While Stranger Things’ third season spends a lot time focusing on how its younger characters are growing up, the show also explores how their maturation is effecting the adults in their lives, particularly Jim Hopper, who has a difficult time accepting that his adopted daughter Eleven really isn’t the quiet little girl she used to be.
As Eleven continues to demonstrate that she’s coming into her own identity as a young person, Hopper balks because he’s woefully ill-equipped to handle the responsibility of guiding a kid through adolescence.
By the time Hopper’s in the proper mental space to reconnect with Eleven and let her know that he’ll always be there for her, Stranger Things’ more nefarious supernatural elements are already in full swing once again, making it difficult for them to have a much needed heart-to-heart by the time the season finale ends.
In the finale, Eleven and Hopper are split up as they both face off against two ends of the latest interdimensional threat emanating from the local mall.
Because of the secret Russian operation that’s trying to reopen the gate leading to the Upside Down, the Mind Flayer and its various components are able to cross over into the normal world and terrorise its inhabitants.
As Eleven and the other kids valiantly try to fight off the Mind Flayer in its newest form in the mall’s food court, Hopper and Joyce Byers are busy at work in the base below trying to figure out how to close the gate again.
Ultimately, Joyce is able to turn off the machine and close the gate, but only by initiating a shutdown sequence that results in an explosion of energy that seemingly kills Hopper in the process, much to her horror. The season closes with Joyce deciding to take Eleven in just as she’s packing up her sons to leave Hawkins, and it seems very much like Hopper’s good and dead.
But this is the age of post-credits sequences, where a genre series or film’s story is always open to change. Just when you think it’s all over, the scene suddenly cuts to a Soviet base where a number of people are being held captive and systemically fed to a a similarly-imprisoned Demogorgon (the classic kind).
But it’s what the Soviet guards say as they select their latest victim that’s of particular interest. The guards specifically mention not picking an American they’ve got locked up to feed to the monster, and while they could very well be talking about any American, it’s very likely that they’re referring specifically to Hopper (who could have, you know, been sucked into the Upside Down and popped out somewhere else on Earth, rather than vaporised).
In a recent interview with /Film, Harbour more or less confirmed that the American the Soviets were referring to is, in fact, his character, meaning that Hopper is almost certain to return in Stranger Things’ future.
The actor wouldn’t go into specifics about what Hopper’s return might look like or how he fell into enemy hands, but he shared some rather heady musings about Hopper’s life - the sorts of things that one might think about while trapped in the Upside Down:
“I think the tapestry of Hopper is so large and interesting, and I also think that Hopper has karmic debts to pay for how dead he’s been for a long time.
We have to decide who this man is... Is he a man of justice? Is he a father? Which one is he? And I think those two things are not always compatible. I don’t know that you can stand for values or stand for relationships at the same time. At some point, you’re going to have to choose. So I’m interested in that – in him as a human being, if he’s faced with that choice, what he would choose?”
In another interview with Entertainment Weekly, Harbour was similarly cagey with details, but stated once again for the record that Barb is definitely dead. This still leaves a couple of interesting questions about Hopper’s fate.
We’ve already seen that spending even a little bit of time in the Upside Down can have catastrophic consequences for a regular person without psychic abilities to defend themselves with, meaning that the dimension might not even have been how Hopper ends up being captured. Still, though, the cop was caught in a wave of energy as a massive machine capable of tearing holes between dimensions exploded, and it’s unlikely that he just walked away unscathed.
Whatever it is that happened to Hop is anyone’s guess at this point, but if and when he makes his triumphant return to Stranger Things, it’s probably safe to assume that he’ll be a changed man.