You might have missed Chief Jim Hopper's (David Harbour) best moment in the third season of Stranger Things. It's a three-second interaction that comes at beginning of the finale. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) announces to Hopper that he and 10-year-old Erica (Priah Ferguson) will return to the tunnels deep beneath Starcourt Mall and help the adults navigate. Hopper says no.
Hopper doesn’t care that Dustin has already traversed the Russian’s subterranean labyrinth. He doesn’t care that Dustin is proud of himself for being one of the brave kids now. There's not even a brief moment in which he weighs Dustin's proposition. Hopper simply says no. The music cuts out, as if to shatter Dustin's heroic fantasy.
On the other side of the screen, I cheered. At last, an adult in this show is taking the responsibility of saving the entire world away from, ya know, a bunch of kids. To be fair, these particular kids are preternaturally good at saving their town, having done it twice before. And any viewer of the show with kids-save-the-day '80s movie nostalgia is honestly fine with Dustin saving Hawkins from ruin (and singing while doing so). But Hopper refuses to be the one dragging the gang into direct danger. Eventually, he lets Dustin help navigate via walkie talkie from a Mind Flayer-free vantage point.
This, right here, is Hopper at his best: No-nonsense, protective, brave even when he's not sure he's capable. A stern father figure, but a good one. And it's the Hopper we'll will remember, once people stop fighting about him on Twitter.
This season of Stranger Things, Hopper has garnered criticism for his behavior from critics, viewers, and Evan Rachel Wood. They've all picked up on a valid and undeniable fact about his character: Hopper is extra this season. Even Murray (Brett Gelman) calls him a brute, and Murray's certainly no delight himself.
After prolonged isolation, Hopper has let people into his contained life — but he's still learning the rules of civility. His behavior can verge on bombastic. He's angry that his adopted pre-teen daughter, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), and her new boyfriend, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), are constantly making out in the bedroom while he's watching TV, so he intimidates Mike and celebrates when he leaves. He's hurt that Joyce (Winona Ryder) ditches their "friend" date, so he holds that hurt against her with snippy comments. He drinks and smokes copiously (to the tune of complaints from viewers) to deal with the things he doesn't talk about: His time in Vietnam, which is hinted at in season 2, and the loss of his young daughter, Sara.
Would such prolonged behavior constitute red flags in a potential partner in real life, as Wood suggests in a tweet? Totally. Which is why Joyce, who is still grieving her sweet and departed boyfriend, Bob (Sean Astin), doesn't even consider Hopper as a potential anything until they chat at the very end of their mission. She proposes they get dinner at Enzo's — a real date, this time. By then, though, surrounded by Russians and impending doom and opera music, Hopper has changed. His arc is near complete.
Yes, his arc. Did we fail to mention that Hopper is a character in a Netflix show? Hopper is on a journey manufactured in a writer's room to move and challenge audiences. We can't pause on an outburst in the pilot and declare he's unsalvageable.
For Hopper, the events of season 3 of Stranger Things constitute his actual worst case scenario. Kids are in danger, the kind of danger that he cannot protect them from. This has happened to children in his life before — particularly his own daughter as well as his adoptive daughter.
Hopper is very much a period-appropriate character — a troubled man who huffs through life and shirks self-reflection, until a few women who love him show him the way.
Hopper wasn't always a blustering police chief living in a cabin in the woods, who took personality cues from a grizzly bear. He used to be a clean shaven police chief. A dad. A husband. When his 7-year-old daughter died from cancer, his life changed irrevocably. Time kept going, but he was stalled.
In the letter he writes to his adoptive daughter, Hopper explains how he started moving again. "I left some Eggos out in the woods and you came into my life and...for the first time in a long time, I started to feel things again. I started to feel happy," Hopper writes.
With Eleven, Hopper has a second chance at fatherhood. He loves it, and relishes in the everyday – staying up watching movies, making Eggo sundaes. But the thing that makes him happiest also terrifies him. Eleven could be taken away from him, and not just by seething monsters like demogorgons, or unfeeling monsters like cancer. The process of loss can be more subtle, less bloody. It happened right outside his peripheral vision, through a door she doesn't keep three inches open when Mike is over. Long story short, Eleven can grow up.
And before she's grown up, she'll go through countless phases — like the Making Out With Mike phase — which Hopper has never navigated as a father. Hopper's daughter died when she was a child. Every day of single fatherhood touches on the bruise of his past loss.
In fact, every minute of every day probably touches on loss. Hopper's entire adult life has been marked by trauma. His daughter died. He served a tour in Vietnam. He got a divorce. Compounded, all of these traumatic events are likely to result in a serious case of PTSD. So, yeah — he's gruff.
There's a box labeled "Vietnam" stuffed away in Hopper's basement. Hopper never opens it. He doesn't have to. The third season of Stranger Things shows, more than any other show perhaps in the history of TV, that you can try hiding something underground, but it's going to emerge anyway.
Stranger Things has long suggested that Hop's "recovery," so to speak, will be contingent on the love of a good woman. Already, being Eleven's dad has opened him up. His last conversation with Joyce indicates a glimmer toward an even happier future. It's a tale as old as time, really. The beastly Hopper will be saved by the beautiful Joyce. But while this sounds cliché to our woke 2019 sensibilities that are rankled by a man behaving like a beast, Stranger Things is a completely '80s time capsule. Hopper is very much a period-appropriate character — a troubled man who huffs through life and shirks self-reflection, until a few women who love him show him the way. If it were 2019, showrunners would send Hopper to therapy (he should really go to therapy).
Instead of therapy, he improves via the more mysterious processes of love. Over the course of Stranger Things' third season, Hopper rises to the occasion of single fatherhood, in instances both heroic (shutting down Russians' doomsday machine) and quotidien (writing his kid a semi-sappy letter about life). In his final act, Hopper redeems himself with Joyce and Eleven, the two people with whom he'd been most difficult, with a sacrifice that feels earned. He nods at Joyce. She shuts down the Russians' machine, trapping everyone in the locked room with an explosion — from the Mind Flayer to Hopper.
As he made clear to Dustin earlier on in the finale, Hopper was never going to let a kid do the dirty work of saving the world. That's his job. If Hopper is indeed "the American" in the post-credits scene, then with any luck, he'll return to Hawkins to try, and fail, and keep trying at being his best self once again.