Episode 7 is the only single character episode of season 2, meaning that we only follow one character, Eleven, as she goes to Chicago to track down “The Lost Sister,” as this episode is titled. We don’t check in on the other characters, only seeing them once through Eleven’s mind’s eye, in a scene we’ve already seen take place at the end of episode 6.
Before I even had chance to watch it, I had heard about episode 7, and not in a good way. People are very critical of this episode, with one media outlet calling it “an utter disaster.” It’s hard to disagree, with the execution and some missed opportunities here. The episode feels like a completely different show, and a distraction at a pivotal point in the season’s plot. What the show is doing thematically in this episode is worth noting, even though it too falls short of what it could have been.
Eleven is looking for truth and connection. She has discovered the existence of a “sister,” another enhanced individual like herself who she thinks can provide a family or home to her. Her mother, who she discovered a few episodes ago, seems to be pointing Eleven toward this sister, and Eleven is reeling from the events of last season and the fight this season with Hopper. What she finds, though, is a team of vengeful vigilantes, who are seeking to get revenge on those who have hurt them, including the people that hurt Eleven. She is brought in utilize her telekinetic and telepathic gifts to help make the team stronger and begins to go along with it.
On the surface, this looks like exactly what Eleven is looking for: authenticity and community. Eleven can use her gifts in a way that makes people proud of her and excited about her. She feels a sense of inclusion, but to what end? She also learns to harness her abilities through anger – being honest about her feelings enables her to access a deeper level of power she hasn’t accessed before. This felt a lot like a scene from X-Men: First Class, where Magneto learns a more nuanced lesson. Rather than accessing anger, Eric (Magneto) is encouraged to access love and longing to be even more powerful, a lesson he unlearns in the film’s climax that ultimately puts him on opposing paths to Charles Xavier. This kind of nuance was missing here in Stranger Things 2, episode 7. While Eleven ultimately leaves to go back to Hawkins because she finds revenge to be less appealing than helping her friends, this resolution happens so fast and so clunkily that we are left wondering whether, if the circumstances weren’t so dire in Hawkins, would she have felt compelled to return?
Checking in with our season-long theme of trauma and pain, Eleven is confronted in this episode by language of a “festering wound.” This season has been using lots of metaphors to describe the way something left untreated can spread, including weeds and viruses, but here it is at its most specific, just as this episode is so specific to one character. Eleven has a wound that is growing worse and spreading because it is unaddressed. Her sister Kali believes that living in anger and seeking revenge is the way toward healing, but Eleven understands a kind of mercy, because it has been shown to her. As the season comes to an end, because of the character arc of this episode, to lead the way in addressing the large, communal wound that is festering in Hawkins.
From this lens, it’s important for this episode to happen in the larger story of the season, because Eleven is Hawkins most powerful asset in the fight against the evil of the upside-down, and she needs to learn how to harness her power. How this episode chose to execute that, of course, leaves a lot to be desired. She has to work through her own trauma in order to lead Hawkins. Jim Hopper experienced his own character arc in season one that has prepared him for leadership in season two. Together with Eleven, they have a shot of getting everyone through this.
There’s a lot that can be said theologically about Eleven’s journey, namely on the tension between mercy and revenge. Some of the Bible’s finest and most potent stories are about people who did not get what they deserved, but were instead offered mercy. It’s transformative for the person who does not get what they deserve, of course, as in the case of Saul/Paul, who executed Christians and is confronted by Christ. Rather than being struck dead or being left handicapped, (though he is blind for a time,) he is set on a path to being the primary theologian of the early church.
But what is most important about revenge and mercy, in light of Stranger Things, is what becomes of the person who chooses revenge. Jesus encourages his followers to forgive others as we have been forgiven, but that if we don’t forgive others, we will not be forgiven ourselves. (Matthew 6) A preacher I heard helped me understand that this is not a punishment, wherein God says, “You’re not being forgiving, so I’m not going to forgive you anymore,” but a way of acknowledging that the callousness and hardening that takes place when we refuse to forgive prevents us from being able to receive forgiveness ourselves. When we lose the ability to be merciful, we cut ourselves off from the source of mercy. In this episode, we see the path that Eleven could take and where it leads. Eleven chooses a different way and remains open to mercy and love, where Kali remains constantly on the run, a prisoner of her own anger and fear.