispenses with Kali, her relationship with Eleven is immediately one of the show’s most interesting and deeply felt, a bond forged in trauma and then broken in how each character has chosen to deal with it. If Eleven is Buffy, driven by a moral code even when she knows it’d be easier to abandon it, Kali is Buffy’s foil, Faith — restless and furious and unwilling to bend when she can break her enemies instead.

I’ve heard the criticisms of “The Lost Sister” loud and clear, and I don’t even disagree with all of them. But I’d much rather see Stranger Things try to do something different and stumble than watch it recycle the same tropes over and over again, no matter how deeply those tropes are embedded in its premise. Especially knowing there’s at least one more season yet to come, I’d love for the show to occasionally try to break its pattern with episodes like “The Lost Sister,” instead of relying on that pattern’s success to the point that it wears itself thin.

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