Sunday, November 5, 2017

REVIEW: 'Stranger Things' - El Goes on a Strange Adventure in a New City in 'Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister'

Netflix's Stranger Things - Episode 2.07 "Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister"

Psychic visions draw Eleven to a band of violent outcasts and an angry girl with a shadowy past.

The first season of Stranger Things proved that Millie Bobby Brown has star power. She is such a fantastic actress. She is the youngest performer ever to be nominated for an Emmy Award. That was a huge accomplishment. All of this praise means she is fully capable of carrying an entire episode of television by herself. Eleven is the type of character with a complicated backstory and compromised present that could be well served by an entire hour focused solely on her. "Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister" stands out in the series because it is unlike anything the show has done before. It's the first instance where it seems like the creative team knows that they are creating a television show and not an ongoing series of movies. That approach has been so blatant in the way that they structure and tell their stories each season. Stranger Things isn't really a show that believes in the power of distinct episodes. Like most shows on Netflix (especially the hourlong ones), the episodes mostly just blend together because the narrative is extremely serialized and carries over in each hour because the creatives believe the audience will just binge it all in one weekend. But television is a medium defined by episodes. It's a structure that can be very beneficial to an overall show as well because it forces the creative team to think in a different way. They are choosing to make a TV show for a reason. They should be willing to explore the format of the medium they have chosen instead of just trying to make a movie that happens to take eight or nine hours to tell. And so, this episode stands out because it's a standalone story from the rest of the narrative. However, it fails spectacularly because there is just no purpose for its existence whatsoever.

It's already been a criticism of this season that the creative team has sidelined El too much. She has been locked away in Hopper's cabin unable to interact with much of the world. When she did escape briefly, it had no significant reunions with any of the major characters. And now, her second escape has taken her far away from Hawkins, Indiana. First, it was to her mother's house so she could see the damage that was inflicted upon her because of the scientists she grew up alongside. And now, it's to Chicago so she can reunite with the sister she had at Hawkins Labs whom she didn't even remember until her venture into her mother's memories. And on one hand, El is the character whom the show can use in order to expand this world beyond the limited focus it has had in Hawkins. She can highlight how the world at large may be dealing with these kinds of supernatural events as well. It doesn't have to be strictly limited to a small town in Indiana. But on the other hand, her meaningful relationships are in Hawkins. That's where her home is - for better or worse. It's where she was taken from her family and experimented on. But it's where she learned how to be a kid as well. She formed friendships that quickly became meaningful to her. And so, it's important for her to be a part of the end game of the season as the stakes only increase higher for the rest of the characters.

And so, the placement of this standalone hour is very curious. It basically brings the momentum of the season to a halt. Things were getting really intense and compelling in the main story as well. This season has focused on many disparate stories that are all ultimately connected together. It has done right by so many more characters this season. It hasn't been at a complete disservice to El. Her dynamic with Hopper has been terrific. It's one of the best character relationships on the show. It's meaningful that she does hear the message he delivers on the radio. There was a sense of tragedy in the previous episode because he was delivering that message unknowingly to an empty cabin because he had no idea that El had left for her own adventure believing him to have lied to her once more. Seeing Hopper and Mike in danger is of personal significance to El. It's a huge decision for her to return to them after choosing to explore this new family relationship her mother had seemingly pointed her towards. And yet, this episode has absolutely nothing to do with the threat that was crawling out of the Upside Down at the end of the previous hour. It instead takes this strange and peculiar detour that ultimately doesn't make much sense. There needed to be a purpose to this story in order to justify breaking up the show just as it was getting good and intense. Sadly, there is just no reason for any of this.

Again, it's a strong creative decision to expand this world and explore other characters who have been affected by the experiments going on in Hawkins. The season opened with a brief tease of the characters El meets during this episode. They were seen robbing a bank and being able to make a clean getaway because of Kali's powers. The show does enough to distinguish the differences in El and Kali's powers while also being connected enough that they feel like sisters. El goes on this mission to find Kali because she believes it to be important. The show believes it to be important as well. It teased it at the start of the season and highlighted this other girl El was with when her mother tried to break her free from Brenner. But now, El and Kali are reunited. It's just such a bland story. It's a story about rebels and outcasts. But it's just all so laughably stereotypical. Kali's crew of social outcasts is basically a writer's interpretation of punk gangsters for someone who has never experienced someone like that before. It's strange and very cliche. The show has rightfully been criticized in the past for bringing nothing new to this particular genre. That's not always true even though it does have some very derivative elements. Stranger Things has its own unique blend of style and story that works while still playing homage to the films of this era. But this episode has no notable influences. It just wants El to go off on this adventure where it isn't abundantly clear what the lesson learned at the end of all of it is.

