The second season of Stranger Things—or, if we must, Stranger Things 2—effectively recaptures the meme-spawning magic of its first. But for a season that mostly follows the template of “What if that thing you liked, but more?” the new episodes make a pronounced departure in splitting Millie Bobbie Brown’s Eleven off from her group of demogorgon-fighting pals, most of whom think she’s disappeared or dead. As the series’ breakout character, played by its strongest young actor, Eleven is a natural candidate to carry her own largely self-contained storyline, but the strain of building a new world for her to inhabit taxes the Duffer brothers’ self-mimicking skills to the limit, and finally exhausts them altogether in its seventh episode, “The Lost Sister.” The result is an unmitigated embarrassment.
In “The Lost Sister,” Eleven, who has run away from her surrogate father, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), and found her birth mother in a state of apparently irreversible catatonia, sets out in search of the closest thing to family she has left: her “sister” Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). Kali, who has a telltale “008” tattooed on her inner arm, is a product of the same government project that gave Eleven her psychic powers, and as far as she knows the only living person in the world capable of understanding what she’s been through. (The episode raises the possibility that Matthew Modine’s villainous Dr. Brenner may not be as dead as he previously seemed, but that remains unconfirmed, and in any case there’s a big difference between being the experiment’s instigator and one of its unwilling subjects.) Like Eleven, who now knows her real name is Jane, Kali has gathered a group of friends around her, but instead of adorable small-town tweens, they’re grown-up lawbreakers, and it is with their introduction that “The Lost Sister” becomes a true, even historic, disaster.
We’ve already caught a glimpse of Kali’s gang in the season’s very first scene, narrowly escaping the Pittsburgh police until Kali coaxes them to hallucinate a crumbling overpass, but they’re reintroduced in Chicago by the mocking voice of Axel, who steps away from the group’s cozy oil-drum fire to drawl, “Well, well, what do we have here?” like he’s auditioning for a role in a low-budget knockoff of The Warriors. He’s followed quickly by the gang’s other members, whose repartee isn’t much snappier. One looks askance at Eleven’s small-town Indiana duds, and quips “There aren’t any cows to milk here, kid. Go on back to the farm, now.” Later, one starts to sing “Old MacDonald” and the others join in with a lusty “E-I-E-I-O.” You’d think street toughs who live by their wits could come with something a little sharper.
The dialogue is bad, and the plot is perfunctory—Kali wants to seek out and kill the people who imprisoned her; Eleven decides that vengeance is not her thing, although she does dig eyeliner—but the imagery is the pits. Kali and co. inhabit a graffitied warehouse that looks like a Street Fighter backdrop, and they’re done up like Central Casting lowlifes from a bad ’80s TV show. More specifically, they look like the laughably off-base “punks” from the notorious episodes of CHiPs and Quincy that attempted to warn network TV viewers about the dangers of ripped T-shirts and antisocial lyrics in 1981 and ’82—although somehow 35 years and innumerable music-scene documentaries later, Stranger Things’ representation is even phonier and more laughable. (Considering that there is ample footage of the Chicago punk scene from this precise time period, it’s even more inexcusable how lame and generic the characters are.) Axel has a giant multicolored mohawk that renders the masks the gang wears to commit their crimes utterly useless; his pal Dottie has teased-out rainbow-gray hair and a massive bow that makes her look like a Harley Quinn cosplayer; Mick has a giant, puffy Afro; and their stout comrade Funshine has a popcorn-butter goatee reminiscent of a Luc Besson alien. Their styles don’t mesh, but they’re also not distinct enough to tell us anything about the characters, except maybe that the show’s costume designer had to cut corners somewhere and figured if anyone was going to skip an episode, this would be the one they’d skip.
Back in the early ’80s, Hollywood costumers were clearly taking their cues from Penelope Spheeris’ invaluable The Decline of Western Civilization, which captured Los Angeles bands like X and the Germs in action. (The latter’s lead singer, Darby Crash, seems to have been a particular inspiration.) Throughout the decade, punks of various shapes and sizes became a Hollywood staple, whether they were menacing a time-traveling Arnold Schwarzenegger, crashing Sarah Jessica Parker’s party, or just making it tough for Kirk and Spock to have a civil conversation. The most charitable reading of Kali’s gang is that they’re a gloss on these stock figures, but if so then they’re at best a copy of a copy, lazily ported over with no imagination or discernment—exactly what the Duffer brothers’ detractors accuse the show, usually wrongly, of being. One of the most striking things about Stanger Things’ first season was the way it recreated its period setting without quotation marks; for all its obvious homages to Spielberg et al., it felt like it took place in the real 1980s, not a fictional version of them. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that “The Lost Sister” ends with Eleven headed back to Hawkins, ostensibly because she’s remembered her duty to protect her friends. But you couldn’t blame her if she simply got sick of hanging around these characters and just decided to split.
Correction, Nov. 2: This post originally referred to the character Funshine as Funsize.