A Dorothy for the Twenty-First Century: Stranger Things, The Wizard of Oz, and Contemporary Dreams of Home
Jennifer L. Miller

In July of 2016, Netflix released the first season of its original show Stranger Things, a show set in the 1980s in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, where a dark parallel universe called “the Upside Down” is starting to creep into the reality of everyday life. The show initially focuses on a group of preteen boys who are all best friends; they play Dungeons and Dragons together, ride their bikes between each other’s houses, communicate via walkie-talkie, and stand up for each other against the bullies at school. At the beginning of the series, one of these boys—Will Byers—is captured by a creature from the Upside Down. When his friends search the woods for him, they find a girl named Eleven, who has supernatural abilities (including the ability to access the Upside Down) and who has been the subject of experiments by the US government. Over the course of Season 1 of the show, Will’s friends, together with Eleven, Will’s mom, Joyce (played by Winona Ryder), and Hawkins’s police chief Jim Hopper (played by David Harbor), fight against both government agents and creatures from the Upside Down to eventually bring Will back to the real version of Hawkins, Indiana.

Critics and fans alike enjoyed Stranger Things, particularly the way it evoked nostalgia for the 1980s, both through the actual setting of the show as well as the sly references to ’80s classics such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while still telling a story of its own. Stranger Things also received praise for its acting, particularly the five child actors at the heart of the story. Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times described Season 1 as “a tasty trip back to [the 1980s] and the art of eeriness without excess.” Understandably, fans eagerly awaited the return of the show in Season 2, which was released just in time for Halloween 2017.

Stranger Things 2 (spoilers ahead!) explores the continued effects of Will’s time in the Upside Down, especially his visions of an enormous, tentacled monster that threatens to destroy the entire town of Hawkins. For the most part, Season 2 received the same generally positive reaction from viewers, but with one notable exception: Episode 7, “The Lost Sister.” During the early episodes of the season, Eleven hides at Chief Hopper’s cabin to avoid attracting the attention of government researchers, which results in her isolation from her friends and a growing sense of boredom and frustration. As the season progresses, Eleven begins to rebel against her isolation and travels to find her birth mother, where she learns of another girl who has supernatural powers like her own. In “The Lost Sister,” Eleven travels to Chicago to find this girl, resulting in the first episode of the series where none of the action focuses on Hawkins or any of its residents other than Eleven.

The Lost SisterThis episode was widely panned by both fans and critics; Neil Genzlinger described it as an “unfortunate episode,” and Rianne Houghton, writing for Digital Spy, noted, “It’s safe to say that Stranger Things season two was a hit—unless you count the whole ‘The Lost Sister’ episode, which we try not to.” Fans took to Twitter to voice their displeasure. One user, @electricashley, described it as “the worst episode of the series” because of the way it “ruin[ed] the flow” of the narrative. Some took it even further; @RossMcClure88 said that the episode “might actually be the worst episode of a TV series I‘ve ever witnessed.”

Focusing only on viewers’ displeasure at being taken out of the action of the fight against the powers of the Upside Down, however, misses the connection “The Lost Sister” creates with a film older than E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Taking this episode on its own terms enables viewers to connect “The Lost Sister” with the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, and in doing so, highlights the powerful commentary the episode makes on contemporary understandings of home.

Lost sisterIn both The Wizard of Oz and “The Lost Sister,” the main character leaves home near the beginning of the story, pushed away by an act of betrayal. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy runs away from home because of the injustice of having her dog Toto taken by Ms. Gulch and her aunt and uncle not coming to Toto’s defense. Dorothy is then taken even farther from home by a tornado that whisks her away to the Land of Oz. In “The Lost Sister,” Eleven, having already left her home with Chief Hopper at the end of a previous episode, is staying with her mother and her Aunt Becky. We again seen Eleven reliving her mother’s memories of another girl with supernatural powers, and she asks Becky for help in finding this girl, only to have Becky call the very people that Eleven is running from. Just as Dorothy runs away from home, Eleven, too, runs away to Chicago to find the girl from her mother’s memories, her “sister.”

A further similarity between The Wizard of Oz and Stranger Things can be seen in how both girls behave once they have left home. Both Dorothy and Eleven, once they arrive in a faraway place, are motivated to move forward because of a desire to return to, or find, home. Throughout The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s journey toward the Emerald City is propelled forward by her desire to return to Kansas—to go back home. As she tells the Scarecrow, “I want to get back [home] so badly I’m going all the way to the Emerald City to get the Wizard of Oz to help me.” Her plaintive cries for home are repeated time and again throughout the movie: she laments to her friends when they are denied entry to the Emerald City, “I thought I was on my way home!”; she tells the vision of Aunty Em she sees in the crystal ball, “I’m trying to get home!”; and she rejects Oz’s command to come back tomorrow for an audience with him, saying “I want to go home now!” But most famously of all, at the end of the movie, she follows the commands of Glinda to close her eyes and tap her ruby-slippered heels together three times, saying, “There’s no place like home.”

