I waited and waited. Nobody seems to care as much as I do. So I’ll write it myself.
Poor Eleven! Why did they do that to her? Why?!?
And by “they” I don’t mean the secret government agency who kept her recluse since her birth to run secret experiments on her. Because that is what you expect from such people and a guy with hair like Dr. Brenner… I mean her young friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas, the police chief who should care about her safety, and ultimately the Duffer Brothers.
I just can’t get over it.
Before the casual reader rules me out as a conspiracy theorist or a mathematician gone nuts I guess I need to mention that I am writing about Stranger Things, the hit TV series of last summer, and its heroine Eleven. So I am not crazy, just somebody who likes to obsess about TV series and takes them a little too seriously for her own good (admittedly, a couple of steps away from crazy).
For anyone spending last summer on the moon or meditating in a cave, Stranger Things is the HBO’s miniseries, just renewed for a second season, that brought back on TV all things eighty, and I mean the good ones: adventure, sense of wonder, horror vibes, kids power. The series is a pastiche of the era’s most iconic sci-fi and horror films and their tropes: think four geek kids running around a small town with their MB bikes, uncovering mysteries, facing bullies, monsters from a parallel dimension and deviated evil government secret agencies, teaming up with a young girl exploited for her incredible telekinetic powers….. Sounds familiar? Well, the force of nostalgia runs strong in the series.
A little controversy only added to the show’s popularity. “What about Barb?” the internet asked for weeks, outraged by the quick dismissal of a nice, believable secondary character who, for many fans, deserved a bit more attention after her sudden disappearance, instead of being quickly forgotten by the people in her fictional world. Well now I say: What about Eleven?!? It seems to me that she got an even worst treatment, not only being never really mourned and rapidly erased from (almost) everybody’s memory after her apparent death, but being pushed to her tragic end by her very friends. And she’s the heroine of the show! How did that happen?
Eleven was born and raised in a secret government lab, sleeping in a cell, dressed in a hospital robe and called as the number tattooed on her wrist: 11. A team of scientist led by greasy, evil, manipulative Dr. Brenner, interpreted by Matthew Modine, runs experiments on her to measure and train her telekinetic powers, then exploit them to spy on the enemy. Until one day the girl inadvertently uncovers a portal to another dimension and a man-eating monster uses it to wander around the small Indiana town to feed on young meat.
She’s a lost kid, since her birth deprived of her mother, a proper childhood, her freedom, a normal life. And a decent name. It’s a heavy burden to put on a young character. The kind of extremely bad luck and abuse that waits for something great to happen to counterbalance it, think Oliver Twist, or Rapunzel. Or at least some kick ass power reversal climax scene like in Carrie or The Firestarter, two films clearly referenced in the series.
When Eleven got free from the lab and befriended the boys’ gang, I thought she would become a real hero, finally being in charge of her own powers, using her to her advantage or for the greater good, or just free to forget them and have a normal, happy life. But no, she only gets used more. By her newfound friends. They need her to rescue Will, one of the group who’s been kidnapped by the monster and is now hiding, trapped, in the Upside Down, the other dimension. They give her shelter, clothes and food and hide her from the outside world; she uses her powers for them. Sounds too familiar. Not enough evolution for her. Except the basement now is much more cozy and her caregivers more gentle. Despite all her powers, Eleven is always powerless.
To all of them except Mike, who feels real affection for her, she is no more than the door to communicate with Will. And a kick ass defense against bullies. Once again, she is just her powers.
But only in the season finale it becomes painfully obvious that all the characters’ relationship with Eleven is mostly instrumental. It’s not really that she sacrificed herself to save her friends as much as she was sacrificed by them.
Some viewers and critics already complained about one of the very last scenes in which the three kids finally reunite with Will and recount excitedly to him Eleven’s heroic actions. They compare her powers to those of Yoda. They talk as if she were a fictional badass movie hero, not their recently deceased unfortunate friend who lost her life trying to save them all from a fierce monster . A few hours (days?) before she kind of exploded before their eyes to, in the best case scenario, materialize again in another dimension, grim and desolated and populated by the occasional men eater monster. But they don’t seem shocked or sad or worried for her. It looks like she never really belonged.
