The Misery of Eleven (I): “I Do Not Belong”

Millie Bobby Brown says she loves this scene in Stranger Things 4. Her character Eleven tears Mike a new one for not treating her properly, meaning he can’t say that he loves her. It sounds like garden variety soap opera, except that it isn’t, because it’s, well, El that we’re dealing with, about whom nothing is banal or ordinary. And she has bankrolls of excuse for her complaints. This season could well have been subtitled “Eleven’s suicidal misery”. On top of all the bullying and feelings of worthlessness, she has a distant boyfriend who is clueless about sensitivity and oblivious to her daily suffering.

Some of that’s her own fault, granted. She’s gone out of her way to hide the bullying and put on an air of sunshine — which makes her plight all the more heartbreaking — so that Mike’s California visit will be a happy one, indeed “the best spring break ever”. It turns out the opposite — as we know it must, as soon as they put on their roller skates — but even worse than the Rink-O-Mania horror is the way Mike deals with the fallout. In her bedroom he defensively piles on platitudes, assuring El that she is the most incredible person ever, a superhero, which is no longer true — and even if it were, it’s the wrong fucking thing to say. It’s a great scene that shows Mike so obtuse, and El so alone, with no place in the world to be understood or loved, even by those who try. “I do not belong,” she says to Mike, who can’t digest her meaning. As a monster (who just gave her bully a grade-2 concussion) she’s despised by her peers, and as a superhero she’s now defunct. How can she belong?

The build-up to this scene occurs throughout the previous episode. At the airport we catch El’s first flicker of annoyance as Mike gives her flowers. The note says, “To El, From Mike” (not “Love Mike”), and the look on her face signals hurt… but also a subtle slow-building wrath. The wrath explodes later in the day on the skating rink, when her bully Angela pushes her over the edge and provokes El to smash her face with a roller skate (a priceless scene worth watching here). The next day, after her fight with Mike, the cops come to arrest her, and the interrogation scene at the station shows more un-belonging. When the cops ask her why she hit Angela, and she replies “I don’t know,” she’s not being flippant; she’s genuinely unsure. Her violent impulses harvested at the Hawkins Lab may as well be part of her DNA. And to the question, “Did you want to kill her?”, instead of replying “no” like anyone would (whether honestly or not), El says again — and very honestly — “I don’t know.”

Brown plays these scenes flawlessly as usual, and her ability to convey a wide range of emotion — especially in silence — is something most actors (even veteran adults) can’t pull off quite this well. I doubt that Stranger Things would be the phenomenon that it is — or at least to the degree that it is — had a different actor been cast for Eleven. This season in particular puts her through the ringer in every frame: from her bullying trials in California, to her Nina trials in Nevada, to her harrowing confrontation with Vecna in Hawkins. (I’ll cover the latter two in later posts.) In seasons 1 and 2 she at least had a few saving moments of happiness, but in season 4 she remains mired at rock bottom, hopefully so she can transcend herself. She will never fully “belong”, but perhaps in season 5 she will be more at peace with herself, having wrestled with her season-4 demons present and past.

One more thing about Mike and El’s bedroom argument. It’s worth noting how different it is from their ridiculous fight and break-up at the mall in season 3, when El bitchily “dumped Mike’s ass” over a stupid slight. It’s one of the worst scenes in the series (which you can watch here), and like other season-3 scenes played for comedy that misses the humor mark entirely. Mike and El were reduced to bickering caricatures in that outing, and it’s a relief to see season 4 taking them seriously again. And giving them a fight they deserve.


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