Stranger Things 2 feels a lot like the first season. It re-creates many of the same beats, building a story with rhythms that feel more like a movie sequel than a second season of a TV show. That’s why Stranger Things 2 works as well as it does. The characters are the same, the world is the same, and by and large, it replicates the pleasures of season one rather than doing something entirely new. It’s like a sequel in this respect as well: Where the first entry is delightful in part for its novelty and surprise, the sequel has to lean on familiarity.
There is one sharp, noticeable departure from the first season, though, and all you need is one glance at the episode listings to figure out what it is. The first season was eight episodes; the second season is nine. This is a generally useless metric for judging a TV season … except in the case of Stranger Things 2, where that extra episode is exactly what it sounds like. There’s one in there that’s just unnecessary. It doesn’t fit in, it’s not especially fun on its own, and rather than deepen the season’s characters or expand the world beyond the self-contained alien horrorville of Hawkins, Indiana, it instead highlights the weaknesses you might otherwise be able to ignore.
Have you seen Stranger Things 2? Then you know precisely which episode I’m talking about. It’s episode seven, “The Lost Sister.”
The episode’s premise is that while the main Stranger Things gang are trying to stop an army of Upside Down monsters from invading Hawkins, Eleven travels to Chicago to hunt down a companion from her past, Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). The episode is largely stand-alone. Eleven meets up with Kali and her gang of misfits, and Kali helps Eleven realize how powerful she can be if she embraces her anger. Together, they set off on a joyride to enact revenge on the Hawkins Lab goon who wronged them, and then Eleven fails to live up to Kali’s “no mercy” stance. She returns to Hawkins, newly powerful and even more intent on helping her friends.
The issues with “The Lost Sister” fall into two camps. The first is that Stranger Things 2 is built so much like a movie sequel, and so little like a season of television. Its episodes of have “chapter” titles, and a few of them have strong closing buttons to help pull you into the next installment, but for the most part, it’s a steady drumbeat that builds until the closing finale. When you watch Stranger Things, episode breaks are an opportunity to pause and get more snacks; episode breaks are not opportunities to build smaller units of theme or shorter narrative arcs. So it’s weird to have a stand-alone episode. It feels distinctly out of step with the way the rest of the show works, and it comes at a point that cuts off the momentum that’d been building toward the end of the season.
In spite of this, I don’t think a stand-alone episode was a bad idea for Stranger Things. A good one could’ve done wonders for the season as a whole, and could’ve been an exciting chance for the series to play with different storytelling skills. The best stand-alones tend to be little commentaries on the series as a whole, dismantling the usual order of things and reaching for deeper character beats. Stand-alone episodes are a chance for a show to take a step back and apply pressure to what really makes the show tick, how a character might behave in atypical circumstances, and what a show’s identity feels like when the typical trappings get stripped away. A good stand-alone episode is like sending your favorite show away to summer camp: Sometimes weird stuff happens, but everyone comes back a little more independent. Everyone learns some new things about themselves. I would’ve loved to see Stranger Things 2 make that happen.
But it needed to happen at a different point in the season, where it didn’t interrupt the otherwise effective headlong rush into the show’s final acts quite so badly. As episode seven in a nine-episode season, “The Lost Sister” instead just feels like someone butting into a story you really wanted to hear to tell a story you really don’t care about. And to make the stand-alone idea work, it of course needed to be a stronger hour of television.
“The Lost Sister” sends Eleven to reunite with Kali, a young woman who’s the leader of a band of punk “freaks.” Several of them are people of color, including Kali herself. Because the punks don’t play a role in the Hawkins horror endgame or have any significant life outside of this episode, you come away with a sense that this band of magical misfits exist mostly to help Eleven find her own power — a story with shades of the “magical Negro” trope. Worse, because Eleven taps into her anger but then chooses the route of mercy, the implication is that Kali and her friends are choosing a path that Stranger Things 2 thinks is wrong. Eleven gets to have fun (and an admittedly awesome makeover), but she also gets to stay on the good side. No such luck for Kali or the one-dimensional cardboard cutouts that populate her gang.
The tropes at play in “The Lost Sister” are bad. On their way to enact revenge on those who’ve wronged them, the gang pauses to raid a convenience store, which one punk announces as a supermarket-sweep-style free-for-all. (Eleven grabs some Eggos, of course.) This relatively minor act of misbehavior is supposed to convince us that they’re all badasses, I suppose, or that they get their kicks by sticking it to small business owners. In truth, it’s mostly baffling. The gang’s apartment is very impressive, but given that we never see it again or have any reason to feel any fondness for it, the effort feels wasted. When we finally get to the end of the episode and come back into the main story of the season, nothing much has changed. Eleven is apparently more powerful, although she seemed plenty potent before. We know more about Eleven’s past, but to what end? It has little to no impact on later events, and Eleven feels like exactly the same person she was before except with a much cooler outfit. (It is much cooler, I will say that for it.)
To its credit, Stranger Things is great at using the Upside Down as a storytelling device. That nightmare alternate dimension haunts Hawkins, always lurking and encroaching even when we can’t see it. Its threats and its lessons stay with the characters, informing how we think of them and who we root for. It’s an entirely different space from the show’s “real” world, but the whole point is that what happens there doesn’t stay there. It’s always intruding into the main story. This is how good stand-alone episodes should work as well: They’re like trips to another storytelling dimension, and when we return to the real world, the things we saw in that seemingly self-contained world should stay with the characters, or should help the audience see the show differently. “The Lost Sister” is like we’ve all taken a trip to the Upside Down, but instead of leaving a lasting impact on the series, this alternate universe is a forgettable place tinged with racially reductive storytelling tropes.
It would’ve been fun for Stranger Things 2 to lean into its TV side a little more, to play with a stand-alone episode that really pushed the story outside of its comfort zone. An episode like that could take the series to fun new places, proof that Stranger Things could exist outside its “teens fight monsters in small town America” world. Sadly, “The Lost Sister” is not that episode.