Note: The following contains discussion of events from season three of Stranger Things, including plot details from the finale.
In the second-to-last episode of the latest season of Stranger Things, Hopper and Joyce are racing back to Hawkins to save their kids from danger, with oddball investigator Murray Bauman and kidnapped Russian scientist Alexei in tow. Passions are understandably high, and both the chief of police and the general-store clerk are frazzled. After yet another round of exasperated sniping between the two anxious parents, Murray explodes from the back seat of the car: “Children, children, children!” he interjects. “This interminable bickering was amusing at first. But it’s getting very stale, and we still have a long drive ahead of us. So, why don’t you two cut the horseshit and admit your sexual feelings for one another!”
It’s meant to play as a laugh line, something to break the tension and foster a little forward momentum in the Joyce-Hopper scenario. Unfortunately, it’s far too accurate—and should’ve been a note for the writers back in episode three, before the damage was done. Because this season of Stranger Things took one of its most beloved characters, the unexpected father figure Chief Jim Hopper, and transformed him into one of the worst parts of the show. Others have already pointed out that the guy has become an odious rageaholic, someone you really wouldn’t want around in real life. But narratively, his arc was a diversion of endless irritation. The harried grump and relatable cop with a gruff exterior and soft-as-marshmallow center has been turned into a cartoonish loudmouth permanently stuck at 11, obnoxiously (and loudly, oh so loudly) scorning everyone he talks to—especially Joyce—in a wildly misguided attempt to turn him into one half of a screwball-romance duo. But where romantic comedies usually pivot around the halfway point, when the squabbling couple realize their feelings for each other, season three keeps them screeching and yelling, episode after episode after episode.
When season one first dropped, the sheriff quickly became a fan favorite, thanks in large part to David Harbour’s embodiment of an alcoholic, pill-popping man traumatized by the death of his daughter and subsequent divorce. Over the course of that first batch of episodes, Hopper eventually recovers meaning and direction in his life; the hunt for Will leads him to become invested in the Byers family, especially Joyce. This renewed energy is then channeled into his adoption of Eleven, and Stranger Things’ second season saw him rediscovering the family life he thought he’d lost for good as he learned how to be a parent again, this time for someone with superhuman powers he could only vaguely understand.
It’s easy to feel affection for such a character. A variety of outwardly crusty gentleman from TV history, like Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds, Frasier’s Martin Crane, Lost’s Sawyer, and many more have conditioned us to appreciate traits like Hopper’s protectiveness and reticence—eventually, we get to peek behind their prickly façades and are given the chance to know the “real” man. And Stranger Things found a great “curmudgeon with a heart of gold” in Harbour’s charismatic turn. By season two, we were getting memes of the chief awkwardly dancing, as the series leaned into the fun of transforming the formerly closed-off cop into an oft-clueless but lovable dad, full of all-too-common anxieties about raising an adolescent, albeit one who can telekinetically crush Coke cans. Those traits, paired with Hopper’s obvious infatuation with Joyce, made for a charming and engaging presence in the series, the responsible adult not immune to hapless flailing at just the right moment, who still managed to help save the day and protect his new daughter. Hop’s popularity certainly wasn’t hurt by the fact that Harbour turned out to be an effusive and fun presence in real life and on social media.
All of which makes his turn toward sower in the latest season of Stranger Things so disappointing. At first, it looks like we’re going to be getting a new and intriguing wrinkle in the chief’s relationships with both Joyce and Eleven, finally asking out the former, maintaining only the barest “just friends” pretense. El’s romance with Mike gives Hopper a new source of anxiety and parental protectiveness, as he does all the wrong things in trying to scare the kids apart, rather than following Joyce’s advice. (He tries, but his own inability to express sensitivity self-sabotages, with a little assistance from Mike’s admittedly dumb decision to joke around with his girlfriend while her father is obviously trying to tell them something serious.) It looks like setup for a new development in the “Hopper learns how to open up” arc, which would be fun, if admittedly predictable.
Instead, the series takes the encounter after Joyce stands Hopper up for their arranged date—in which he’s hurt and lashing out at her, while she defensively yells back about his need to focus on more important matters—and stretches it out for basically the entirety of the season. Scene after scene, Hopper is just acridly going after the supposed object of his affection: patronizingly mocking her ideas, rudely scorning her explanations, and sarcastically yelping about their dire predicament. Sure, it’s sometimes broken up by their encounters with others—Cary Elwes’ mayor, Grigori the Russian Terminator, Alexei and Murray—but even those exchanges are clamorous, the show rarely letting Harbour get out even a few calmer lines before he’s again throwing punches or yelling at the top of his voice. It strips Hopper of precisely what made him fun and compelling, which is the push and pull between his harder and softer sides, leaving only the blustery obnoxious shell we thought we’d largely moved beyond.
It’s unfortunate, especially if this really is the last we’ll see of Chief Jim Hopper following his apparent death by Russian lab explosion. (This is not the last we’ll see of Hopper.) The character was totally squandered this season, despite the genuinely moving voiceover he delivers in the closing minutes of the show, his note to El a too-little-too-late grace note reminding us of his past potency. Too bad we saw almost none of that guy this season.