The following contains spoilers for Stranger Things Season 4, now streaming on Netflix.
Jim Hopper’s return to the land-of-the-living in Stranger Things Season 4 was less a shock than a foregone conclusion, with Season 3 ending with a hint that “the American” was a prisoner in Russia and the show confirming David Harbour’s return in a promo long-before Vol. 1 dropped. But the Hopper we saw in Season 4 of Stranger Things was clearly not the same man from the first three seasons, as his Russia experience transformed the character, both physically and emotionally.
However, as careful as the show is to treat his emotional arc — and as satisfying a resolution as we get, particularly when it comes to his new relationship with Joyce and his final reunion with daughter Eleven, there’s much less nuance paid to the physical transformation Jim Hopper goes through. And though the show clearly expects us to handwave a lot of it as just a sign of the times, the fact that Hopper’s weight loss is treated as a running joke is actually more than a tad concerning, and ultimately, not a great message.
First, let’s state the obvious, Jim Hopper didn’t just decide he needed to lose weight and went on a diet and exercise regime that resulted in the physique we are introduced to in Season 4. No, Jim Hopper was taken prisoner, starved and tortured into the body he inhabits in Season 4, and though most of the characters he comes across have no way of really knowing this, there were still other storytelling avenues that didn’t turn his physical transformation into a joke. Joyce, the person who comes closer to understanding the truth of what Hopper went through is, tellingly, the one person who refrains from joking about it.
Hopper, of course, is the first one to make light of the situation, though it’s hard to blame him for it. Both times his weight comes up Hopper is trying to reassure someone he loves, first Joyce, then Eleven, that he’s actually okay. With Joyce it’s harder, as he’s semi-naked and his scarred back is proof positive of what the last eight months have been like. But that just means Hopper — in a very Hopper like way — feels even more inclined to minimize his pain. He needed to lose weight after all, he tells Joyce.
Later, as he’s finally reunited with his daughter, he makes a quip about not being fat before she can say anything. It’s his way of lightening the mood, but also of distracting Eleven from thinking about what he could have suffered. That’s what parents do. Eleven has gone through an ordeal of her own, and for Hopper it’s more important that he’s there with her, than anything he might have gone through to get there.
Had those been the only two instances in the season, perhaps we wouldn’t have been talking about the matter, but the show also goes out of its way to have Mike comment that Hopper “shrunk” in what is supposed to be a nice moment between the two of them. Lack of knowledge on Mike’s part doesn’t excuse the storytelling decision, or the message the show is sending to people suffering from real body image issues, or struggling with eating disorders.
Thin Hopper — particularly considering how he got to be thinner — isn’t inherently better, and there was really no need to praise him for losing weight, when the real amazing thing everyone should have been remarking on was that he was alive in the first place. These people have all gone through enough to understand that Hopper “Russia detour” wouldn’t have been a picnic, and the jokes were a clumsy way of adding levity to charged situations that ended up hurting the season more than helping those particular scenes.
Ultimately, the decision to make Hopper’s weight loss a running joke might just be chalked up to a desire to keep his reunions with the people he loves the most from getting too maudlin, but the end result was presenting dramatic weight loss, no matter the cost to one’s health and wellbeing, as a desirable outcome. This is a very bad message to send in general, and one that doesn’t really represent the numerous reasons why fans and characters alike love Jim Hopper. “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” was a thing before Hopper lost weight and picked up a sword, after all.
To see Jim Hopper kill a monster, finally kiss Joyce and reunite with his daughter – all things that are way more important than his weight, Season 4 of Stranger Things is now available to stream on Netflix.