In Stranger Things, we see a similar refrain of home throughout the episode of “The Lost Sister,” starting at the very beginning of the episode. Before we even see any of the characters, we hear Eleven say, “Mama? It’s me, Jane. I’m home.” After she travels to Chicago and finds Kali, the girl from her mother’s memories, Eleven quickly forms a bond with her “sister,” who tells her, “I think this is your home.” Eleven repeats, “Home,” to which Kali replies, “Yes. Home.” Just as Dorothy sees a vision of Aunty Em in the witch’s crystal ball, Eleven, as she struggles to decide whether to stay in Chicago with Kali, has a flashback to Chief Hopper welcoming her to his cabin, in which he tells her, “This is your new home.” And at the very end of the episode, after Eleven has decided to go back to Hawkins, when a woman on the bus asks where she is going, Eleven says, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.” Like Dorothy, Eleven’s time away from home is shaped by her desire to find and return home.

And yet, does Dorothy actually yearn to return home? In a 1992 essay for The New Yorker entitled “Out of Kansas,” Salman Rushdie rejects the fundamental trajectory of The Wizard of Oz, arguing that the return home at the end of the movie is “a cloying ending that seems to me fundamentally untrue to the film’s anarchic spirit”; rather, he identifies the primary impulse of the film as the movement away from home. This impulse to leave is what infuses the film’s most iconic moments and songs. In describing Judy Garland’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Rushdie writes,

Anybody who has swallowed the scriptwriters’ notion that this is a film about the superiority of “home” over “away,” that the “moral” of The Wizard of Oz is as sentimental as an embroidered sampler—“East, West, Home’s Best”—would do well to listen to the yearning in Judy Garland’s voice as her face tilts up toward the skies. What she expresses here, what she embodies with the purity of an archetype, is the human dream of leaving—a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots. At the heart of The Wizard of Oz is a great tension between these two dreams; but, as the music swells and that big, clean voice flies into the anguished longings of the song, can anyone doubt which message is the stronger? In its most potent emotional moment, this is inarguably a film about the joys of going away, of leaving the grayness and entering the color, of making a new life in the “place where you won’t get into any trouble.” “Over the Rainbow” is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants, all those who go in search of the place where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” It is a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the Uprooted Self, a hymn—the hymn—to Elsewhere.

For Rushdie, the ending of The Wizard of Oz of “there’s no place like home” is unsatisfying because the music, the imagery, and the colors of the movie all send a very different message—that leaving home is the way to fulfill your dreams.

In Stranger Things and Eleven’s journey over the course of “The Lost Sister,” we have a retelling of Dorothy’s story that provides a counternarrative to this celebration of leaving home, a retelling that shows viewers that there truly is no place like home, because that is the place that you choose to fight for. Some key differences between the two works help us recognize this dramatic shift from The Wizard of Oz; for starters, though key songs from both The Wizard of Oz and “The Lost Sister” both emphasize the act of leaving home, the music of Stranger Things points to a journey of growing up, rather than one that remains in childhood. In “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Dorothy yearns for the “land that I heard of, once in a lullaby.” Her invocation of childhood lullabies is significant here—the land that she dreams of is one that will allow her to remain an innocent child. The correlating song in “The Lost Sister” is Bon Jovi’s “Runaway,” which also speaks to the idea of leaving home, yet the tone and mood of this song is quite different than what Dorothy sings. Rather than an innocent, wistful song of yearning, “Runaway” is about a girl who has to grow up too quickly, a “Daddy’s girl” who “learned fast all the things he couldn’t say.” Not only does the very title of Bon Jovi’s song have negative connotations, but the music itself also has a driving, aggressive beat, a strong contrast to the soaring, lyrical melody of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

This musical shift is also accompanied by a stark visual difference between the faraway lands Dorothy and Eleven each run away to. Dorothy’s destination is the lush, colorful Land of Oz, a stark contrast to the black and white imagery of Kansas. In Stranger Things, though, the visual depiction of Chicago shares a dark tonality with the images of Hawkins and the Upside Down that Eleven has just run from. Unlike Dorothy, who walks through Oz wide-eyed with wonder, Eleven shuts her eyes as she walks through the alleys of Chicago, trying to block out the reality of the poverty and troubled people that she is seeing. Recognizing this contrast between escaping to a magical world and running away to a gritty reality can suggest that in the twenty-first century, society has shifted to expect more engagement with our problems, rather than avoidance. No longer can we simply yearn for a lost age of innocence, or hope that everything will return to the way it once was; rather, we must tackle the inequities, the divisions, and the problems we face head on.

