This Stranger Things article contains spoilers.
Partway through Stranger Things season 3 episode 6 “E. Pluribus Unum,” Hawkins, Indiana chief of police Jim Hopper delivers a passionate message to Russian scientist Alexei.
“I’ll get you there. I’ll get you to that key,” Jim tells him of the mission to break into Starcourt mall, delve into its depths and shut down the portal to the Upside Down that his Russian comptratiots have opened.
Breaking the seriousness of the moment, Alexei begins to laugh. Jim asks his friend, conspiracy theorist, and Russian translator Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) to ask Alexei why he’s laughing.
“He likes your courage,” Murray translates. “You remind him of a Fat Rambo.”
It’s a cruel but apt comparison. The Chief Jim Hopper of Stranger Things Season 3 is, for lack of a better term, Fat Rambo. As tenderly depicted by David Harbour for two seasons, Hopper has been on of the series’ best, most inventive characters. The kind-hearted, flawed lug got over his past trauma to step up to the plate, save the city twice, and grow his family in the process.
The Hopper of Stranger Things Season 3, however, is a bit different. For better or worse, Season 3 Hopper is an out-and-out action hero. Hopper’s new level of physicality makes for perhaps a more thrilling-than-usual season of Stranger Things, but it may come at the cost of some of Hopper’s depth.
Hopper takes a bit of time and a wardrobe change to fully embrace his action hero status in Stranger Things Season 3. The Hopper we see in episode 1 “Suzie, Do You Copy?” is a rather pitiable creature. He sits on his La-Z Boy, gobbling up Tostitos, and monitoring the situation between his adopted daughter Eleven or “El” (Millie Bobby Brown) and her boyfriend Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard).
When he sees the youths making out, in flagrant violation of his “door must remain 3 inches open” policy, he freaks. He visits his old friend Joyce for help and she tells him to simply have a conversation with the kids and to speak from his heart about his fears regarding the closeness of their relationship. Hopper gives it an honest try but in the end, he opts to threaten Mike with the possibility of never seeing El again.
Though Stranger Things takes place well into the past (this time in 1985), it’s still tough to see one of our favorite heroes playing the whole retrograde “defend my daughter’s virginity at all costs” game. Of course, Hopper’s intentions are more complicated than that. He doesn’t want to see someone he cares about get hurt. But the end result is still him intimidating a child because he can’t control his own emotions. And not only that but he’s intimidating a child who he went to war with against the forces of darkness just months before.
In the subsequent two episodes, Hopper descends into something even more pitiful and whiny. Emboldened by his besting of Mike, he asks Joyce out on a date with him. Then, we she becomes entranced with magnets and accidentally stands him up, Hopper gets way too drunk, and makes a scene at the local classy restaurant, Enzo’s.
Jim-Hopper-as-a-mess is a concept that Stranger Things has mined to success before. When we meet the Chief in Season 1, he’s the broken shell of a man, drinking on the job, and generally disdainful of his responsibilities. That version of Hopper was a sympathetic figure though as he was still recovering from the loss of his family. It’s hard to tell what the Hopper of Season 3 is so upset about. This is a man who has twice defeated evil forces and gained a daughter in the process. Now he’s once again moping around and chastising Joyce for not getting over the death of her boyfriend that occurred less than a year previously.
It seems as though Stranger Things showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer don’t quite know what to do with Hopper for three episodes and onscreen it manifests as Hopper not knowing what to do with himself either. Then, in episode four “The Sauna Test” both the Duffers and Hopper figure it out.
By the end of episode 3, Hopper comes across his first real human nemesis in the series run so far. The Russian assassin, never named on screen but credited as “Grigori,” confronts Hopper and Joyce at the old lab. Grigori catches Hopper unaware, beats him unconscious and takes off on a motorcycle. The next day Hopper wakes up fully prepared to believe Joyce’s stories about magnets and a new danger coming to Hawkins. He throws on his Magnum P.I.-inspired shirt and almost immediately adopts the mantle of badass.
