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Dissecting Stranger Things 2, Episode 5's Subplots

When looking at episode 5, from Stranger Things 2 (2017), I enjoyed the main narrative, but the subplots were, of themselves, reactive. However, they weren't always positively so. The two that I'll be looking at are Dustin and Eleven—though mostly Eleven, who I feel the show continues to criminally misuse, in season 2.

I'm not neglecting Dustin, though. The reason I have less to say about him is due to him simply being reliable. As usual, he gets the job done. In episode 5, he plays an admittedly-grim situation for laughs, avenging his dead cat (cat-murder being taboo in our current cat-obsessed culture) by containing its killer in a bomb shelter, out back.

First off, his interactions with his cat-crazy mom are all hilarious (season 2's secret weapon). On top of that, it's worth noting that the scene works whether or not I know why Mom is the way she is. As much as I wonder why or if she's a widow or divorcee, I don't really need to know either in order for the scene to accomplish its goal of making me laugh. It just works, serving as perfectly-odd, off-beat entertainment in between the dead-serious bits with Will the Wise.

It also makes for good character development: We're shown that Dustin makes a mistake, and thus, is relatable. His just happens to be a royal one: trusting Dart a little too much. However, the script wisely decides to mine it for comedy gold, and the whole ordeal, in my opinion, pays off wonderfully as rib-tickling schadenfreude; the more Dustin suffers, the more we delight in it. Likewise, Gaten Matarazzo single-handedly carries the entire scene, and thus deserves mad props. Detour or no, the whole affair is worthwhile, largely thanks to him. Thanks, Dustin. You're amazing.

One subplot that doesn't quite work for me, however, is Eleven's quest for her mother—all the more dismaying given how much potential Eleven has. As far as I'm concerned, whatever we learn about her origins won't make her any more interesting as a character. She already is—already has our pity and our respect. At the same time, her journey to uncover the truth doesn't really tell us much in the ways of anything new.

We already know she had a mother from whom Eleven was stolen as a baby. We also know that said mother came to a bad end. Does it really matter how?

As I was shown Eleven's mom, in a sequence of incomplete-but-straightforward flashbacks, I felt confused by two things: One, why can Eleven suddenly use her powers of long-distance communication without a hyperbaric chamber? Two, where do her powers actually come from? Alas, the more the show revealed, the more confusing things got.

To that, I'll simply say this: it's fine to leave things somewhat ambiguous; it's quite another to devote large portions of the show's running time to make them more so. There needs to be some feeling of consistency or the events onscreen will cease to make sense. All the while, we'll be glancing at our watches, waiting impatiently until things hopefully add up. If they don't, is it wrong to feel cheated?

Creating a hyperbaric chamber, in season 1, took a great deal of time and effort. It felt tense and involving. Now, Eleven need only tie on a blindfold. It's too easy—made more frustrating still given that she could easily return to the others, but simply chooses not to. Why? Because Hopper said so. Granted, Eleven is damaged goods, sees a little bit of "Papa" in her new surrogate father, Jim. It doesn't make it any less frustrating, though, that the most powerful character in the show is also its weakest. For me, it runs a little too hot or cold.

In any case, we're left with a superhero withholding her powers because she wants to protect a loved one. Think Spider-man, in Sam Raimi's Spider-man 2 (2004). I suspect Eleven's ass-kick embargo will need to be lifted, at some point, thus making me question why it was enacted, to begin with. I understand the basic argument. It's also not any fun to watch.

At the same time, if Eleven always does the heavy lifting, everyone else will start to feel like fifth wheels. That being said, all the writers had to do was cook up a satisfying reason, one that didn't amount to Eleven choosing not to save the day purely because an adult tells her. Or, leave it as it is, but don't make it the focus of a given episode. I don't care how much Eleven cries, or how much her nose bleeds; it won't change the fact that the writing doesn't go anywhere, is well-and-truly boring.

The second thing that puzzled me is where Eleven's powers actually come from. I always operated under the impression that she received them, following a battery of morally-dubious, experimental tests—her being the sole subject where the imprint actually took. However, Eleven's mother appears to have the same powers. Thus, these abilities seem more hereditary than acquired, postpartum. Effectively we're dealing with mutants. Or, we could be; I'm still waiting for the show to make up its mind.

This revelation largely feels like a waste of time, though. Does it really matter where Eleven's powers came from? If Spider-man had been bitten by a radioactive gerbil versus a spider, would that change the overarching narrative one jot?  Furthermore, Terry is catatonic; there's really not much in the way of conversation, here. Eleven is stuck with little to do except stare at someone who's been reduced to a plot point, a puzzle. Solving this puzzle feels unproductive, however, given that its prize is a puzzle piece that fails to add up.

In the end, I don't care why she has her powers. I want the show to be consistent, and I want to see her evolve, or develop as a character! Alas, the writers have sealed her off from everyone else, and she's not really given much to do. It's a shame, since her interactions with the lads, in season 1, were some of my favorite moments in the show. There, Eleven was awesome; here, she's impotent, reduced to a part-time sleuth chasing down old, irrelevant leads that add up to zilch. I can only hope that she's given more to do, as the show nears its climax.


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