[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the Stranger Things episode “The Lost Sister.”]
Although I’m a beacon of representational sensitivity, one place I’ve always drawn the line is on the depiction of the “Indians” in Peter Pan. It’s not so much that I endorse the typically one-dimensional treatment of Tiger Lily and her tribe, but the idea that they should be treated as authentic Native Americans is confusing. They are, like everything in Neverland, a manifestation of a child’s perspective on the exotic and the savage, not a representation of any actual indigenous group. They’re fantastical in the same way the pirates and fairies and mermaids are fantastical, because that’s Peter and J.M. Barrie’s filter. A smart adaptation of Peter Pan might not cast a Native American Tiger Lily, but it would explore how the archetypes in Neverland are inherently artificial and inherently a youthful projection.
This is perhaps the thing that Steven Spielberg’s Hook understands best about its semi-source material. Hook is not a movie that has aged well for me, nor for countless other viewers of my generation who thought it was fun and brash and colorful when it premiered, then subsequently went back and watched and cringed. But the entire premise of the movie is based on the idea of a Peter Pan who grew up and lost that youthful projection, lost the ability to see the world through a child’s eyes, however immature that may be. The Lost Boys in Hook are all boundless juvenile id, and seen through a grown-up’s eyes, they’re ridiculous, especially their leader, Rufio. With his spiked, dyed hair and torn shirts and jeans, Rufio is an adolescent’s idea of what ultimate rebellion would look like if he didn’t know what he was rebelling against and he didn’t have anybody — parents or peers —imposing limits or their own values of “cool” and “uncool.” That’s probably why Rufio reads different to me now than he did when I was 14.
I thought of Rufio and of Hook a lot when I was watching the recently released second season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, especially when I was watching the seventh episode, “The Lost Sister,” which has become something of a whipping boy online, the obligatory “but” following a consensus, “I really enjoyed the second season …”
In the episode, Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) journey of self-discovery leads her from her mother’s house to Chicago in search of Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), a peer from her days locked in Hawkins Laboratory, another powerful young woman with “008” tattooed on her arm. Eleven finds Eight living in a badass warehouse space with a group of other damaged teens. This colony of Lost Kids lives without any paternal restrictions because they’re all coming from different backgrounds of abuse and they’re using their freedom to get revenge on the adults who have hurt them, with Eight leading the way, using her laboratory-honed gift of mental manipulation.
When I watched the episode, I barely paused. It wasn’t my favorite episode, but it also didn’t slow me down. I thought it was a fun break from the show’s normal rhythms and storylines. I missed the interactions with the main narrative, but my greatest disappointment was that somehow the Duffer brothers took the show to Chicago and didn’t make any John Hughes references at all.
Then I started hearing people tear the episodes to shreds, calling it the show’s worst-ever hour and making fun of Eight’s gang for being a laughable depiction of punks, a failure of accurate representation that apparently really rankled audiences prepared to believe in telekinesis, demogorgons or that any children could afford to be hooked on the inexcusably expensive Dragon’s Lair game.
So let’s get this out of the way: They’re not punks. How could they be? They’re not part of an anti-authoritarian subculture. They don’t have connections to punk music, punk culture or any culture at all. They’re an isolated vengeance-seeking Scooby Gang fronted by a genetically altered laboratory test-bunny with mind-warping capabilities. They work out their anti-authoritarian streak not by safety pins through the nose or mohawks or torn shirts or any of the other signifiers of punk culture. They work out their anti-authoritarian streak by hurting the people who have hurt them. Then they play-act the outlaws that they imagine themselves to be, and if that’s as a homogenized version of what they’ve seen elsewhere as looking rebellious or outré circa 1984? How can anybody be surprised that it wouldn’t count as authentic or lived-in. They’re hurt kids who already live with no rules and regulations trying to find a style that captures how they see themselves. If they walked into a club populated by actual punks would they get beaten up? Sure. That’s not who they are. This is who they’re play-acting as and it’s funny, but it’s also sad in the same way that looking at Rufio and the Lost Boys in Hook is silly and melancholy all at once.
They look cartoonish, but how could they not? The guy with the mohawk makes Shirley Temple references and you expect him to fit in like an extra from The Decline of Western Civilization?
If their wild inauthenticity seems at odds with the Hawkins gang, in which each and every kid looks and acts exactly like the real people I went to elementary school with in Flyover America in the mid-’80s? Well that contrast is exactly the point of the entire episode.
The gang in Hawkins? They’re children. They have loving, smothering mothers and inattentive or absent fathers right out of the Spielberg playbook and they’re pampered and comfortable. Joyce Byers probably takes Will to J.C. Penney to get his clothes if he’s lucky, but more likely he gets Jonathan’s hand-me-downs. Karen Wheeler probably takes Mike to Fantastic Sams to get his hair cut if he’s lucky, but more likely she takes out a bowl and snips. Their style is shaped by the standards of their environment, and they spend their free time, at least when they aren’t trying to keep the Upside Down from breaking through into our world, having pretend adventures through D&D or at the arcade.
Eight’s gang styles themselves, and they spend their free time committing genuine crimes.
The episode requires Eleven to trade her Hawkins surrogate family for a different surrogate family, and we have to see how her new family interacts. Unlike her well-bred Hawkins family, these kids aren’t bound by any standards. They’re not respectable and they’re not respectful, but it’s possible they understand her much more than her Hawkins friends. They, like Eleven, have been hurt before, and they’re taking measures to make sure they aren’t hurt again. They’re responding to trauma with a vocabulary that Eleven literally doesn’t possess, one Hopper is trying to assimilate out of her.
Let’s be frank: Both surrogate families and the show itself are using Eleven. Stranger Things treats Eleven as the most awesome of characters and as a convenient plot device, and Mike, Dustin and Lucas treat her the same way. And when Eight meets Eleven, she immediately treats her as a sister — and she also treats her like another enhanced weapon at her disposal. We know that self-defense is instinctive for Eleven, and we know that she’s killed before to protect herself and her loved ones. It’s an instinct that Eight shares and one she wants to cultivate, and it’s not only selfish. Eleven and Eight and all of the faux-punks have been abused and they have no qualms about eye-for-an-eye justice. If Eleven does, it’s only because of Mike and the Hawkins kids. There but for the grace of Mike and Hopper, Eleven is Eight.
For me, the episode is necessary because it gives Eleven choices she’s never had before. Eight knows her in a way Mike and Hopper never can. Eight’s appetite for destruction is one Eleven partially shares. Remaining in Hawkins, Eleven would never have had this sort of true peer, and she’d never have a family that encouraged her to tap into her powers and maximize them. For the character, it’s important that she have this experience, know this kind of kindred anger, that she see how much she’d be able to do without the confines of a laboratory or the normalizing confines of suburbia.
She has to see what she’d be able to do if she were also a punk. And Eleven also has no clue what being a punk means.
Then she has to choose. It’s not required that we, as viewers, ever doubt her choice. We don’t need to think, from our perspective, that these cut-rate punks are enticing in any way. We just have to know that they’re an alternative, and then we have to be relieved when, exerting free will she’s never had before, she goes back. Hawkins can’t just be default. She has to have seen Paree for there to be any merit in her going back down to the farm. It’s an episode that feels like it’s from a different show because it’s supposed to. It’s the road not traveled.
And if Eleven’s detour takes her from the land of E.T. and Amblin small-town perfection to the fun, colorful and brash world of Hook-by-way-of-John Hughes? That actually sounds plenty like Stranger Things to me.