The Suffering Service of Jim Hopper
The struggle to do good in an upside-down world
Originally published at Christ & Pop Culture
Hop. The Chief. Single dad of the year. Whatever name he goes by, people have strong feelings about Hawkins’s Jim Hopper. The small-town sheriff from Stranger Things is gruff, occasionally goofy, and always on call. Now that Stranger Things 3 has been binged by millions, it’s the perfect time to revisit the suffering service of Jim Hopper. For all his flaws, Hopper offers a template for holding on to hope in a fallen world, especially for those desperate to right wrongs.
In Season 1, Hopper is a trope. He’s a burnt-out cop, a mess. He rinses his mouth with beer, sleeps around town, and pops pills like Lifesavers. This is not the man anyone wants keeping their children safe. Nevertheless, Hopper is the sheriff in town and, when Will Byers goes missing, he is in the middle of it, trying to help Will’s mom, Joyce. Not surprisingly, he initially dismisses Joyce’s fear. But we quickly learn the outline of Hopper’s past and the abyss he’s stared into. His daughter snatched away by death and his marriage consumed by grief, Hopper keeps his pain—and others’—at arm’s length with self-preserving lies.
He is slow to imagine the danger present in the safe retreat of Hawkins and falls into procedural police work. He believes himself safe from loss and fear in Hawkins. He’s convinced Will is “probably just playing hooky.” To a search party volunteer, Hopper pulls back from an offhand comment about how his daughter loved science and stars with a lie about how his daughter “lives in the city with her mom.”
It requires death, not just its spectre, to move Hopper from his stupor. The suspicious suicide of Hopper’s friend and local diner-owner prompts him to face the truth: He hasn’t run far enough to escape the darkness. No stranger to his inner demons, Hopper is now confronted with the brokenness all around him. Joyce’s boy is missing, Benny is dead, and a deeply damaged man is chief of police. Under the weight of this responsibility, it’s no wonder he asks the unnamed woman warming his bed, “Do you ever feel cursed?”
Hopper is indeed cursed, as are the rest of us who live under the sun in a fallen world. The blessings of life are too often shadowed by sin’s upside-down perversion of the good, present in both the death of a child and broken promises.
In Enchiridion, his manual on Christian faith, hope, and love, Saint Augustine illustrates the parasitic nature of sin:
“All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all.”
So goodness is substantial. It’s something, whereas evil only fills the empty space left behind when the good is diminished. How is goodness diminished? According to Augustine, that happens when free creatures cause, and are subjected to, corruption when they choose lesser goods. It’s hard not to see the shadow realm of the Upside Down, the diseased alternate reality threatening Hopper’s town, as an analogy for sin. And, as inevitably as Hopper strives against the darkness of the Upside Down, he also struggles to choose the higher goods before him. It is here where the Chief, no stranger to self-destruction, begins to offer viewers instruction.
Denial quickly gives way to determination as Hopper falls into the paranormal conspiracy at the heart of Stranger Things. However, Hopper’s primary concern isn’t the monster. He never actually encounters the creature Will’s friends call the Demogorgon. Instead, it’s the cover-up, the willful harm wrought by powerful people that compels broken, lonely Jim Hopper to go to hell. It’s his fatherly affection, aimless since the loss of his daughter, which champions Joyce’s cause—the child must come home.
While the first season’s climax requires the combined courage of the kids, teens, and adults, it is Joyce’s tireless love and Hopper’s longing for all he has lost that save Will. The pair’s crossing through the shadow realm is intercut with memories of Sarah’s sudden illness and final hours. We viewers are offered no details—it doesn’t matter. Sarah’s death is a mystery of the same order as Will’s spiriting away to the Upside Down. Even with an answer for how tragedy happens, we are still left with why.
Ultimately, Will is saved and there is vindication for Joyce, whose desperate hope was long dismissed, even by Hopper. More importantly, though, what Joyce thought was lost is found again. Hopper finds something, too. The search for Will and calling the powerful to account pushes back the darkness. Hopper’s suffering, and its corrosive bitterness is arrested. Following Augustine’s formulation, Hopper chooses a higher good: service. However, because the world is not yet free from the presence of sin, Hopper’s consolation is incomplete. Still, it anticipates an incorruptible future. So, while the loss of his daughter is not undone, Hopper is moved through suffering to live for something; he resists the black hole of past loss. Resisting the darkness and seeking higher goods begin to make sense of his pain.
He isn’t whole, not yet. He was never whole to begin with, but now he is something like halfway happy.
Up to this point, I’ve neglected to mention Stranger Things’ most recognizable character: Eleven, or El for short. El is a child abused and detained by the government. She is experimented on, locked away, and offered false love and affection only when it serves the ends of her captors. After the events of Will’s rescue, Chief Hopper defies his agreement with the secret government agency and takes her in. He hides Eleven and keeps her safe; he also makes a home with her. The pair begin to build a life together, and it is good—but it is far from perfect.
