This article contains major spoilers for Stranger Things 3.
Eleven’s journey is one of contrasts on Stranger Things. As the veritable star of the series, and certainly its most enigmatic character, the young woman who was born without a name is defined by her contradictions. She is the doe-eyed girl who’s been systematically robbed of a childhood, and she’s also the superpowered messiah whose telekinesis is the solution to all problems; she is the victim of the powers-at-be and their protector when she alone can shut the gate to the Upside Down; she is the child bleeding from the nose in Mike��s arms during the season 1 finale and the unstoppable force who just slaughtered the dozen other exploded corpses around them.
Eleven, as wonderfully played by Millie Bobby Brown, is the child who everyone puts too many great expectations on much too early, particularly of the ‘80s and ‘70s pop culture kind. You know the type: young women who cannot control their destructive powers and must invariably destroy themselves. Yet Eleven is, refreshingly, a person who is not defined by those powers. She can start fires with her mind, but we’re never asked to fear her for it. Nay, we cheer her on.
Hence why there was hardly a threat in Stranger Things 3 that she didn’t defeat with her powers. A Mini-Mind Flayer attacking Nancy? Boom, it’s out the window and splattered below. Possessed Billy about to eviscerate Mike? Not if he isn’t in this room. Evil Russians ready to pull the trigger on Dustin and friends? Good luck with that from beneath the three-ton car she just dropped on your heads.
The ease with which the characters, and thereby we the audience, rely on Eleven is what gives Stranger Things 3 its real surprise in the end: they take Eleven’s powers away. After being briefly host to to a Mind Flayer parasite in her leg, Eleven is suddenly stripped of one of the defining qualities with which we think about her. While Eleven herself is able to remove the creature before it does too much damage, it left its mark. Afterward, she has lost the ability to offer any sort of psychic protection to her friends when the Mind Flayer arrives at the Starcourt Mall for a final showdown. Instead Mike, Lucas, Max, and everyone else must protect her one fireworks launch at a time, and she is able to reason with Billy.
Without her powers, she is still strong enough to connect with a very lonely boy, which in turn hints at things to come for an El who is not tossing cars. This is a good thing for the character and for Hawkins. A hero losing their gifts is a common trope in superhero narratives, and Eleven of course springs just as readily from that as Stephen King archetypes, but it’s also an opportunity for El to fully become her own person away from the way the men in her life have shaped it up until now… and away from the binary construct of the ass-kicking waif viewers have placed her in.
Since the beginning, Eleven has been partially defined through pop culture knowledge shorthand, both by us and the characters within Stranger Things. In the very first episode of the series—which ended with Mike, Dustin, and Lucas discovering Eleven cowering in the woods—Mike had told Dustin if he beat him in a bicycle race home, he’d take Dustin’s copy of Uncanny X-Men #134. That issue was the introduction of Jean Grey’s new Dark Phoenix alter-ego, a being of such incomprehensible power that she made all other mutants quake in awe. So too would Mike and the gang come to be in awe of Eleven’s powers, which helped them defeat bullies, circumvent ominous government vans like their own Steven Spielberg adventure, and ultimately defeat a scary monster from the Upside Down. But even when she was doing that for them, the boys were just as much digesting the majesty of her power through the stories they knew, be it X-Men, Carrie, or Firestarter.
It honestly is not that different from how Mike and the gang also dressed Eleven up as their new “cousin” for school. Treating her like a doll, Mike and the boys were playing at making an Amblin Pygmalion with the pretty dress and blonde hair, just as they defined for her the meaning of her superpowers to them—she was their superhero and therefore ours. Hopper in season 2 is much more aware that he is making Eleven in his image by keeping her in his cabin and forcing her to live like him, albeit he is doing it for her safety, whereas the boys were unintentionally using her to save Will Byers. Still, the only thing that was hers for those first two seasons was a sense of stolen identity and a love for Eggo Waffles.
Hence why Stranger Things 2 became about El rebelling against being a kept thing, be it first by Mike or then by Hopper, and demanding to find her own voice when she runs away to connect with her biological mother and then her half-sister in Chicago. She is trying to find out what she is and why she is this way. But in Stranger Things 3, she is, at last, discovering who she is.
This development begins pleasantly enough with Max taking El to the mall and helping her find clothes that “feel like you.” For the first time in the whole series, El is placed in charge of her appearance, as opposed to the government that named her “Eleven,” the boy who is crushing on her, or the paternal figure desperate to have a human connection again. She is discovering her own identity, and while it is initially via simple things like shopping and ice cream, that sense of identity becomes stronger as the season progresses. Socially, it comes down to realizing Hopper might be right about her spending too much time with Mike. So she at lasts develops a new connection with a fellow young woman via Max. Losing her powers is the next logical step of this in El’s journey of learning who she is, and not what pop culture artifact she resembles.
Just as connecting with another girl deepens Eleven’s social skills and her ability to evaluate herself beyond how boys or a father sees her, now being able to live without her powers frees her from being the hero everyone has come to rely on. Ironically, given that the heartbreaking ending takes Hopper away from her, she is at last allowed to be what he wanted his daughter to be: a girl free from the baggage of Upside Down shenanigans. While Max and Mike end up debating how much they can rely on her powers to fight the Mind Flayer, Hop is the first to say he knows she could defeat his pesky obstacles living under the Starcourt Mall… but he’d rather she’d be safe and away from her.
He didn’t know her powers were about to fail her; he simply saw a young girl who should continue being a girl and not be placed into the narrow box of Dark Phoenix super-avenger that we all anticipate each episode. That she didn’t have her powers proved fortuitous for his plan, but it also is fortunate for Eleven as a person. We enjoy watching El chew bubblegum and kick ass, but she’s just a kid and should be more than Good-Carrie, Mike’s girlfriend, or the surrogate daughter who watches Westerns in Hop’s cabin. As even the latter admits, “Keep on growing up, kid. Don’t let me stop you…. and when life hurts you, because it will, remember the hurt.” Losing the powers hurts too, but maybe more so for viewers who know that this means a large part of Stranger Things 4 will feature an un-superpowered Eleven.
Suffering, like “hurt,” builds character, and Eleven can truly find herself when the thing that made her a government weapon and then a child in need of protecting is gone. Now she can go out and live her life. And if you want a geeky context, the absence of powers resulted in a better understanding of who Peter Parker was in Spider-Man 2. The nobility of the character was revealed when the physical reason audiences admired him was removed (something more graceful than how Superman II also did it). It will certainly be as temporary as those too. El might’ve lost her powers due to the Mind Flayer mucking with her biology (which could be undone if another gate is opened and the Mind Flayer’s reach returns), but also like Peter Parker in that Sam Raimi film, it could be a neurotic need to live without that takes them away, and they’ll return when she’s ready to live her best life.
For now though, Eleven can define her own heroism not by dropping cars on Russians, but by doing what feels right to her.
Listen to our analysis of Stranger Things on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: