In horror movies, it’s often necessary for institutions to fail. To make the audience scared, the characters have to be scared, which means they can’t just casually whistle up the authorities to take care of the roving maniac, the giant monster, or whatever else is on the loose. In both seasons of Netflix’s Stranger Things, it’s important that the government is a vaguely inimical, vaguely incompetent organization that permits cruel experiments with bad results, then lets the invasion of our world by the Upside Down get out of hand. But in season 1, at least, the local authority represented by Sheriff Jim Hopper slowly comes around to believing and helping the characters most threatened by the supernatural. He starts season 1 as a bitter, skeptical man with a bit of a drinking problem and a hefty load of personal baggage. But the series creators, the Duffer brothers, give him a redemption arc as he ultimately takes brave, dangerous steps to save the day.
So what the hell is wrong with him in season 2? Why are his decisions so profoundly and obviously awful?
Significant spoilers for season 2 of Stranger Things ahead.
Jim Hopper (played by David Harbour) arguably doesn’t make a single major good choice in season 2. He pushes Joyce (Winona Ryder) not to worry about the condition of her son Will (Noah Schnapp), to accept his worsening condition as PTSD, rather than the sign of something more dangerous. He initially blows off Merrill, the local farmer whose spontaneously rotting pumpkins are an early sign of the Upside Down’s gradual spread. When Hopper does realize something is wrong, he bullies and blackmails government scientist Dr. Owens (Aliens’ Paul Reiser) into addressing it, in a blunt, contemptuous way that seems more likely to get Hopper quietly disappeared by the government than to get him the results he needs. And when he realizes the truth about the Upside Down’s incursion, he investigates it alone, without backup, in the middle of the night, with no plan whatsoever, and he nearly dies as a result. This is the kind of horror-movie thinking that’s designed to keep viewers yelling “No, don’t do that!” at the screen.
In isolation, none of these choices is a character problem. But piled up, they speak to a clumsiness in Hopper that’s solely designed to serve story needs, rather than to say something worthwhile or compelling about his character. The story requires him to be wrong-footed or slow on the draw over and over, and it’s an ongoing, low-key problem for a character who’s being built up as a hero. Flawed heroes are often more compelling and relatable than perfect ones, certainly, but the second season doesn’t give him anything but flaws and questionable decisions.
Still, all these things are small potatoes (or small rotting pumpkins) next to Hopper’s two immense lapses of judgment in season 2. The first just seems inexplicable: when the Hawkins lab’s containment system and power grid break down, and the researchers and soldiers there are all killed by demo-dogs, Hopper is trapped with Will and his friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dr. Owens, Joyce, and her boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin). Someone needs to brave the roving pack of proto-Demogorgons to restart the power so they can escape, and Bob points out that Hopper doesn’t have the computer savvy to do it right. Sending Bob, who does have the programming know-how to reboot the system, is a smart move… until Hopper lets him go alone. And why on Earth would he do that, instead of escorting Bob and watching his back? Why hand a gun to a man who’s never held a gun, tell him “good luck,” and retreat to a locked room to wait and see whether Bob is swarmed by demo-dogs on the way there? Why expect a non-combatant tech specialist to handle both the tech and the combat?
That decision gains the locked-in crew absolutely nothing. (Hopper suggests he’ll get them out quickly once Bob gets the door open, as if he’s staying behind solely to escort them out while Bob is still downstairs — but he doesn’t.) And Hopper staying behind leads directly to Bob getting killed. It also isn’t even necessary from a narrative standpoint. The story required Bob to die, but in an environment packed with CGI hell-beasts, he could have gone down under a wave of attackers even with Hopper fighting to protect him. That would have raised the intensity of the fight, instead of looking like Hopper was hiding in safety while sending someone else off to die alone.
Even Bob’s final sequence doesn’t reflect well on Hopper, who abandons Bob to a single demo-dog pretty quickly when he sees more monsters on the way. Hopper is clearly prioritizing getting Joyce to safety, but given that the attack happens in slow motion, it’s also frustratingly easy to see that he gives up on Bob before Bob is dead, or even mortally wounded. That’s a relatively small detail — a tiny change in the editing of the sequence would make it play out very differently — but Hopper yelling “He’s gone, he’s gone!” at Joyce to get her to leave Bob behind, while Bob is still writhing on the floor, reaching desperately toward their retreating backs, comes across as jumping the gun. In the kinds of 1980s action movies Stranger Things constantly references, running off and leaving a companion to die would normally be the mark of a coward, and it would have serious consequences down the line.
