The Mind Flayer is back, Hawkins has a shiny new mall, and the kids have to confront puberty: Stranger Things has never been scarier. Throughout the Fourth of July weekend, The Ringer will be covering all the happenings in Stranger Things’ third season with episodic breakdowns highlighting the biggest scenes, themes, and character moments. Below, we dive into Season 3’s sixth episode, “E Pluribus Unum.”
When revisiting the climactic Upside Down face-offs from Stranger Things’ first two seasons, some striking similarities emerge. In both instances, Hawkins’s hope rests on Eleven, the mysterious child imbued with telekinetic abilities—a connection with roots in the Upside Down and the government experiments that gave her those powers in the first place. To defeat the Demogorgon and the first appearance of the Mind Flayer, she lets out a guttural scream while unleashing those powers—first incinerating the monster and then sealing off the gateway between Hawkins and the Upside Down. In terms of the characters’ import to the show’s plot and the machinations that drive it, Eleven is Stranger Things’ undisputed MVP, while doubling as the world’s biggest and most adorable Eggo propagandist.
But while Stranger Things has mostly avoided repeating all the same ’80s tropes across its three seasons—Season 3 is more action-oriented than its predecessors, and in a delightful twist Russians are now terrorizing the town—its treatment of Eleven has unfortunately become all too predictable. At this point in the series, Stranger Things might have an Eleven power problem, simply because she remains too powerful.
One of the biggest complaints about the show’s second season—which was still fun, but an undeniable downgrade from the Emmy-nominated highs of its freshman outing—was about its handling of Eleven’s story arc. Relegated to Hopper’s cabin for the first half of the season before tracing her own roots and hitting up Chicago for a rendezvous with another supernaturally gifted kid, it often felt like Eleven existed on an entirely different (and lesser) series. The Eleven side of Stranger Things’ second season was more indebted to X-Men comics—she’s generally given off Jean Grey vibes—and, as evinced by her brief punk turn in the Chicago stand-alone episode, The Warriors. The attempt by Stranger Things to broaden its scope was admirable, but it seemed the majority of fans (and critics) agreed the Chicago detour was a failed experiment.
But what was the Duffer brothers’ alternative? Try to picture the second season with Eleven present in Hawkins and with her pals for most of the narrative. She would’ve shared more cutesy scenes with Mike, sure, and that would’ve set Tumblr alaze. But all the tension derived from the gang’s confrontations with vicious demodogs would have been rendered moot had Eleven Ex Machina come in early and obliterated the threat with her psychic abilities. It’s fitting that the character reunites with the majority of the cast only in the series finale—when it becomes most convenient for her to unleash those powers and stop the Mind Flayer from wreaking more havoc on Hawkins. (Bummer it couldn’t come before poor Bob Newby got chowed on, but most supernatural shows require a dose of pathos!)
The Eleven power dilemma puts Stranger Things in a bind: As much as the show loves the character, it’s hard to sustain real narrative stakes when she can fix supernatural problems with a flick of her wrist and a shake of her head. Consider the beginning of “E Pluribus Unum,” when Nancy is cornered by the monstrous fleshy goo composed of her former Hawkins Post bosses; right before the creature is able to deliver a fatal blow, Eleven bursts through the door and sends the thing flying out the window. The rescue is an entertaining sequence—and I’m certainly not hoping something awful happens to Nancy or any of the other characters—but it’s also emblematic of the series’ larger issues. Having Eleven swoop in and save the day—or, earlier in the season, discover that something is amiss with Billy while using her powers to spy on him—is an easy solution when the writers have painted themselves into a corner, the same way Daenerys Targaryen was occasionally rescued from the jaws of death by her dragons.
However, so long as Season 3 isn’t a total retread of the first two seasons—with Eleven screaming into the void and stopping the Mind Flayer—there’s still room for improvement during the final two episodes. Giving the other characters additional, world-saving responsibilities takes some of the burden away from Eleven, and doing so would make Stranger Things a more interesting series.
Granted, there aren’t a ton of alternatives when the Mind Flayer’s corporeal form now includes all the “flayed” humans under its bidding sans Billy—we can’t understate just how disgusting this thing looks, lest we forget there are also copious chunks of rat flesh floating in there too—and transforms into the size of a small skyscraper. (I don’t think Lucas’s slingshot is gonna do much good there.) But Stranger Things isn’t just Eleven’s show; it’s an ensemble series with a roster of adorable kids (and a couple traumatized adults with a ton of sexual tension to release). If the third season does stray a bit from the formula so it’s not all about Eleven’s telekinetic abilities saving the day, there’s no harm in embracing the power of the collective.