Major spoilers ahead about Stranger Things 3.
The first time we see Jim Hopper in Stranger Things 3, he is pissed.
He’s sitting in front of the television, eating Tostitos that he’s dipped into a salsa jar parked right next to his crotch, and he is fuming because El, now officially his daughter, is in her room with her boyfriend, Mike. She’s supposed to keep the door open at least three inches when the two of them are in there alone, but as soon as she realizes that Hopper has spotted them kissing, she slams it shut.
This bothers Hopper, and not in the normal way that a parent might be bothered by a stubborn teenager flouting the rules so she can make out with a boy. Hopper becomes obsessed with driving a wedge between these two kids, to the point where, before the first episode is over, he threatens Mike until he agrees to take a break from El. When Hopper realizes that his plan worked, he doesn’t feel guilty for terrorizing a young boy who has already been terrorized enough by Demogorgons in his young life, nor does he feel sorry for his daughter. Instead he is jubilant, and sings a rousing version of “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” to celebrate.
Normal Jim Hopper has transformed into Jerk-Ass Hopper, particularly in the early episodes of Stranger Things 3, which makes for a jarring reintroduction to his character. In addition to his overblown objection to what is, ultimately, very chaste physical contact between Mike and El, he also gets disproportionately annoyed with Joyce when she stands him up for dinner (in his defense, “I couldn’t make it because … magnets” is a pretty bad excuse); bickers constantly with Joyce about minor problems; physically assaults the mayor of Hawkins to extract information from him; and shows little mercy toward Alexei, the Russian scientist he and Joyce kidnap so they can figure out what the Commies are really doing in town.
Hopper wasn’t this angry when last we saw him in season two or, for that matter, season one. Yes, he was often in a bad mood, but that tended to manifest itself in the form of grumpiness, frustration, or a deep sense of malaise. The extreme, rage-filled nature of Hopper’s behavior in much of the new season seems a bit out of nowhere. But it begins to make more sense after watching Stranger Things 3 in its entirety, especially in the final moments of the season, during his voice-over reading of a letter for El. In a way, Hopper is the perfect personification of Stranger Things 3: What works and doesn’t work about the show in its third incarnation is reflected in what works and doesn’t work about his character’s arc.
What do we know about Jim Hopper, prior to season three? We know he lost a daughter to cancer and that his marriage ended as a result of the pain of that loss. We know that he can be a lazy chief of police — “Mornings are for coffee and contemplation,” he is famous for saying when faced with more pressing matters — but that he also can be a dogged, committed leader and protector. We also have seen him show patience and generosity, particularly with Joyce and El. Not many people would leave Eggo waffles in the woods for a random kid, or supportively listen to a woman who insists her missing son is talking to her through Christmas lights.
All of this is what makes Hopper’s explosive behavior in season three so jarring. He’s gotten mad before, sure. But as Stranger Things 3 begins, he comes across as a prototypical angry white man, irked beyond reason when circumstances don’t go the way he wants them to go. On first viewing, he seems particularly out of bounds and out of character during that intense conversation with Mike, when he tells him to stop seeing El. For that matter, Mike’s extremely disrespectful response toward Hopper seems pretty out of character, too. I realize teenagers can be teenagers, but in this scene and others, Mike goes from decent kid to back-talking jerk, which isn’t necessarily what we expect of him.
This is one of the issues that takes Stranger Things 3 down a couple of notches. Even though it’s a show about weird creatures from a sci-fi parallel universe, it has usually kept its non–Upside Down elements reasonably grounded in reality. Even when I didn’t fully understand exactly how the Mind Flayer worked, I usually understood why the people concerned about the Mind Flayer behaved the way they did. But as Stranger Things 3 gets underway, it’s harder to do that. You get the sense in the initial episodes that the Duffer Brothers, the creators of the series, are making the characters, especially Hopper, do things in order to service plot, not because their actions are motivated by anything deeply personal and psychological.