Certainly, Dorothy faces problems in Oz as well, but the witches that she faces look remarkably similar to her neighbor Ms. Gulch back in Kansas, and her innocent pigtails and crisp white and blue apron remain unchanged throughout her journey. But for Eleven, our Dorothy of the twenty-first century, running away puts her in contact with social problems that she has not experienced in Hawkins and gives her the opportunity to develop her supernatural powers beyond what they had been. This confrontation with reality and experience of personal growth leads to Eleven’s transformation from a little girl wearing overalls to a “bitchin’” teenager with slicked-back hair, smoky eye makeup, and a leather jacket. Running away for Eleven is much more in line with Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey, or the German bildungsroman, where leaving home leads to maturation and growth, and ultimately enables the hero to return home and affect change.

It is in these depictions of facing the problems of society and maturing as a result that Stranger Things provides the most convincing response to Rushdie’s frustrations with Dorothy’s claim that “there’s no place like home,” for this process of growth empowers Eleven to return home and shape this home into what she wants it to be. As seen above in the way The Wizard of Oz and Stranger Things invoke the refrain of home, home for Dorothy is a single, fixed place, while for Eleven, home can and does change. More importantly, home can change based on the choices that Eleven makes. Rather than being subject to the whims of the Wizard of Oz, or the magic of Glinda, or even the accidental luck of killing not one, but two wicked witches, as Dorothy is, Eleven chooses where her home is. Not only that, but Eleven also chooses what she wants her home to be like. When describing the choices that she herself has made in life, Kali tells Eleven that Eleven is “now faced with the same choice…Go back into hiding and hope they don’t find you, [or] fight and face them again.” Kali is right—Eleven does have a choice. But her choice is not between returning home and fighting evil, as Kali suggests. Rather, Eleven rejects this false binary and chooses both. She chooses her home—not with her mother, not with her “sister,” but with Chief Hopper and her friends—and at the same time, she chooses to fight for this home, ultimately returning to Hawkins, Indiana with Chief Hopper and using her power to defeat the shadow monster that has been looming over the town for the entire season, as well as shut down the government research lab that has been haunting her. Eleven recognizes the control she has over the situation when, after Kali tells her that her friends can’t save her, she responds, “No. But I can save them.” Instead of being subject to other people’s ideas of home, or even the choices that others think she needs to make, Eleven has the agency to choose her own home and to consciously make it the home that she needs.

Because of this, “The Lost Sister” episode is key to understanding Eleven’s development as a character over the course of the second season of the show, development that takes her from being a passive child to a young woman who is fully in control of her own fate. Recognizing the contrast between Eleven’s journey and Dorothy’s can help us see just how dramatic and impressive this transformation is. Eleven would not have been content to return to the black and white world of Kansas; rather, she would have worked to bring the color of Oz back to the home she loved. The problems of the episode that were identified by fans and critics—that this episode takes viewers out of the action of the show—can even serve as a structural reinforcement that Eleven is choosing the place that is more meaningful. The out-of-place feeling of the episode works to underscore that Eleven’s decision to return home is not just a superficial happy ending, but a deliberate choice that fits with the overall narrative arc of the season.

And for us as viewers, we see in “The Lost Sister” an episode that points to the importance of tackling our problems head on, an episode that sends the message that when we choose to help, we can make the world what we want it to be. Not a world filled with rainbows, blue birds, and lemon drops, but a world where we can help the people who we love. Whether we were born in 1939, or the 1980s, or the twenty-first century, “The Lost Sister” episode of Stranger Things is a valuable reminder not only of the power of home, but of the power of ourselves to change our homes into the places we want them to be.


Jennifer L. Miller teaches English at Norman-dale Community College in Minneapolis.


Works Cited

Genzlinger, Neil. “Review: With ‘Stranger Things,’ Netflix Delivers and Eerie Nostalgia Fix.” The New York Times, 14 June 2016.

Genzlinger, Neil. “Review: ‘Stranger Things’ Returns, More Familiar but Still Fun.” The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2017.

Houghton, Rianne. “Stranger Things creators admit that season 2, episode 7 ‘annoyed some people.’” Digital Spy, 20 Nov. 2017.

Rushdie, Salman. “Out of Kansas.” The New Yorker, 4 May 1992.

Stranger Things, seasons 1 and 2, Netflix, 15 July 2016 and 27 October 2017.

The Wizard of Oz. Directed by Victor Fleming, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939.

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