Before you get mad at me, let me make one thing clear: I love Stranger Things. Plucky kids uncovering government secrets and fighting monsters from alternate dimensions, all wrapped up in ’80s nostalgia? I can’t get enough.
But boy oh boy, do I have a bone to pick with the ending of the show’s third season. And with Season 4 of Netflix’s smash hit fast approaching, I figure it’s high time for me to officially pick that bone. Here it is: Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) should have stayed dead.
Recall, if you will, July of 2019. Stranger Things 3 had just dropped, delivering a near-perfect summer binge. I marveled at the season’s twists and turns, sat wide-eyed through the climactic battle with the Mind Flayer, and shed several tears when Hopper sacrificed himself under Starcourt Mall.
But before I could even process that ending, I was blindsided by the post-credits scene. We find ourselves in a Russian prison, where guards unleash Demogorgons on prisoners. One of the guards refers to an unseen prisoner known as “the American,” a line that quickly led fans to unleash a slew of theories that Hopper wasn’t actually dead.
“Surely not,” I thought. After all, Stranger Things had already faked Will’s (Noah Schnapp) death in Season 1 as part of a government cover-up. They’d also kept the fate of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) post-Season 1 a mystery, although it was pretty clear to the audience that she was alive. There was no way Stranger Things would rely on this trick again in a less interesting way, right?
Still, I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that there was a grain of truth to the theories about Hopper. We never saw his body — rule number one of confirming an onscreen death! — and his storylines with Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Eleven felt unfinished.
Then, in February of 2020, a teaser confirmed that Hopper was, in fact, still alive and imprisoned in Russia. The newer trailers for Stranger Things 4 continue to hammer that point home, showing Hopper fighting Demogorgons in what can only be described as Upside Down fight club — which honestly sounds pretty cool. That still doesn’t change the fact that Hopper should be dead. I don’t mean that in a “he was in a massive explosion and couldn’t have survived” way. I mean it in a “this choice does disservice to your story” way.
Hopper returns in “Stranger Things 4.” But should he?
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
The fallout from Hopper’s death managed to be both upsetting and poignant. Eleven’s heartbreak at losing her father figure was crushing, as was the scene in which she read a letter Hopper had left her. Hopper’s death — the latest in a long string of painful memories tied to Hawkins — was also the final straw for Joyce, leading her to move her family to California. It was a gutsy ending that completely changed the course of the series, and I was impressed that Stranger Things was willing to take that risk.
Unfortunately, faking us out with Hopper’s death cheapened the risk I thought Stranger Things had taken. Instead, the show opted for the classic franchise cop-out: Kill a beloved character to elicit an emotional reaction, but don’t actually commit hard enough to follow through. Other examples include Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, Loki in Thor: The Dark World, and Glenn in The Walking Dead (at least, until his actual death, which just pissed people off).
Faking us out with Hopper’s death cheapened the risk I thought “Stranger Things” had taken.
Not killing Hopper undermines the emotional resonance of the reaction to his death, as well as the general stakes of the show. Every time we see Hopper in danger in Stranger Things 4, the peril won’t feel as real. Why would the show kill a character it’s already fake-murdered? You really want me to believe that they’ll put us through the whole, “Oh no, Hopper died” thing again? No way. That man is staying alive for the foreseeable future. And honestly, if they kill him again, it won’t have the same impact as when they offed him the first time. It will just feel like another “gotcha” moment, as well as a retread of one of the show’s laziest decisions.
Am I mad that Hopper is still around? No, not really. I love Harbour’s performance, and quite frankly, I hope the Duffer Brothers are able to course-correct after making Hawkins’s lovable sheriff an entitled rage monster for much of Season 3. I’m just disappointed that Stranger Things would make such a bold choice and not stick to it. I don’t want a show I love to resort to cheap tactics, I want a good story with meaningful stakes. Here’s hoping Stranger Things 4 delivers on that front.