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Home Is Where the Hawkins: The Mysterious Scope of ‘Stranger Things’

Will the Netflix show’s third season again take characters away from its fictional Indiana home base?

Netflix/Ringer illustration

“What are those, overalls?” asked Dottie, an accomplice of Eleven’s lost psychic “sister,” when she laid eyes on Eleven in Episode 7 of Stranger Things Season 2. “There aren’t any cows to milk here, kid. Go on back to the farm now.”

Eleven looked like her usual self, but she appeared out of place as she entered the Chicago warehouse where Dottie and the rest of Kali’s vindictive crew were squatting. The industrial, dystopian, big-city scenery on Eleven’s out-of-town trip was an equally unusual setting for the series itself.

The first season of Stranger Things featured eight episodes. So does Season 3, which will launch on Netflix next Friday. The second season, though, ran nine—and that extra episode, “The Lost Sister,” was Stranger Things at its strangest, distinct in its surroundings, structure, and scope. For the first time, the series offered an extended glimpse of a world beyond Hawkins and events that didn’t include its core cast. One unknown facing fans as the next batch of episodes nears is whether that narrative rift in the fabric of the show was a one-time exception or whether, like the gate that Eleven ostensibly sealed at the end of last season, it might reopen and disgorge more unfamiliar elements that could complicate the series’ endearingly provincial, Hawkins-hyperfocused plot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering how far afield it ranged from standard Stranger Things, “The Lost Sister” is the most divisive installment of the series so far. Judging by its IMDb rating, which is easily the lowest of the first 17 episodes, many viewers agreed with Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, who wrote that the episode felt “like someone butting into a story you really wanted to hear to tell a story you really don’t care about.”

That story stuck with Eleven as she followed a mental tip from her semi-catatonic mother that took her to Chicago, where Kali—who was introduced in a brief chase scene at the start of the Season 2 premiere—had holed up years after escaping from captivity alongside Eleven at the Hawkins National Laboratory. Illinois neighbors Indiana, but by Stranger Things’ Hawkins-centric standards, any out-of-state setting is almost as alien as the Upside Down.

At first, it seemed as if Eleven might have found a family. “I think your mother sent you here for a reason,” Kali told her telekinetic protégé. “I think she somehow knew that we belong together. I think this is your home.”

Kali, whose wrist tattoo identified her as “008,” helped Eleven augment her powers by tapping into her anger at the “bad men” who’d imprisoned them. Kali’s comrades gave her a punk-inspired makeover, and her new, overalls-less look—slicked-back hair, eye shadow, and dark jacket—blended in well with their Warriors aesthetic. But Eleven learned that hunting down and executing former Hawkins National Laboratory personnel wasn’t to her taste, so she parted ways with the Chicago gang and accepted that Hawkins was where she belonged. “I’m going to my friends,” she tells her seatmate on the bus back to Hawkins. “I’m going home.”

“The Lost Sister” is a bottle episode, but its implications—like Eleven’s outfit—carried over into subsequent episodes and may have foreshadowed the direction of future seasons. Eleven’s enhanced powers enabled her to close the gate in the finale, and her confrontation with the former National Laboratory orderly who’d administered shock treatment to her mother revealed that Season 1 antagonist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) might still be alive. The episode also established that Eleven isn’t the only superpowered survivor of Brenner’s program, and that the ramifications of his experiments—and, potentially, of the portal they opened to the Upside Down—have reverberated beyond the borders of one small, sleepy town.

Coshowrunner Matt Duffer, who called “The Lost Sister” a “totally different show embedded within the show,” told Vulture in 2017 that the creative team was conflicted about including the episode. “We actually did toy with pulling the episode completely, but then the ending with Eleven didn’t work at all,” he said. “It just didn’t land at all. Then we ended up deciding we needed it.”

In a separate 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Duffer mentioned another reason for sending Eleven off on her own, with scant screen time devoted to other series regulars: “We wanted to open up the world a little bit.” His brother and coshowrunner Ross added, “Now that we know Eleven is not the only one who survived Hawkins Lab with strange gifts, I think we’ve clearly hinted at a broader canvas available to us in the future.” In a video series at Collider, Stranger Things producers Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen echoed the Duffers’ comments about the series’ expanding scope and alluded to the potential for further departures from Hawkins. “There’s only so much evil that can happen in that lab,” Levy said, and Cohen noted that the Duffers have joked, “How many times can this happen to this town, to these kids?” Levy added in another interview that “we’ve clearly implied there are other numbers, and I can’t imagine that the world will only ever know Eleven and Eight.”