The story highlights how Kali is willing to embrace El as a sister and teach her how to control and use her abilities more. But that's not even good for a training montage. It's instead just one scene of her trying to move a train closer. She's successful in the end because she can tap into her feelings of anger. But that's not some grand reveal that is particularly surprising for the audience. We've seen just how amazing her abilities can be. She has been able to accomplish a lot when it came to protecting her friends. The show wants there to be immediate intimacy between El and these characters. And yet, it mostly just feels like the show trying to introduce and get rid of these characters as quickly as possible. There's the sense that they will have ongoing importance. That El will need them in order to make her rousing return to Hawkins. It feels like this reunion is necessary in order for her to be powerful enough to stop the forces of evil that are plaguing her friends. But that's not the case at all. Instead, it's just a lame and boring storyline about El not wanting to kill a former scientist at the lab because he has a family. It proves that even though El has killed in the past she doesn't want to do it without good reason in the present. She has a moral compass where Kali has none. However, that just highlights how El just doesn't belong here. She doesn't belong with these characters. Considering the audience is conditioned to feel like El is the special character who stands out and is rewarded on the show, it means everyone around her in this hour needs to be awful and off-putting. That way it makes sense once she decides not to drive off with them. It's just a story too compressed and lackluster because none of these characters make an impact in the slightest. Certainly not to the extent that any of them should be brought back as soon as possible.

Plus, the show seems to be hinting at a significant personal story with El's identity by accident. That's a huge red flag that sets off some huge concerns in the way the creative team is actually handling things. The show is making it seem like El has no personal identity because she is always being given a makeover in order to fit in with any random group of characters who want her in their lives. She was taken as a baby and dressed up in hospital gowns with a shaved head to remove any sense of humanity at the labs. She was forced through a very ugly and sexist American girl makeover when she was with Mike, Dustin and Lucas. She was changed to a flannel and overalls wearing girl when stuck in the cabin with Hopper. And now, she is given a goth/punk makeover by Kali and her crew in order to highlight just how much of a social outcast she is. However, none of this seems all that practical. Why does El need to have this makeover in order to go out on this mission with the crew? It seems counterproductive. It feels like a massive mistake that will only lead to them being identified more quickly. They stand out because of the way they are presenting themselves to the world. It makes them less like freedom-fighting rebels and more like annoying teenagers. But again, the show could be hinting that underneath all of this El has no sense of her own true identity. She doesn't know what she actually likes and wants - beyond Eggo's. She hasn't had the opportunity to make her own choices because there was that constant fear of death or peer pressure. But it never feels like the show is purposefully doing all of this. It feels more like a bunch of male writers having no idea how any of this is really coming across. And that's just one of the major problems that plague this episode and stop so much of the strong momentum of the season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister" was written by Justin Doble and directed by Rebecca Thomas.
  • The Netflix release model means I was warned about this episode heading into it. Netflix releasing entire seasons in one day means that the audience has nine new episodes of Stranger Things to watch. But it also means all of those spoilers are out there ready to impact any viewer's impression and expectations of the season. And so, I've been slow moving through this season but this episode was already a huge talking point throughout the past week.
  • In the end, the audience really could just skip this episode altogether. It doesn't really reveal anything new for El that will be important to know. She had this adventure but it was completely pointless. Her showing up in Hawkins in the next episode won't be that surprising. It's literally what would need to happen in order to make sense of any of this. 
  • The show is even hitting the audience over-the-head with the themes of this episode with its musical choices. This hasn't always been a subtle show in that regard. However, El running away from the Ives household to Chicago is set to "Runaway" by Bon Jovi while her big makeover scene is set to "Dead End Justice" by The Runaways. And if you couldn't understand what the show was trying to say, then this really isn't your show at all.
  • Justin Doble was also the writer of Season 1's "Chapter Four: The Body." That's the hour where El gets another cringe-worthy makeover that has inspired a bunch of think pieces about the quality of the show. So perhaps, it's an issue with the particular writer who doesn't quite understand the overarching connotations of what's going on. But it's still a repeated issue on the show no matter who is in charge of each individual episode.
  • This episode also starts the speculation on whether or not Brenner is actually dead. Kali and El's target, Ray, suggests that he is alive. He begs for his life in exchange for his location. El doesn't believe it to be true but Kali might. Kali uses an image of "Papa" to show to El that she can get into her head with her greatest fear just like she can with everyone else. That too highlights how this connection between them isn't all that personal or significant. But bringing things back to Brenner, should the audience even want him to return? This season has done perfectly fine without him.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.