Eleven is not Sarah, and the only “papa” Eleven has ever known was abusive and controlling, the latter being one of the Chief’s major vices. The conflicts that arise between these two characters, who obviously need each other, propel the second season. Hopper loses his cool, and Eleven tests the limits in ways only a psychokinetic pre-teen can. Before a major falling out triggered by a broken promise, Hopper tries to explain compromise to his surrogate daughter. “It’s something that’s kinda in between. It’s like halfway happy.” Neither can get back what they lost but something else, something good, is available to them. Maybe even something better.
What does this tell us about living in a world in which so much ground has been ceded to lesser loves and where the barrenness of evil dominates? It confirms that compromise is not enough. It won’t satisfy, not wholly. Hopper’s halfway happy perspective is an essential virtue in divided times, but it doesn’t acknowledge God. Without God’s intervention, what passes for perfection here would only ever be dim and distorted, a bad cover band version of a song everyone talks about, but no one has heard. The grace that can follow grief isn’t second-best—it is the fullest perfection, made from the broken pieces of good things. Nostalgic yearnings to go back, back to a golden age or back to innocence are dead ends; they are impossibilities. Fortunately, God has a plan for plenitude. We anticipate the consummation of a Kingdom ruled by a King who descends into darkness for his children and leaves no place for evil to fester.
In a chapter of Enchiridion titled “The Plight of Man after the Fall,” Augustine argues there is no peace to be made with evil. Instead, he presents a God who has accounted for evil, meeting it with the full sweep of his justice and mercy. “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist,” when he could have justly condemned and annihilated all imperfection. “Clearly God would have done this if he were only just and not also merciful and if he had not willed to show far more striking evidence of his mercy by pardoning some who were unworthy of it.”
After Eleven’s abduction and abuse, after Will’s ordeal—after Sarah—Season 2 ends with an adoption. Imperfect as he is, Hopper’s search for redemption and restoration is a dim reflection of the history-spanning project to raise humanity to new life. There is mercy even for awkward school dances! One day we will dance like children under balloons, and get the dance we did nothing to deserve.
My Life for Yours
Before that day, when the Kingdom comes for the little children, we continue in a state of anticipation. Augustine is a realist; he knows Christians will continue to sin and that it’s possible to do good for the wrong reasons, and do wrong for decent ones. Stranger Things 3 drives home this point. Life at this point in the cosmic story, on the tight-rope of already-but-not-yet, necessarily entails a measure of suffering. Whether from within or without, moral failure and disappointment come. Hopper’s gains through the first two seasons are eaten away at in Season 3. His desire to hold his second chance at a family tightly leads him to choose lesser goods. Instead of discussing Mike and Eleven’s relationship, Hopper bullies Mike into compliance with his “three-inch rule” and then some. This has a cascading effect; some better, some worse, but none of them perfect.
Likewise, Hopper and Joyce share a bond after the shared trauma of the first two seasons and Hopper clearly wants to build his new life around this relationship. But it’s not clear Joyce feels the same way or wants to feel the same way; there are no shortcuts to love. Whatever you think of Hopper and Joyce’s prospects as a couple, it’s difficult to excuse Hopper’s entitled and controlling approach to courtship.
If Hopper’s unrequited pursuit of Joyce isn’t punishment enough, the show sees fit to punish Hopper some more. While his Eleven faces changes and dangers he’s unaware of, Hopper is faced with the Russian. A stoic, Terminator-like obstacle, the Russian almost too perfectly represents sin crouching at the door—and he gets the better of Hopper again and again.
In the season finale, “The Battle of Starcourt,” Hopper descends deep below Hawkins and puts everything on the line. He does this because he wants Joyce and Eleven to feel safe in Hawkins; he wants it to be the home where they can live a good life, a full life. His desperate desire to live that life with them brings Hopper to the place where he can look over the brink and choose a higher love. He freely sacrifices his good for that of those whom he loves. Hopper gives up everything without giving up, and its effect may mean heart-breaking change for the rest of Hawkins’s heroes, but it is good.
Season 3 leaves viewers not with the fan-favourite possibility of a union between the troubled but loving families of Byers and Hopper. Instead, we get a halfway happy, redeemed-but-not-yet-restored family. Hopper’s long arc of suffering channelled into service and sacrifice makes space for this flawed beauty. It’s the tears that follow forgiveness or the pain of goodbye after a reunion cut short, of love lost but prized for a time. This fallen goodness is imperfect, but it’s the gift that anticipates a perfect Giver.
Perhaps stranger still is the truth that whether Hopper lives or dies at the end of Stranger Things 3, his journey offers hope. If he’s dead, the beauty of a life of service and sacrifice is evident, not despite his suffering but because of it. And if he is resurrected for Season 4, it will be just the first of many sad things to come untrue.