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Jim Hopper's Entire Stranger Things Backstory Explained

When a TV show gets its own haunted house experience and blazes social media when a new batch of episodes drop, it's a winner. And for three magical seasons (and counting), Stranger Things standout Jim Hopper, portrayed by David Harbour, is a winner as well, evolving from angry, trauma-filled cop to a fan favorite.

While the exact details of the boxes marked "Vietnam" and "New York" below Hopper's cabin floors are still unknown, one could assume Hopper is a Vietnam war veteran and he used to live in New York. He's aware of PTSD and knows how to make a tripwire, and reveals that he lived in a big city before moving back to Hawkins, Indiana. The author of the canon novel Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town, Adam Christopher, revealed on his blog: "It's about Hopper as a homicide detective in New York City, 1977." That said, until we find out more in season 4, the meaning behind the boxes and the contents inside remain a mystery.

Heavy spoilers ahead: Throughout its first 25 episodes, Stranger Things drops a lot of information about Hopper's past and present. Here's Jim Hopper's entire Stranger Things backstory explained.

Hopper's high school days and relationship with Joyce

Although Stranger Things begins on November 6, 1983, in Hawkins, Indiana, the show leaves breadcrumbs throughout about Hopper's past. He went to Hawkins High School with Joyce Byers and Bob Newby, and living in a small town, it's evident that Joyce and Hopper know each other well in season 1; Hopper mentions Sara, his daughter, without giving an indication of who she is, to help comfort Joyce because of her son Will's disappearance. In season 2, Hopper and Joyce share a cigarette outside the school dance and are reminded of when they used to smoke between the fifth and sixth periods.

It's important to Hopper that Joyce and her family feel safe. He wants Hawkins to feel like it can still be her home, although he knows Joyce is putting her house on the market. He talks about Sara and having to get away and outrun those memories, and how that's why he ended up back in Hawkins. He feels like their familiarity — and their shared trauma — is a benefit for her staying in Hawkins.

Hopper's trauma: alcohol problems

Throughout the first season, it's made known that Hopper was married to a woman named Diane and they had a daughter who died of cancer. Since her death, they've divorced and Hopper has moved back to Hawkins, started working at the police station, and numbing the pain with pills and alcohol. Hopper's trauma isn't a secret. Later in the series, Mayor Larry Kline brings up Hopper taking pills he doesn't have a prescription for and drinking on the job. People working at Hawkins National Laboratory try to stage a suicide after capturing Hopper as he wakes up at his home dripping in sweat, with pills and alcohol littering his coffee table. They bug his home for good measure.

We find out that Hopper was once a detective when he investigates the death of Benny Hammond at Benny's Burgers. Another officer mentions a missing child, Will Byers, and a possible suicide, saying Hopper must feel like a big city cop again. Hopper mentions that he was mostly involved with strangers back then, which adds to the evidence that he was in a big city, possibly New York.

Hopper's trauma: Sara and Diane

In season 1, Hopper calls his ex-wife and says those seven years were everything to him, referencing their time together and raising a child. The show further hints at his drinking problem when she asks if he's been drinking again.

He mentions he has a friend at the Times, which could be referring to the New York Times, located in the city where he likely lived with Diane and their daughter.

When Hopper and Joyce are trying to find Will near the end of season 1, flashbacks of him and his daughter cut in: He's playing with his daughter and wife outside. Sara appears to have trouble breathing. Hopper reads a book to Sara in the hospital. He cries on top of the stairs. Will, trapped in the dark alternate dimension known as the Upside Down, has been found with a monstrous tendril snaking down his throat. Hopper's daughter is shown hooked up to a respirator as Hopper rips the tendril out of Will's mouth. As Joyce and Hopper try to bring Will back to life, flashbacks show doctors trying to resuscitate Sara as Hopper and Diane are left as helpless bystanders. While we see his daughter die, Hopper saves Will by beating on his chest, symbolically saving his daughter in the process. This is the most important event of Hopper's first season arc because when his daughter died, he eventually stopped living. He couldn't bring Sara back, but he helped Joyce revive Will.

Chief of police in Hawkins, Indiana

Hopper is Chief of the Hawkins Police Department which plays to his advantage because of the town's non-existent criminal activity. Instead of being a detective in a big city where crime never stops, he works in a small town where nothing exciting happens — until Will is abducted.

Missing garden gnomes are the biggest issue Hopper is made aware of when he comes into the station at the start of season 1. Will Byers is also missing, but he shrugs it off at first. He goes from a detective in a crime-infested city to the boring Hawkins, noting that the worst thing he's seen in his four years working in Hawkins is an owl attacking a resident's head because it thought her hair was a nest. Joyce is adamant about finding her son, and season 1's horrors snap Hopper out of his liquid funk.

Will Byers' disappearance

Will Byers, son of Joyce and younger brother of Jonathan Byers, disappears in November 1983. As the Chief of Police, Hopper investigates Will's disappearance, even though he could have closed the case as a body was found and a funeral took place shortly after. Because Hopper does have potential — he is, after all, the chief for a reason — he goes above and beyond during season 1, cutting open "Will's" body at the morgue to find it stuffed with cotton.

His instincts and sympathy for Joyce are the main reasons why Hopper is able to snap out of his grieving stage and break open the case. In the process, he stumbles upon a life-altering bond with a young girl known simply as Eleven, or El for short. The trail begins with Benny's death, which leads Hopper to the lab where Dr. Martin Brenner performed unethical experiments on El, seeking to explore and amplify her psychic and telekinetic powers. During the course of these experiments, she opened a gate to the Upside Down, which is superficially similar to Earth but dark, empty, and cold.

Hopper and Joyce eventually enter the Upside Down to save her son; although he's sworn to protect the people of Hawkins and the lab is clearly operating outside the law, he's willing to hide its secrets, and simply wants to get Will back. Meanwhile, in the confrontation against the Upside Down creature known as the Demogorgon, El seemingly perishes — but in the final moments of Stranger Things season one, Hopper leaves some Eggo waffles, her favorite food, in a secret spot in the woods, hoping she's still out there.

Living with Eleven

Stranger Things season 2 starts on October 28, 1984, and finds El still very much alive — and living with Hopper in his grandfather's cabin, where he moved them both after he found her in the woods. Hopper gives her three important rules that all revolve around not taking risks: Always keep the curtains drawn, only open the door if you hear the secret knock, and don't ever go out alone, especially not in the daylight.

Hopper has given her a life outside of the lab and teaches her Morse code to communicate. He isn't a perfect parent, but his broken promises lead her to discover those boxes marked "New York," "Vietnam," and "Hawkins Lab." This leads to El running away to find her mother, and later on, a fellow Hawkins Lab survivor who teaches El how to maximize her powers.

Later on, in season 3, as El starts behaving in more stereotypically teenage ways, like going to the mall or dating Mike Wheeler, Hopper goes into full-on parent mode. Suspicious of Mike's intentions with his adopted daughter, he institutes a new rule that El's bedroom door needs to be opened three inches when Mike's over. While El's safety is Hopper's first priority, he tends to act as a surrogate parent to all of the kids.

The Shadow Monster

Joyce and Hopper team up in season 2 to figure out a new Upside Down-related mystery. The new villain, known as the Shadow Monster or Mind Flayer, is a much larger threat than the Demogorgon of season 1. The Demogorgon, although fearsome, was a monster that got loose from the Upside Down, while the Mind Flayer is far more powerful, and seemingly controls the alternate dimension. Now connected to Will, the malevolent monster is intent on reaching through to Earth and taking over.

Once again, Will's life is endangered; once again, Hopper is a key part of the effort to save him — along with the rest of Hawkins and the world as we know it. Just when all seems lost, the group realizes that the Mind Flayer's connection to Will is just one part of the creature's network — and if one part of the Shadow Monster is hurt, all parts are hurt.

El closes the gate to the Upside Down with Hopper's help after the Shadow Monster leaves Will's body. Again, it seems as if the threat of the Upside Down has been vanquished — but in the closing moments of the season finale, as the kids are having fun at the school dance, the audience sees that Hawkins' connection to the Upside Down is still very much present.

Hopper and Joyce's romance in season 3

Hopper and Joyce's relationship in season 3 can be described in two words: nonstop bickering. Early in the season, Hopper vents to Joyce about El and Mike as he's getting a full dose of parenthood. Joyce tells him to set boundaries, but he needs to stay calm and not lose his temper. Alas, as every parent knows, that's easier said than done.

Hopper asks Joyce out to dinner but she declines, as she's still grieving the death of her boyfriend Bob Newby in season 2 — an event Hopper should understand given he's no stranger to trauma. She finally agrees to dinner with him, but stands him up. Joyce is suspicious when the magnets on her refrigerator lose their magnetic attraction, and goes to science teacher Scott Clarke to ask him questions about magnetic fields. Hopper, caught in the throes of a self-pitying spiral, is initially unable to get past his own jealousy to recognize the danger Joyce already sees.

Hopper and Joyce return to the empty Hawkins Lab, where Russian hitman Grigori attacks Hopper. Coming to after the attack, Hopper agrees something is happening in Hawkins again, and teams up with Joyce yet again to get to the bottom of the latest threat — but all the while, his seemingly unrequited feelings for her continue to flare up in the form of petty arguments.

Hopper vs. the Russians

Season 3 starts in the summer of 1985, and begins with a flashback showing the audience that the Soviets have a machine they're using to try and to open a gate to the Upside Down. It fails, leading them to make plans to build a new lab deep underground the brand new mall in faraway Hawkins, Indiana.

The mall is largely the setting for Stranger Things' third season — it's where El and her friends often congregate, it's where the older kids in the group have jobs for the summer, and it's where the season's climactic confrontation against the forces of the Upside Down takes place. But Hopper, after returning to Hawkins Lab with Joyce, spends most of the season on a side quest to determine the nature of what exactly's happening; with the aid of conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman and a defected Soviet scientist named Alexei, they figure out that the experiments in the underground lab are what's messing with the magnetic fields in Hawkins.

Unfortunately, stopping the Soviets from opening the gate to the Upside Down isn't as simple as calling the authorities — the corrupt mayor of Hawkins signed off on the deal allowing the underground lab to be created, and he does everything he can to thwart Hopper's investigation. Fortunately, Hopper and Joyce make it to the lab just in time to destroy the Soviets' new machine — although doing so causes an explosion that seemingly kills Hopper, devastating Joyce and El.

Hopper's last appearance

Three months pass after the events at Starcourt Mall. Hopper, presumed dead, is hailed as a hero by the townspeople of Hawkins; Joyce, meanwhile, has finally had enough of the trauma she and her family have suffered there throughout Stranger Things, and decides to sell her house.

While the surviving main characters are helping the Byers family move, Joyce gives El an emotional letter from Hopper. It's the heart to heart he was supposed to have with El about boundaries. As El reads it, the audience sees Hopper in a flashback, rehearsing what he's going to say. The Stranger Things season 3 finale ends with a glimpse of a Soviet prison, where we hear a worker allude to an American in one of the cells — leaving fans with the hope that Hopper somehow survived the explosion.

Those hopes were thankfully rewarded in the first trailer for season 4 of Stranger Things, which shows Hopper alive and working as a prisoner. We don't know how he got there or what the Soviets want with him, but we know his story will continue — and the Hopper-Eleven reunion we all want to see is still on the table.