Stranger Things 3: How Hopper's jilted lover act ruins an otherwise entertaining season
Stranger Things 3 is a darn good season that is almost let down by its petty men.
The third installment of Netflix’s Stranger Things boasts of many things: it packs in some good ol’ communist-bashing, some healthy anti-Russian sentiment, the usual brood of children running around recklessly to the utter, inexplicable oblivion of their parents, a powerful mind-flaying monster who takes over a large swath of bodies to amass his own human army, and the not so subtle references to eighties American pop-culture.
It is also a darn good season that is almost let down by its petty men.
What makes Stranger Things so popular and an instant merchandise fodder is its willingness to turn up the volume on everything it offers. Sure, it may have a pack of sleuthing kids running around enticed by danger like The Goonies, but unlike The Goonies, it isn’t merely evil humans who are the threatening forces but also large, body-feeding monsters from the upside down, an underworld that is populated by monsters who can destroy humans. It unashamedly embraces conspiracy theories, paying homage to pulp thrillers with corrupt officials, scheming scientists, unknown experiments gone awry, and muddled up investigations. It leans into the superhero genre in the form of El, its star child character who has telekinetic powers. And it serves the audience dishes of nostalgia with eighties movies, video games, music, and style.
Season three consistently delivers all this, along with a storyline that adequately matures its horror plot. But additionally, several relationships in the show have come to mature, and not often to desirable ends. With genuine scares, horror, and real foreign danger, season three also managed to give us several romantic relationships, most of which threatened to bring the show down. There’s Mike and El, Lucas and Max, Jonathan and Nancy, and Jim Hopper and Joyce and in each of these relationships, the boys come out looking like petty, insufferable fools.
The children in Stranger Things were bound to grow up and date one another. The show’s first season pretty much shipped Mike and El from get go, whereas Lucas and Sadie at the end of season two seemed like a pretty believable pair. But much of this season is spent with the couples fighting in the kind of juvenile squabbles that one can expect off fifteen year olds. While their bickering isn’t uncharacteristic of their age, the show reduces the boys to the same sexist platitudes you hear from young couples. Mike and Lucas refer to El and Max as a “different species” who are prone to “drama,” without once considering their own misbehaviour or the fact that El is literally new to this whole dating thing. Even Jonathan is particularly dismissive of Nancy for a good length before coming around.
But they’re kids! What about Hopper, you ask? Well, the show effectively turned its most lovable character into its biggest, tallest brat (even worse than the Mindflayer, if you ask me). In season one, Jim Hopper was a gruff policeman who was an alcoholic wastrel after the loss of his family. Will’s absence forces him to take up responsibility, and show up for Joyce, someone he is emotionally invested in. He begins to care, and fight for what is right.
At the beginning of season two, the audience discovers that Hopper adopted El. Seeing his softer, parenting side immediately had fans scampering for more El and Hopper scenes. He spent much of that season learning to be a father again, which allowed him to become one giant teddy bear, goofing around and playing house with his adopted daughter. David Harbour’s tough looks with impeccable comic timing only helped solidify Hopper as a fan favourite.
Season three begins with a continuation of Hopper’s protective father act. Like any dad, he’s vary of El’s growing intimacy with Mike. His efforts to have “the talk” with them fail miserably and he manages to fudge things up by essentially threatening Mike. This whole sequence, while a bit toxic, is played up for laughs and as audience you can just about understand where Hop’s awkwardness is coming from. It’s also an interesting commentary on the man’s inability to be sensitive and open with his daughter and we almost sympathise with him for its failings.
Hop’s relationship with Joyce has been simmering with tension for a while. But instead of letting them come together as adults, the show reduces Hop to playing a patronising douchebro who is constantly obsessed with schooling Joyce’s anxiety. Does Hop forget that it was Joyce’s obsessive nature that essentially saved Will’s life in season one? Stranger Things wants to convince us, through the voice of eccentric investigator Murray Bauman, that Jim Hopper and Joyce are essentially just children bickering through their sexual tension. That this is the adult version of schoolyard bullying. And woo boy, that’s a lot to unpack.
In 2019, can we please leave behind the “if he bullies you, he likes you” bit?
There is nothing charming about Hopper, the whole size of him, towering over the puny Winona Ryder’s Joyce and constantly disparaging her. It ruined what was otherwise a sensitive, respectful friendship. After Hopper gets stood up by Joyce because she was busy trying to save the world, he takes every opportunity to mock her for standing him up. Every time she so much as laughs with another guy, he squeals, “Is he your boyfriend?” This immature display makes Hopper look pathetically petulant. It also makes him less aware of the dire danger that surrounds Hawkins.
Not only is he rude to Joyce all through, he is also constantly angry in this season for no particular reason. His rage is on constant display, and it seems like a character trait developed with context, and more problematic. His anger management is at an all time low and he literally storms around like the show’s most unstable figure, the dangerous mindflayer included. In light of all this behaviour, his overbearing parenting technique doesn’t seem funny but actually a wee bit questionable.
But for the want of positive male figures, the show does deliver a completely charming Steve Harrington-Justin Henderson duo who prove to be an absolute delight, and also shining beacons of positive male figures. Steve is gracious and accepting of his crush, Robin’s queerness, and Justin is happy to accommodate his new girlfriend’s musical whims.
Hopper’s character merely fell prey to bad writing and horrible misdirection. If he does return in season 4, as dead people in this show often do, let’s hope they let him grow.
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