Stranger Things Season 3 and How It Failed Romantic Banter

Joyce and Hopper are teamed up together to solve a mystery in Stranger Things 3.

At the forefront of the Stranger Things season 3 discussion is the reaction to Jim Hopper’s characterization this season. A fan-favorite played by the incredibly talented David Harbour, the Hawkins Chief of Police is undergoing a lot of criticism for this season. The A.V. Club went out of their way to write an article entitled “Strangers Things 3 Ruined Hopper,” and many fans agree. Even Westworld actress Evan Rachel Wood took to Twitter to warn followers: “You should never date a guy like the cop from #strangerthings Extreme jealousy and violent rages are not flattering or sexy like TV would have you believe. That is all.”

Why is Hopper undergoing this amount of criticism? He hasn’t necessarily changed as a character — he’s always been a haunted figure who has had issues with anger, grief, and trauma. What is it about this particular season of Netflix’s nostalgic genre darling that is rubbing people the wrong way? Each critique points to his interaction with Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) this season. But the thing is… we’ve been okay with this behavior before. Just in different avenues and contexts.

As far back as William Shakespeare, audiences have been attracted to what is commonly known as “romantic banter.” In Much Ado about Nothing, Benedick and Beatrice sling insults back and forth at each other, attacking each other’s genders, intelligence, social standing, and overall personhood. Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice—on which modern romantic comedies base their plots—Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy use this same device to comment on each other’s social behavior, respective family members, and wealth. Even Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back has Han Solo and Princess Leia biting each other’s heads off about how their plans to escape trouble are stupid and Leia going so low as to call Han a “nerf herder.”

Han Solo tells Leia what she needs is a "good kiss." Rude.
Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, (Disney/Lucasfilm, 1980)

The common thread here is that all of these characters eventually admit that they are in love with each other. Yes, if insults and verbal abuse are witty enough and combined with the right amount of character chemistry, they can launch a thousand ships and fanmade works. Search around on Tumblr and you’ll see proof in the pudding.

In reality, no one could get away with this kind of dialogue. Part of it is that we’re human beings and not the fifth draft of a screenplay, but most of it is that it is inappropriate and inexcusable behavior that will either get you sued for sexual harassment or blocked on Twitter. But in film, television, theatre, and literature? This is a winning formula! We see it in When Harry Met Sally, Gilmore Girls, Firefly, The Music Man — this trope spans genres and works in everyone.

That brings us back to Stranger Things. If this formula is always so successful, why is its brutal and toxic reality more noticeable between Joyce and Hopper in the third season?

Joyce and Hopper bicker about exploding cars, Russian conspiracies, and foregoing date plans for magnets.
Stranger Things season 3, (Netflix, 2019)

There are actually a couple of rules when it comes to banter in storytelling and character relationships. First of all, banter works best when it exists based on first impressions and biases. Pride & Prejudice’s preliminary title was literally “First Impressions,” and we can see how that influences Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s relationship and their comedy of manners barbs toward one another. Secondly, even if we don’t get to see those first moments, there is an expositional establishment of this dynamic from the very beginning. In both cases, this normalizes the situation for audiences and starts a journey of where these characters are going to go. If this is true, what else could be true? (Spoiler alert: It’s usually that they’re in love with each other.)

Which brings us to the truth that was established in the first season of Stranger Things: There was no banter.

The Duffer brothers, the twin co-creators of Stranger Things, focused their first season on the disparate arcs of the adults, teenagers, and children and how they eventually all intertwined and came together to confront their fears and their grief. This is where they could have introduced banter between Joyce and Hopper, but they went in a different direction. For good reason because introducing an adult romantic subplot while also having your adult leads dealing with very dark themes about child loss would be inauthentic. The tension instead is redirected to finding Joyce’s son Will and how the success affects both adults. Season two shifts gears to focus on dealing with trauma on behalf of all our protagonists, ranging everywhere from child abuse and the deaths of close friends to the extraordinary circumstances of fighting evil science labs and Demagorgons. The Duffers showcase how this affects our characters and their relationships with each other and newcomers.

What the Duffer brothers are also good at, probably to a fault, is finding ways to incorporate storytelling devices from 1980s pop culture to their own show. We see correlations of Goonies in the primary party of central kids, E.T. Extra Terrestrial in Mike and Eleven’s relationship and Dustin’s discovery of the demadog Dart, the latter being a great example of Gremlins as well. It creates a positive audience response of familiarity and recognition while also creating something new. Then season three comes and it is time to address the obvious chemistry between Joyce and Hopper. And it’s the perfect time to play with those bantering archetypes of 1980s adventure romance culture, a la Indiana Jones/Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark in particular. (Note: The season is also set in 1985, and this is also the year that the Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd driven Moonlighting came into being, which is known for the amazing chemistry between the two co-stars as well as being cited for why characters shouldn’t get together, immediately if at all.)

Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood reunite and fight. Indiana Jones is cited often as the source of inspiration for Hopper's character.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, (Paramount Pictures, 1981)

The problem is that by season three, the romantic banter derived from conflict can no longer be normalized. Viewers have already seen Hopper and Joyce in intimate though not overtly romantic situations, paired together to outrun and fight against trouble over the course of 17 episodes. Why would Hopper’s over-the-top jealousy and anger happen now after Joyce has already been in a committed relationship with the darling and dearly departed Bob Newby (Sean Astin)? How is it that Joyce doesn’t put Hopper in his place or cut him out after she did the exact same thing with her ex Lonnie? These can be justified by writers and actors, but that work isn’t what is on the screen. If there are only eight to ten episodes per season and multiple storylines are being juggled to eventually converge, there isn’t a lot of space or time to get that explanation of new behavior.

By breaking the rules of normalizing banter, audience members must a) research back catalogs of information to explain the behavior, or b) denounce the writing and behavior by citing the toxic realities in a fictional situation. People very rarely do both—this is not a judgment because it’s a lot of work mentally and emotionally to examine why we accept Luke Danes calling Lorelai Gilmore “crazy” or Leia calling Han “a scruffy-looking nerf herder,” and then criticizing Hopper for saying Joyce calling one character certifiable as “the pot calling the kettle black.”

Joyce Byers and Hopper bickering like an old married couple trying to save the world.
Stranger Things season 3, (Netflix, 2019)

As of 2019, fans and critics alike have been called to examine and pick apart how media depicts romantic interactions. In the case of the good ship known as Jopper, there is still a lot of support and gifsets referring to them as “old marrieds.” If this can still be true despite the criticism of Hopper being out-of-character or a flat out asshole, this means that the formula of romantic banter is still a tool for success. That said, as our social culture evolves to showcasing the differences between healthy and insult-driven dialogue, this means that at some point romantic banter will have to evolve as well to balance love and conflict without verbally punching down.