It’s a cringeworthy scene. The “they’re just kids” excuse doesn’t make it less so.
Before that, in that last episode there are two more scenes that I found very difficult to digest.
The first one involves Joyce Byers, Will’s mum (interpreted by Winona Ryder), one of the main characters of the show. She is a single mother who lost her child in mysterious circumstances and despite all evidence doesn’t surrender, never believing her kid is dead, even at the cost of looking insane to everybody else. Just the same as Eleven’s mum, whom she visited early on in the series. Well, if you think that such striking similar experience would appeal to Joyce ‘s empathy and make her take Eleven’s case at heart, you are very wrong. After meeting Eleven, she doesn’t even for a second think about helping her get back to her family or at least informing her mother, or anyone, that she is indeed alive. No, instead she uses the girl to get her boy back. Then just let her exhausted and dripping wet and wanted by an armed to the teeth government agency. Used and disposed. Eleven, a traumatized exploited orphan is going to go once again through unbearable pain in order to find a boy she doesn’t even know for a woman she’s just met. Nobody doubts for a second that she will do it, she has to. And nobody doesn’t even bring the poor girl spare dry clothes.
It gets worst. I don’t understand why so many viewers step up to demand respect for Barb but no one is doing the same for Eleven after this happened…
Police chief Jim Hobbes, the rising hero of the series, who also lost his own daughter in the past, decides to sell Eleven’s location to the bad guys in exchange for the chance to go look for Will in the Upside Down through the portal they control. Again, so much for empathy! What’s wrong with this people? I hoped he had a plan. I waited in vain for a plot twist revealing that he actually outsmarted the sadist government scientists giving them false information. But no. As the finale advanced toward the end, I realized he simply gave them the right address to find and capture her again. He exchanged Eleven for Will. Without much hesitation. He sold the lost girl to get the lost boy. Why? Because she’s an orphan that won’t be missed by her already catatonic mother/ a freak/ an outsider/a girl? Or maybe the Chief just wants to hit on Joyce in the future? Whatever reason you pick, it doesn’t sound right. And no amount of junk food generously left in the woods, like peanuts for the performing monkey, can make it better.
Why such disregard for the long-suffering charismatic true heroine of the show?
The show is so concentrated on bringing back memories of real or cinematic childhood friendship à la Stephen King. But there is one thing the Duffer Brothers seem to forget: the Goonies, the kids from Stand by me and It always took care of their weaker friend, they were all kind of outcast, in one way or another, and they stuck together when things got tough. Their loyalty to each other was the heart of those films (and books). Like Eleven, poor, deformed Sloth was held captive and mistreated by the Town’s Bad Guys; like her, he switched side to help our little heroes and run away with them. The bond the Goonies developed with him, though, looked more sincere.
Maybe this has to do with being a female character in the hand of male authors. It happens often, to the best and most gifted screenwriters: they simply don’t know what to do with it (Stephen King, who penned both Carrie and The Firestarter, knew). So they fail to give it a full personality and much to say. The Duffer Brothers may have fallen victim of that too: they put too little in their heroine, always silent and compliant. Through the whole season, ten one-hour-long episodes, she mutters less than 250 words. At first, she looked shocked and mysterious. After a while I started thinking maybe this was a shortcut to avoid making up a real personality for her. In the end, she was less of a character than the others, thus she was expendable. She was more of a plot device, making things happen, pushing the story forward. Until she was no longer needed. Young actress Millie Bobby Brown was brilliant in that role but even her intense gaze can only do so much.
Hopefully Season 2 will make things better.
Part of me still hopes that in future episodes Hobbes’s true plan will be revealed, Eleven will finally show her true colors and there’ll be justice for her.
I’m afraid it’s the same part that still believes Bambi’s mum didn’t really die.