But it doesn’t here, for a particularly problematic reason: the Duffers are slowly nudging Hopper and Joyce together, with more and more scenes of them quietly bonding, including in the second season’s final moments. It’s been clear for a while that Hopper has a growing crush on her, which is sweet and sad when she’s a disintegrating mother preoccupied with her vanished son, and melancholy when she’s profoundly happy with someone else. But if they eventually get together, there’s going to be a shadow over that relationship, in the way he certainly didn’t try hard enough to save his old rival. The Duffers originally planned to kill Bob off much earlier in the season, and they ended up developing him as a character because they enjoyed Astin’s chemistry with Ryder. But making him more of a significant character means Hopper loses even more sympathy for not fighting harder to save him, and that choice is going to shadow any eventual relationship between Hopper and Joyce.
But even sending Bob off alone and subsequently leaving him to bleed out on the floor pales in comparison to Hopper’s other big, mystifying decision this season: sealing Eleven up in a glorified shed for nearly a year, denying her any access to the outside world except a TV, which he then uses as a medium for punishment. It’s certainly true that Hopper’s options with Eleven are limited, since he needs to keep her safe and off the radar. Casually enrolling her in school is off the menu. But apart from his word-of-the-day efforts (which still haven’t taught her things like verb tenses and basic syntax), there isn’t much sign that he’s tried to home-school her, talk to her enough to improve her animal defensiveness and social awkwardness, or essentially to turn her into a kid instead of an angry failed experiment.
It’s understandable that the Duffers didn’t want Eleven’s personality to change too much from the original season, where she was a breakout favorite. Her otherworldliness, her seething anger, her raw need — they all make for a striking, memorable character. But looking at her from a human-empathy perspective rather than a branding perspective, it’s terrifying that she’s made so little educational or emotional progress over the course of a year. And that’s entirely at Hopper’s feet, as a father figure and protector. He clearly cares about her, but he just as clearly has no idea how to perform even the most basic tasks of fatherhood. Keeping her protected isn’t enough if he’s letting her live on Eggos, TV dinners, and soap operas during her crucial development years. For God’s sake, Hopper, at least get the kid some books.
At least some of Hopper’s worst decisions in season 2 are both narratively necessary and emotionally justified. His late-season blowup at Eleven over her telekinetic tantrum is clearly a badly expressed response to his own helplessness and fear. It’s certainly understandable that he’s scared for her, and believable that he’d try harder to control her as he senses himself losing control over everything else. Their fight also has important payoffs, both because it sends her out into the world, and because it leads to a necessary clearing of the air between them, where he admits to his worries for her, and acknowledges some truths about himself. (Though “Sometimes I feel like I’m just some kind of black hole or something” is an admission for your therapist, not your underage foster kid.)
And it’s possible to feel sympathy for Hopper without saluting his choices. After losing his biological daughter to illness early in her life, it makes sense that he’d have no experience with or capacity for handling a raging pre-teen, let alone one with immense psychic powers. The rift between Hopper and Eleven is a necessary part of her coming-of-age journey, and their reconciliation is touching. It also ups the stakes for the final battle, where they put their understandable frustration with each other aside, and stand together against the Upside Down and its shadow-monster. But none of this justifies keeping a child sealed away, alone in a shed, for a year. (In a different movie, that would make him the villain.) And while a handful of errors in judgment makes Hopper more human, an unending string of them makes him seem incompetent, in a way the Duffers don’t seem to intend.
Ultimately, Stranger Things is about the hefty responsibilities its kid cast takes up, and how they fight for their town and their lives when the adults largely fail them. It’s just that this season, that dynamic mostly came at Hopper’s expense. In the plot’s worst moments, that’s confusing and annoying, and there’s no reason for it. Like all the Stranger Things crew, Hopper is dealing with things most people simply won’t believe. It’d be easy enough to have him visibly try his best to save Bob, to plan for backup before jumping into an Upside Down-infested tunnel, or to give Eleven some kind of education while he waits for the coast to be clear. And none of these things would get in the way of the story progressing exactly as it does. Having Hopper try and fail is poignant. Having him fail to try just makes him a fool. And in a town full of neglectful parents, jock bullies, and overreaching government villains, Stranger Things has plenty of those already.