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When the Bottle Episode Goes Bad

The self-contained story is one of TV’s most highly regarded tricks—but as punked-out Eleven proves, it’s not always a winning exercise

Pablo Iglesias

As we approach the 10th anniversary of Mad Men’s “The Suitcase” on Saturday, join us in celebrating the highs and lows of one of television’s greatest exercises/flexes/budget-saving tricks: the bottle episode.

On the surface, a bottle episode feels like a shaky gambit: a series committing to confining its characters to a setting or two, often stripping a story down to its bare bones. Yet in practice, bottle episodes tend to have high success rates. The bottle episodes from Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Seinfeld don’t just work—they are regarded as all-timers. Bottle episodes reward a TV creator’s faith in the strength of their characters and core relationships, and in their ability to stand on their own. I mean, there’s a reason we can dedicate an entire day on this site to the greatness of bottle episodes—there’s so many to choose from.

But bottle episodes aren’t invincible—if a series does one and misses the mark, it can disrupt its entire season and forever exist in ignominy. To wit: If we polled a bunch of Stranger Things superfans about what their least favorite episode of the series was, chances are that Season 2’s “The Lost Sister” would be the overwhelming favorite. (Stranger Things’ episodic ratings on IMDb suggest as much.)

At that point in the season, more gnarly creatures from the Upside Down are wreaking havoc, setting up yet another showdown for the fate of Hawkins, Indiana, and, possibly, the entire world. And then “The Lost Sister” grinds everything to a very awkward halt. Instead of continuing where we left off in Hawkins, the antepenultimate episode is a detour to Chicago, where Eleven meets another girl, Kali, who was also experimented on at Hawkins Lab and imbued with powers. (Kali was briefly introduced at the start of the season in a chase scene, setting up the whole “there are other kids like Eleven” thread.) Eleven is indoctrinated into Kali’s Warriors-esque group of Chicago outcasts, and she’s given an undeniably cool punk makeover.

But aside from killing the season’s momentum, “The Lost Sister” comes across like a cynical exercise in Stranger Things flirting with the possibility of a backdoor pilot—a way for the show’s universe to expand beyond just one telekinetic kid. (Her name is Eleven, after all; Kali is “008.”) While the Duffer brothers admitted to Vulture that “The Lost Sister” was “sort of like a pilot,” they stress that wasn’t the true intention for the bottle episode, which was meant to be about Eleven’s journey of self-discovery before she goes back to Hawkins to save the day.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that “The Lost Sister” just seems out of place; per the Vulture interview, the Duffers even considered scrapping the episode entirely. That’s, uh, hardly a vote of confidence. The episode also disrupts Stranger Things’ usual rhythm: seasons 1 and 3 are both eight episodes, and the exclusion of “The Lost Sister” would’ve kept Season 2 at the same length. Stranger Things is by no means obligated to run at eight episodes, but the way each season is structured—highly bingeable, and one of the few series that could credibly be viewed as an “eight-hour movie”—the bottle-episode nature of “The Lost Sister” just doesn’t vibe with the rest of the show. It’s Upside Down in the worst possible way.

The best bottle episodes are rich character studies, using the creative limitations of a single setting to mine more depth and emotional nuance—whether it’s Walter White and Jesse Pinkman airing out grievances while hunting a fly or the crew of the Serenity trying to restore the ship’s power before they run out of air. Perhaps what makes “The Lost Sister” the poster child for a bad bottle episode is the fact that it tries to be several things at once: a flimsy attempt at deepening Eleven’s character before she inevitably returns to Hawkins, and a way to open up the show’s universe beyond its initial setting. There’s nothing wrong with Stranger Things leaving Hawkins’s orbit—that’s exactly where things appear to be headed in Season 4, with the Byers family leaving town and Chief Hopper being [deep breath] a bald Russian prisoner of (interdimensional) war—but bottle episodes are, by and large, the opposite of expansion. They’re supposed to be self-contained and restricted in scope.

Given the largely negative response to “The Lost Sister,” we probably won’t see Kali and her crew again, rendering them a strange footnote to one of Netflix’s buzziest original series. In fact, it’s because we can now pull back the curtain—seeing how this bottle episode fits, or doesn’t, with the rest of the show’s 24 other episodes—that “The Lost Sister” seems even more like an unnecessary outlier. (If the episode wasn’t there to provide some context as to why Eleven returns to Hawkins with a ton of eyeliner and slicked back hair, the series could exist without it.)

Other times, a bottle episode’s impact is hindered by a show not paying off the character development that the self-contained setting established. The last time Game of Thrones approached something akin to a bottle episode—the final season’s “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”—was, with the benefit of hindsight, the last time the show truly excelled. On the eve of humanity’s epic battle with the White Walkers at Winterfell, our characters spend their time reflecting on their past mistakes, insecurities, and desires. (Arya, congrats on the sex.) While more of a bottle episode in mood than in format, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was Thrones at its sneaky best: not flexing a mind-boggling production budget, but simply putting characters in a room and letting them talk.

“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” was, at the time, viewed as a sendoff to many characters who’d soon (presumably) face their doom against the army of the undead. Heartwarming as it was, Brienne of Tarth’s long-overdue knighthood read like a mark of death. Wholesome sex god Podrick Payne’s beautiful singing voice was just asking for trouble. I even begrudgingly accepted that my favorite dude, Ser Davos Seaworth, was probably fucked: He always talked about how he wasn’t much of a fighter!

Then, well, we know how Thrones ended: with plot contrivances and anticlimax, and not a whole lot of main character death. What could’ve been a love letter to characters that would perish was instead the last time the series made any sense. But because it gets dragged into the show’s messy and truncated end, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” doesn’t sit as well on repeat viewings. Through no fault of the episode’s writer, Bryan Cogman—his final time penning a script for Thrones—David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ensured the reputation of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” would, to some extent, go down with the sinking ship. (A ship that sank because Dany kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet.)

The struggles of Stranger Things’ detour to Chicago—or Game of Thrones bottle-like episode whose disappointment rests in everything that transpired after it—shows how the format levels the playing field, and puts an even sharper emphasis on the elements of good storytelling. You don’t need big production values or Emmys fanfare to make a good bottle episode work. And you certainly don’t need to use that self-contained space to flirt with punky spinoff possibilities. All you need is a creatively liberating idea, where everyone is on the same page.