One key question on the eve of Season 3, which Levy hyped last summer as the series’ “most ambitious ever,” is whether the new canvas will be as big as “The Lost Sister” suggested. The two trailers and the official season synopsis (which begins, “It’s 1985 in Hawkins, Indiana”) suggest that much of Season 3 will be situated in the same locale. But there are a couple of clues that the action will send some characters beyond the borders of Hawkins. In one clip, Chief Hopper tells Joyce Byers, “I want you to feel like this can still be your home,” which may mean that Joyce is considering leaving the town where her son was kidnapped and possessed and her boyfriend was torn apart by a pack of demodogs—both solid reasons to pick up stakes. We also see Eleven in a snippet of the beach scene that Millie Bobby Brown shot in Malibu, which probably doesn’t take place in landlocked Indiana. And IMDb deep dives imply that Russian agents could be after Eleven, which injects some international intrigue.

Both the Byers clan and Eleven have every excuse for getting the hell out of Hawkins, but as Brown acknowledged in an interview last week, Eleven will still be involved in a fight for Hawkins with a “bigger force, a bigger nature.” The title of the finale, “The Battle of Starcourt,” indicates that whatever detours the characters take, they’ll likely reunite at Starcourt Mall in Hawkins for a showdown to determine the town’s fate.

One advantage of expanding the scope of the series, beyond the added visual variety—“The Lost Sister,” according to the Duffers, was inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman, The Terminator, and other examples of “grungy, urban sci-fi film”—is raising the stakes of the Hawkins crew’s struggle. The origins and purpose of the Upside Down are still murky, but the incursion of an interdimensional evil should probably pose a threat to civilization at large, not just a single small town. (“We are talking about the destruction of our world as we know it,” Lucas says in Season 2.) Zooming out might remind us that Hawkins is the front line of what could develop into a bigger battle. What’s more, the Duffers can’t keep calling on the Mind Flayer—whose motivations are still inscrutable—to invade the same place without making viewers feel like they’ve seen these beats before.

The biggest possible downsides of straying from Hawkins are robbing the show of its strong sense of place and detracting from the series’ greatest strength: the chemistry and relationships between its central characters, whose emotional maturation is easier to gauge against the stable backdrop Hawkins provides. “What we found with Season 2 was that we wanted to introduce all these new people and we were excited about it, and explaining the world, but you also want time to be able to spend with your core characters that you’ve grown up with,” Ross Duffer told Vulture. Infusing new blood into an old setting—via Erica Sinclair, Max Mayfield and her stepbrother Billy Hargrove, Sean Astin as Bob Newby, and Cary Elwes as Mayor Kline—can keep the show feeling fresh without pulling focus from more familiar figures. That could be why the showrunners haven’t publicly committed to bringing back Kali and swelling the ranks of psychic sisters. “It feels a little bit like a loose end if we don’t,” Matt Duffer said in 2017, but he also described a reunion with Kali as “something that’s a little bit open-ended that we could or could not revisit.”

Although it seems like Stranger Things’ world-building has left a lot on the table, it may be better to build deliberately and on a smaller, self-contained scale than to construct a towering trellis of incoherent, X-Files-like lore that tantalizes but never really resolves itself. The Duffers and Levy have repeatedly pointed toward four or five seasons as their target length for the show, which would leave limited runway for a massive expansion in scope. Some viewers might ask the Duffers, as Dustin once asked his science teacher, why they’re keeping some curiosity doors locked. But as Matt Duffer explained in 2017, “If anything, we want to streamline the show. We don’t want it to get too unwieldy.” Stranger Things probably isn’t destined for a Dart-like metamorphosis from cute and cuddly binge-watch to overgrown epic.

Any questions the show doesn’t address may eventually be answered in another medium: a prequel novel, or even a spinoff series, although the Duffers have downplayed the idea that “The Lost Sister” was a backdoor pilot. “We thought it would either be cool or really annoying to step away for an episode,” Matt Duffer said in 2017, speaking of the “mini-movie” nature of that outlier entry in the series. The polarized response, which spanned both extreme reactions, exposed both the perils and the possibilities of deviating from the series’ successful formula. Like Murray Bauman, Stranger Things theorists “spend their lives trying to get a look at what’s behind the curtain.” For now, though, the curtain still obscures what the series could become.