Then again, that focus on plot could be intentional. Stranger Things has always blatantly evoked the mainstream sci-fi entertainment of the 1980s, and a lot of that stuff, as enjoyable as it is, is far more driven by plot than character. Take Back to the Future, which figures prominently in the summer 1985 setting of Stranger Things 3. I love Back to the Future, and will profess my love for it, if prompted, on my deathbed, even though I acknowledge that John Mulaney is absolutely right about every flaw in that movie. (It is weird that Marty’s best friend is a disgraced nuclear physicist.) While we can name some of Marty McFly’s qualities — he’s a slacker but ambitious when it comes to his music, loyal, a nervous risk-taker — and while Michael J. Fox deserves enormous credit for turning Marty into an appealing, fleshed-out hero, the only thing that really matters about him is this: He needs to get back to 1985. It’s his motivation throughout the bulk of the film.
The problem with Hopper is that we know he’s angry, but we don’t know what’s motivating his anger, exactly, until the very end. The show does provide some hints: In a Nerdist piece, “In Defense of Chief Hopper in Stranger Things 3,” Lindsey Romain notes the conversation between Hopper and Joyce in which he implies that he does not want her to move away from Hawkins, something she is considering. Now that he has a daughter and a possible romantic partner again, Hopper’s afraid he may lose both relationships before they’ve even started. This makes him angry, so he lashes out at El, Joyce, and at anyone else (read Mike, or any guy he perceives as a potential love interest for Joyce) who steals away time he could be spending with them.
Even though Hopper has never lashed out to this extent, one can argue that this behavior is somewhat consistent with the way that he handles, or rather doesn’t handle, his emotions. Hopper has never been transparent and open about his feelings, nor has he confronted them head-on himself. His anger is just a front for what’s really going on. This makes even more sense in the finale when, after Hopper has committed his heroic, Gate-closing act and died (well, theoretically died), El reads the letter that he wrote to her.
“Lately I guess I’ve been feeling distant from you, like you’re pulling away from me or something,” he tells her via voice-over. Then he adds: “I guess, if I’m being really honest, that’s what scares me. I don’t want things to change.”
The writers kept Hopper’s true feelings a secret for the entire season, presumably so this moment would catch us by surprise and be that much more powerful. But was it? The letter monologue is indeed the loveliest, most touching part of Stranger Things 3, but it would have been even if the softness beneath Hopper’s hard shell had been foreshadowed earlier.
The Duffers seem to be aiming for a combination of the sentimental ending that was part of so many ’80s classics and the sort of unexpected twist that was found in a lot of the horror and sci-fi of the era (including another summer of ’85 movie that is referenced in the series, George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead). But Hopper’s genuine emotions shouldn’t have to be a surprise, at least not to the audience. Because it’s unclear why he’s so angry until the very end of the season, we, as viewers, begin to accept the idea that Hopper’s just a full-on jerk now. When it turns out that he still has a sensitive soul underneath all the yelling and threatening, it almost feels unfair that the show is asking us to forgive him. You turned one of our favorite characters into a monster, and then waited until the last minute to confirm that he’s still the gruff but good guy we love? Even though David Harbour does his best to give Hopper dimension, it feels like we got robbed of spending time with the Hopper we knew, the guy who was cantankerous and sarcastic, but also decent and in possession of a generous heart. The thievery is even more of an affront if you believe that Hopper really is dead.
This all might have landed better if Hopper’s apology had been a complete surprise to El, but not the audience. Some minor tweaks — a flash on Hop’s face that indicates he regrets being so hostile toward El or Mike or Joyce, for example — could have signaled more clearly that something deeper was going on with him, but he was having trouble expressing it.
Again, ’80s popcorn fare was not always known for its subtlety. For what it’s worth, many of today’s popcorn movies aren’t either. But television made in 2019 is. That’s the struggle the Duffers have to deal with in Stranger Things: They have to tell a story that’s true to the tropes and tendencies of the period they’re riffing on, while also delivering the quality storytelling that viewers in the modern era expect. It’s a hard thing to do, and most of the time, the Duffers have done a good job of balancing both sides. But the handling of Jim Hopper — poor, dear old, probably-not-dead Jim Hopper — demonstrates what it looks like when the balance gets out of whack.