Warning: Major spoilers for the end of Stranger Things 3 lie ahead.
At the end of Stranger Things 3, El reads a note her adoptive father Jim Hopper wrote earlier in the season, his prep work for the speech he planned to give Mike and El about feelings and boundaries. In that early episode, Hopper chickens out before he can deliver his prepared words, instead taking the relatively easy route of threatening Mike and hoping for the best. But after Hopper’s presumed death in the finale, Joyce Byers finds his note and gives it to El to read. Hop’s big speech to his daughter becomes the voiceover framework for Stranger Things 3’s closing montage. It’s the message the show gives us as an ending takeaway, and it’s meant to soften the blow of Hop’s death (while also making us weep because he’s gone).
The original purpose of his speech, Hop writes to El, was to “turn back the clock,” to “make things go back to how they were.” But he knows that’s “naïve.” He knows time can’t go backward. “It’s just not how life works. It’s moving, always moving, whether you like it or not,” Hop says. He tells El that she needs to grow and learn, and that he can’t try to keep her stuck in the past, even though moving forward will inevitably hurt. “The hurt is good,” Hop writes. It means she can feel things. The note is a poignant sentiment for the ending of Stranger Things 3, and the idea that Hopper is unintentionally helping his daughter move past his own death is especially moving. It’s a message about coping with grief and then continuing on.
It’s also a message Stranger Things seems unlikely to heed.
At the very end of Stranger Things 3, just after the credits start to roll, the show returns with one final scene. At a Russian facility in Kamchatka, an officer drags a prisoner out of his cell and into a different cage, where he’s attacked (and presumably killed) by a demogorgon, a monster from the Upside Down last seen in the first Stranger Things. But before the doomed man is taken from his cell, the Russian officer pauses in front of a different cell door. “No,” a second officer tells him. “Not the American.”
If that unseen, unnamed “American” is not Hopper — if Hopper does not come back in a miraculous return for Stranger Things 4 — I will eat my hat. It’s not that I want that to happen, necessarily; although David Harbour is in undeniably fine Dadbod form in the show’s third season, it’s troubling when major-character deaths feel potentially reversible. The whole logic of narrative consequences starts to unravel, and the emotional stakes are never quite as big afterward. But Stranger Things already seemed to kill El and then brought her back after a pointedly reassuring post-credits sequence in its first season. Hopper’s disappearance and the swift, flag-waving signaling of the post-credits sequence in Stranger Things 3 is too close to El’s return in the second season to be a coincidence.
The odds are overwhelming that Hopper is in that cell, and if so, Stranger Things is pointedly not taking its own advice. Hopper begs El to come to terms with the past, to try to accept the hurt that comes with inevitable change. If the show still brings Hopper back after his plea that everyone move on, his farewell message is going to feel more than a little contradictory.
Even without the specific reversal of the post-credits sequence, though, Hop’s speech feels out of place inside of the broader mood of the series. Time has moved forward a bit in Stranger Things 3. The kids are older, they’re struggling with new adolescent tensions, and they’re worrying about their futures. Hawkins is changing, too; Nancy’s idea for a newspaper piece about the death of small-town America in the face of the new nearby megamall is a classic example of “things change … but should they?” storytelling. Within the world of the show, life does go on. From outside Hawkins, though, from the distance of 2019, Hop’s message about the importance of letting go of the past so that we can embrace the future feels at odds with the series’ whole identity.
The show is and has always been a nostalgia-fest. In so many ways, Stranger Things looks backward — for its major influences, its references, its summer-blockbuster impact, its themes. Elements of Stranger Things feel like outright longing for a past that no longer exists, a time when kids could bike around in the dark, hang out at the mall without parental supervision, develop friendships without social media, and have hours of empty, unscheduled time in which to play Dungeons & Dragons and build radio towers out of Erector Sets. And Hop’s speech recognizes his own similar longing for the past. He misses playing board games with El, and making Eggo extravaganzas. He misses what he remembers as the relative simplicity of her childhood. Where Hop uses his speech to then pivot to the importance of growth, though, Stranger Things still has not. Even in season three, it still feels like a monument to a specific lost vision of childhood. Hop tells El that wanting to go back in time is naïve, but that same naïveté is powering the core of Stranger Things.
That’s not a criticism, exactly. If Stranger Things is fundamentally about innocence and friendship and the power of wishful thinking, then gesturing toward growth while still resurrecting the story’s Ur-Dad from certain death is about as sweet and wishful as it gets. Except the problem with nostalgia is that it tends to overlook the perspectives of those who don’t feel quite as warmly about the past. There are a few moments where Stranger Things 3 seems to recognize that, too. Nancy, for instance, is overwhelmed by sexual harassment at her job, and her coworkers repeatedly humiliate her. Mrs. Wheeler is a trapped housewife, who sighs in resignation when regarding her husband. The show’s gay characters are all almost entirely in the closet.
But Hop’s speech, with its wistfulness about the golden days of the past, overlooks one person who seems likely to have very little nostalgia about her childhood: Eleven. Stranger Things 2 was all about how trapped El felt in exactly the same situation Hop describes so lovingly. He’s lecturing a child who already lost her parents about the importance of moving on and growing up. His speech is directed at El, but it is very clearly for and about Hop, prioritizing his understanding of the world while failing to consider hers. The speech makes sense for Hopper as a character — his decent intentions have never matched up with his capacity to understand other people — but it also shows the limits of Stranger Thing 3’s “have your cake and eat it too” style of nostalgic-but-not logic. It is the clearest example yet of which perspectives get to be dominant voices on the show. Even though she’s at the center of everything, that position of power rarely goes to El.
The end of Stranger Things 3 makes a strong suggestion about what’s to come for the plot of this show. Hop will return, the portal will prove to be not yet fully closed, and once again there’ll be a grand battle for the future of humanity that probably takes place in the American Midwest. But thematically, the signals are more mixed. If new seasons of Stranger Things continue to double down on the nostalgia, to play with American iconography of the past without doing much to engage the present, then El may still feel like a cipher, a frequently silent teen girl whose interiority is often a mystery. If instead Stranger Things takes its own closing message to heart, if it commits to moving on and embracing change (even though it might hurt), then the show could have a very interesting, worthwhile future ahead.