I was a Stranger Things agnostic until earlier this year, when I finally sat down and watched Seasons 1 and 2 in just enough time to watch Season 3 right when it came out. The first season alone earned me as a fan for at least one more season. Joyce Byers’ character was just so compelling: desperately trying to claw her way into a mystery to save her son when everyone else, with the best of intentions, essentially gaslit her (unintentional gaslighting probably doesn’t count as gaslighting, but essentially) into questioning all of her experiences. Even as a viewer of the show, part of me wanted her to believe it was all in her head just so she wouldn’t have to keep struggling against an unsolvable mystery about a parallel dimension that took her child: the horror and impenetrability of it–knowing that Will was out there but so beyond anyone’s help due to the paranormal–almost seemed worse than just losing Will to a fall in the quarry. That drama was magnificently crafted.
We haven’t had anything quite like that in Seasons 2 or 3. At no point has anyone been quite as powerless, isolated, and afraid as in Season 1, which makes sense: the time it took for the various characters in Season 1 to come across one sliver of the situation, find someone they could trust to help find more, and then finally meet all the other groups and put all the pieces together was a central tension until the last couple episodes. Now, however, they have those relationships established, they trust each other, and it just feels contrived when, for often banal reasons, they don’t use the network of other characters in the know when more Upside Down stuff happens. We’ve transitioned from horror/thriller to adventure/thriller.
As the actual plot has become slightly less compelling, the characters have to step up and carry more of the burden of hooking the audience. We’re invested in their relationships, their goals, their defeats, and their triumphs. And that brings us to Hopper and Joyce.
It’s not just that this looks a lot darker than it did when it was hinted at in the previous seasons because Hopper is emotionally abusive from the moment she agrees to go on a date with him, it’s that after the first couple episodes these two characters suddenly have very little going on outside the plot and the “will they, won’t they?” that drags on way too long.
In the first act of the season, Joyce is getting ready to move out of Hawkins (though we learn this by being told, not by seeing it, which is lame), and Hopper doesn’t want that for apparently selfish reasons. Hopper also has issues with El growing up and her relationship with Mike. So Hopper has a hard time accepting change, but everything in his life is changing right now.
And then he gets beat up by a Russian Terminator lookalike and we’re off to the races. Hopper spends this season as the cocky, angry, shouty guy who tries to control everyone around him and…that just works? Hopper gets basically everything he wants by being controlling and shouty. Mike backs off of El. Joyce agrees to date him. Alexei starts cooperating. He even straight-up defeats all the young, fit Russian hitmen, including the aforementioned Terminator lookalike, through sheer hand-to-hand prowess despite being one overweight, alcoholic single dad a couple decades past his prime.
That just encapsulates the problems of Hopper’s character this season: he spends episode after episode ramming fists–metaphorical or literal–into his problems, and is never confronted with any negative consequences of that approach which would force him to grow as a character. This is even weirder because he already had that arc in a different context in Season 2: he was controlling and manipulative of El since the government was still looking for her, but there his angry outbursts, his failure to apologize, his willingness to lie and get physical to maintain control at all times ended up blowing up when El ran away entirely. He was forced to apologize, and when she returned, he was more transparent and less controlling.
Not so in Season 3. Even as the script indicates consequences to Hopper’s actions, he never faces them, so he can’t ever grow. He lies to Mike and then threatens him to stay away from El, which causes all kinds of problems for the kids, but Hopper is just happy as a clam when he comes home from being stood up by Joyce to find it is Maxine, not Mike, in El’s room tonight. The mayor of Hawkins, played by the Dread Pirate Roberts, threatens to reveal all kinds of things about Hopper if Hopper tries to blackmail him for information on the Russians, but then when Hopper goes straight to violence and torture, and despite every indication of Westley’s ability to take some action against him…nothing really happens. Whatever the Robin Hood with the English accent did to help the Russians find Hopper (he said something about having the state police all looking for him or something), none of it worked, or even appears on screen: he had to phone it in himself when Hopper waltzed into the 4th of July bash. And speaking of the Russians, even though Hopper was completely outclassed by the Terminator in their first encounter in the abandoned lab, the second in the farmhouse was maybe a draw, and only defeated him in the fun house due to the hall of mirrors, in their final fight he just out-fights him and throws him into the spinning machine of ridiculous death.
But then (VERY SERIOUS SPOILERS, LIKE, THE NEVERENDING STORY SHOULD HAVE A CLEAR CONNECTION TO PLANCK’S CONSTANT TO YOU BEFORE YOU CONTINUE) Hopper dies,* and so there was some lip service of him reconciling with Mike. It was another one-sided conversation where Mike didn’t even say anything, he just nods. He more or less says goodbye to El, rehashing the second season’s themes because Hopper and El have almost no interaction in this season: he is actively dismissive when Joyce suggests they should even be worried about the kids. And then there was the Captain America-esque date scheduled with Joyce before the mission is finished.
That brings me to Joyce. Joyce didn’t even have the setup of a character arc this season, except “will she date Hopper?” And lest my sarcasm be poorly detected in text, that’s not a character arc. A character arc is where a character overcomes a flaw or other internal impediment and grows. A good character arc differentiates between what a character consciously wants and subconsciously needs. The latter often includes a revelation that her worldview or approach is incomplete and needs broadening, thus allowing her to see that what she originally wanted was never the answer to what she needed in the first place. Think of Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy: he wanted to be tough, to never back down from a fight, to not be a chicken like his dad. That led to him being goaded into bad spots time and time again, until he finally let go of his pride, which ended up saving him from a terrible car accident at the end of the films.
So what is set up for Joyce in this season? We see her re-enacting dinner with Bob. Hopper reveals (though it is never really brought up again) that she is also preparing to move away from Hawkins. She wants to figure out the mystery of the failing magnets. At the end of the season, she has figured out the mystery and leaves Hawkins, because the last person that could tie her there, Hopper, is gone. And she adopts El. I’m not sure if there’s really any character growth there at all. She does go from not recognizing her feelings for Hopper to recognizing them, so there’s that. At the same time, it’s not clear that her feelings are anything more than the sexual tension that Maurice identifies: they have little in common except that shared trauma, and outside of physical security, it’s unclear that Hopper has ever really supported or been there for Joyce in any way.
The Duffer brothers have been hinting at Jopper for two seasons, and this is what we get? I understand that they wanted Hopper’s death* to hit hard, but this is all they could think to make that happen? The angry guy who just shouts or punches until he gets his way and the trauma victim who is attracted to him despite the fact they’ve never emotionally connected? Meanwhile he has a daughter that stepped into his lost daughter’s place and they went through a serious test of their boundaries last season but grew a lot through it and now there are new boundary challenges going on, but instead of building that up even more to be the relationship that pulls at our heartstrings when he dies, the Duffer brothers ignored that entire relationship, instead “solving” Hopper’s issues with El and Mike by shouting and threats in one episode to focus on the shallow sexual tension that is Jopper, and filled that with more shouting and threats, until Joyce finally says yes to a date.
Of all the ways to send off Hopper, or to finally deliver on Jopper, this was a pretty clumsy way to go. This doesn’t feel like Season 1 anymore, with all the tight characterizations and straightforward, powerful themes. Now everything is murky, and the electricity just isn’t there. It’s almost like we’re in…
(*) Yeah, yeah, I know “the American.” I think that’s more likely to be Brenner, personally.