Stranger Longings: Belonging and Adoption in Stranger Things 2
The longing for identity and belonging runs deep in human hearts
Originally published at Christ and Pop Culture
Stranger Things 2 feels like coming home, even though many characters are still searching for it. Will is stalked by trauma; Mike is pulled between survivor’s guilt and hope; Max faces abuse; Hopper has a secret that hurts to keep; even Dustin’s dance-floor dread points to the desire to belong. Then there’s Eleven, who aches deeply for a home she’s never had.
Eleven experiences a taste of friendship (and something more) with Mike, companionship with the other boys, and even glimpses of Joyce’s maternal love in season one, but now she wants more of that community—and it’s denied her. She’s confined to a cabin for her own safety, and the only person she gets to see is Hopper. Her frustration builds with every moment she has to spend by herself, every time Hopper is late, every time she remembers her lost friendships. Eleven longs for somewhere to belong more than most, though almost every character in Stranger Things 2 mirrors this struggle in some way.
The longing for identity and belonging runs deep in human hearts, and it isn’t just a social concern; its root is spiritual. A more intimate family and clearer sense of self is always just out of reach, because although humanity belongs, in body and soul, to God, we can’t bear His image perfectly in sin. Creation begets purpose, and our purpose is to know God and say with the psalmist, “It is he who made us, and we are his,” reflecting His perfectly loving community within our earthly relationships. And like a bright foil to the Upside Down, this incessant pull toward the transcendent hums just below the surface.
Despite the characters’ struggles, or perhaps because of them, hope persists in ST2, emerging through an undergrowth of pain and broken relationships. Because of her father’s treatment of her, Eleven has seen clearly what family should not look like; but her brief taste of belonging in Hawkins gives her hope for something more.
Her “papa,” Dr. Brenner from Hawkins Lab, had tortured her, exploited her, and pushed her into summoning the Upside Down for the sake of progress. Brenner controlled and confined Eleven with no thought for her well-being, so when Hopper attempts to isolate her for her safety, she doesn’t entirely understand. She ends up shouting at him in a fit of rage that he’s “just like Papa” and leaves the space of safety on her own. She wants to see her friends and have a normal life, and heads to the high school to find her friends. Though when she does see Mike, she’s uncertain of herself, jealous of Max, and scared she’s been replaced. So, she goes on a journey of self-discovery, only to learn that the self isn’t simply uncovered. Becoming who we are is equal parts built and bestowed, and Eleven’s foundation is in Hawkins.
Eleven’s search brings her to her birth mom, who has no comfort to offer her except a revelation: Eleven isn’t the only child who lived through horrors in Hawkins Lab. The mysterious Kali from the opening scene is Eleven’s “sister.” Eleven tracks her down, and Kali offers an easy answer to El’s quest for belonging: “I just feel whole now. Like a piece of me was missing, and now it’s not… I think this is your home.”
Kali’s offer is enticing but, after Eleven’s time in Hawkins, the relationship Kali offers can’t deliver the life Eleven desires—the home she glimpsed in Mike’s basement and even Hopper’s cabin. If Eleven had met Kali after escaping Hawkins Lab instead of the AV Club boys, though, it’s likely she would be a vigilante in Kali’s gang because she wouldn’t have known what true community looked like. Even with that knowledge, Kali’s offer is tempting because she is the only person who truly understands what Eleven went through.
Kali is the closest thing to family she has. They share experiences, abilities, and trauma, but they don’t share the same hope—life with Kali is an empty promise. Kali would have Eleven become the weapon Dr. Brenner wanted, just turned in a different direction.
While Kali’s relationships are based on getting revenge and what others can do for her, Eleven’s include what she can do for others.
When Eleven decides she wants to return to Hawkins, Kali tells her, “They cannot save you.” But Eleven has already been saved twice; first from experimentation into a blanket fort and then from the cold into a cabin. That’s why she’s prepared to give herself freely while Kali only wants to receive her due. “No,” Eleven replies. “But I can save them.”
Charles Taylor, Canadian philosopher and author of A Secular Age,suggests identity is formed in dialogue with others. If that’s true, then relationships aren’t simply choices to be made; they’re conversations to be lived. Although Eleven can choose to stay with Kali, her relationships in Hawkins tug on her because a fundamental part of her post-Lab identity was formed within that community.
Though Eleven can’t go back and live life as Jane Ives—just as it’s impossible for humanity to return to innocence and avoid the consequences of sin—her merciful choices forge a new identity that point toward something holy. In the painful reality of the present, there’s a dim reflection of what life could look like, whole and remade. The root of this longing, for something never tasted but the lack of is still felt, reaches back to Eden. The author of Hebrews says the church is like Abraham, a stranger in a foreign land, “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” What should’ve been hints to what will be, so Eleven’s foretaste of true belonging with her surrogate family in Hawkins sets up the homecoming of season two.
We deeply understand Eleven’s longing for a reunion with Mike, Hopper, and the others because we see our own desire for community in her search for identity. We yearn with her because the characters are such a frank and earnest picture of true friendship. C. S. Lewis describes the nature of this friendship in The Four Loves:
“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets…. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend.”
Stranger Things 2 wears its heart on its sleeve and holds up the self-giving virtues that build strong relationships and desirable communities. After the bondage and decay of broken relationships, the inescapable Upside Down, and a power that threatens to tear her apart, Eleven’s search for a place where she belongs culminates in a simple scene at the end of the series: the understated exchange of a piece of paper. When Hopper finalizes Eleven’s adoption, she becomes Jane Hopper. She receives a new name and a new home; most importantly though, she receives a new future, a family, and a love that casts out all fear—shadow monsters be damned.