The Hopper that we see for the remaining five episodes is an American ubermensch. He begins his reign of terror by roughing up no less than the mayor of Hawkins, Larry Kline (Cary Elwes). Then he secures the plans to land sold to Starcourt and heads off to the Hess Farm with Joyce. There he confronts Grigori once again and almost gets the better of him. In true Dirty Harry fashion, he also fully intends to kill Grigori execution-style before the Russian ducks. Hopper is able to take Alexei hostage and whisk him and Joyce away to safety. In later episodes, Hopper will come across his Russian enemy twice more and engage in massive fist and fire fights each time.
Throughout all of this it’s as though Stranger Things has grown bored of its quieter version of American heroism and is in search of something more bombastic, befitting its depiction of ‘80s action movies. The introduction of Grigori as a Terminator-style villain is indicative of this. All the show then needs is an absurdly powerful hero to match him. Instead of creating a new one out of whole cloth, it decides to simply retrofit the closest thing it already had on hand: Jim Hopper.
David Harbour, fresh off his return in the disappointing but still action-heavy Hellboy, is more than up for the task. Hopper as an unlikely action hero mostly works due to the actor’s enthusiasm and unique physicality. Unfortunately, throughout it all, Stranger Things Season 3 still tries to continue what passes for character development for Hopper and it’s awkward.
That old, pathetic version of Hopper from the first three episodes still makes a few cameos through his stint as an action hero. After escaping Grigori for the second time, all Hopper seems to be able to do is to complain about Joyce’s driving and his own inability to fix his car. Then he steals the nice car of a man whose only crime seems to be that his name is Todd.
Joyce and Hopper’s bickering reaches such a fever pitch that Murray Bauman has to step in as an avatar for the audience and beg them to either knock it off or just bang already.
“This interminable bickering was amusing at first but it’s grown very stale and we have a long drive ahead,” Murray yells from the back seat on the ride back to Indiana.
“You’re just a big man baby who would rather act tough than admit his real feelings because the last time you did you got hurt,” he tells Hopper.
A character speaking aloud what the audience is thinking is a tried and true trope and Murray’s outburst is certainly welcome. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that for several episodes Hopper and Joyce’s bickering isinterminable. Then there’s the matter of what they’re bickering about. Only part of it is their obvious sexual tension Even right before Murray sets them straight, Hopper complains to Joyce about how she wants to do the unthinkable and…save their children?
It’s like Action Hero Hopper has no patience for anything that isn’t mindless action. Thankfully it’s mindless action that he gets in the season’s final episode. It’s legitimately thrilling when Hopper turns up at Starcourt mall to crush the little Mindflayer that emerged from El’s calf. Then it’s equally as thrilling when Hopper and co. engage in some James Bond-style subterfuge, adopting Russian outfits to infiltrate the basement lab.
It’s in that lab where Hopper cements his action hero bonafides by finally defeating Grigori in the most action hero way possible: by using his surroundings. They have their final climactic battle in front of the generator opening up the Upside Down portal and Hopper smashes Grigori’s head into the machinery. Then, like all action heroes, Hopper must make a sacrifice. He nods to Joyce in the control room so she knows that it’s ok to turn the key and blow him and the gate all the way to kingdom come.
Stranger Things Season 3 tries to resuscitate Hopper’s character in the end. El comes across the letter that he wrote to read to her and Mike but never did. Joyce encourages El to read them and the specter of Hopper gets to deliver his own eulogy through Eleven’s perspective.
It’s a nice coda for the character but it comes at a particularly awkward time. Hopper and Eleven’s relationship is a distant memory now. Save for a brief interaction in the beginning of the finale, Hopper and Eleven haven’t reckoned with each other since episode 3. And the Hopper of episode 3 is very different from the Hopper of episode 8. It’s nice to hear the words that express Hopper’s complex maturity and love for Eleven. It would have been nicer to see the actions.
Stranger Things Season 3 greatly benefits from adopting Hopper as its own little action hero. In many ways, this is the most propulsive, and exciting season of the show yet. But all creative decisions come at a cost. The cost this time around is that the Hopper we knew and loved before by and large doesn’t appear in Stranger Things Season 3. Instead we get only a mopey version or a hyper-violent version.
Thankfully, as the episode’s final moments reveal, there may still yet be the old version of that Hopper out there in a dank Russian cell. Or perhaps Stranger Things Season 4 will use Hopper as a stand-in for an entirely different storytelling archetype altogether.
Listen to our analysis of Stranger Things on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: