We need to talk about Hopper in Stranger Things 3
Mike Williams | On 19, Aug 2019
One of our writers voices their personal concerns about Stranger Things’ third season and its treatment of a specific character. Warning: this contains spoilers. (Read our reviews of Season 3 here.)
With the initial hype simmered and proverbial dust settled after the release of the third season of Stranger Things, it’s perhaps easier now to reflect on what the latest collection of episodes has provided audiences.
From the offset, there was an alarmingly stark change in Jim Hopper (played by the wonderful and lovely David Harbour). You know, the bear-like, loveable hero who became a firm fan fave in Season 1 and morphed into a fatherly figure for displaced El (Millie Bobby Brown) in Season 2. Along with Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), Hopper’s experienced one of the most radical character arcs in the entire show. While we’ve always been able to rely on the selflessness of the core gang and any peripheral additions to it, Steve has undoubtedly seen the most satisfying transformation from unpleasant school bully to dorky squad member, forging an unbreakable bond with Dustin and realising his inner nerd along the way. Yet the same cannot be said for Sheriff Hopper.
This burly and often irked persona has shone for three eventful seasons – beginning as a fearless yet fragile law enforcer still suffering from the loss of his daughter, Hopper established himself as a complex, relatable, and well written entry in the Stranger Things universe. Certainly flawed, he was more often than not a man of very few words. A man who would take action and, to a degree, control his own fate, while putting the wellbeing of others first – a fine quality that lurked beneath his domineering, brutish exterior. Satisfyingly, Season 2 shaped him into a surrogate dad, taking on the agitated single parent role as Eleven grew into her angst-ridden teenage year. The pair formed a father-daughter duo that showed a progression of each character.
Season 3, however, goes off the rails. Despite El being in her teen years and Hopper seemingly struggling to cope with it, the writing falls short of the most limited of expectations. Instead of dealing with what life hands him – a second chance at being a father, albeit under slightly bizarre and overwhelming circumstances – he decides to become angsty himself. A key theme for him in Season 3 is his flirtation between Joyce (Winona Ryder). Whether this is a case of lazy writing or an adherence to 80s-era courting, Hopper turns into an aggressive specimen who spends most of his time shouting in her direction or directly at her face, either sarcastically responding to her or mimicking her own words back to her. It becomes monotonous after the first few times, but the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, insist that this form of comic relief run through the whole season.
So, why did they decide to transform a calm and collected man into something more toxic than we’re comfortable with in 2019?
The Duffers, it seems to this writer, wanted to make everyone’s favourite sheriff detestable. It’s as if they intended to gradually make him as loathsomely annoying and as confrontational as possible, so they could (spoiler alert) kill him off right at the end. But they couldn’t even do that right, because he didn’t actually do anything to contribute to the main narrative, instead embarking on his awkward dalliance with Joyce without doing anything of discernible merit.
In fact, I was so jarred by how they’d changed the character of Hopper, I went back to Season 1, where I found a much calmer, well-versed, intelligent-sounding man who was still a brute at heart, but whose character revolved around the frequent flashbacks to those heartbreaking moments he spent with his terminally ill daughter. The point being this all fit into the storyline; we felt the pain of losing his only child and mourned with him. Here, all that empathy has gone. Gone is the vaguely likeable character who ran the show in Season 1 and used his poise and intelligence to solve the mystery of who Eleven was and where she came from, not to mention saving Will from the Upside Down. This most recent season sees him abandon all these traits – even his dialogue is dumbed down to grunts and expletives that offer little – to bicker and yell, mostly at Joyce.
If it was a way to make him repugnant until we tearfully lose him during a faux-sacrificial moment, I feel cheated and insulted by the show’s writers. Mildly devastated at his demise, I feel duped into forgetting the shortcomings of an entire season.
Only, he’s not really gone, is he? One thing I’ve learnt from Stranger Things is that they’re not brave enough to kill off their main cast, a la Game of Thrones, because that’s not what their show is about and that’s not what its audience is here for. Instead, it’s strongly implied that he’s being kept prisoner by the Russians (during that additional final scene) and, if you play back his last moments, there’s a clear time gap between seeing him and seeing Joyce turn the keys with her eyes shut. He’s already disappeared when the gateway machine blows. So it seems clear that he hasn’t perished: seeing Eleven read back one of his letters, and the notion that she and Joyce and the rest of the gang were trying to move on and continue their lives, was a highly emotional conclusion that was then sadly extinguished.
Stranger Things is undoubtedly an incredibly popular series. For all intents and purposes, it works, propelling the likes of David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown to global stardom. However, the quality of the show has noticeably dipped since the intrigue and splendour of its opening season. What we are now left with, as fans await Season 4, is thinly-written characters with arcs structured to cash-in on our empathy when they want us to feel something. A once-essential addition to the roster in a show that relied on his stability and ability to get things done, Hopper has been stripped of his value and relevance to the central story.
Stranger Things 3 is available on Netflix, as part of a £8.99 monthly subscription.