Warning: This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things season 3.
Stranger Things season 3 apparently changed the show forever with the death of Jim Hopper - but it's possible he could still return in season 4. Hawkins' chief of police has become one of the most fascinating and complex characters in the world of Stranger Things. Hopper is a singularly flawed individual, scarred by PTSD, the death of his daughter, and the collapse of his marriage. Over the last three seasons, viewers have watched with delight as Jim Hopper managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps and dare to believe he deserved a second chance in life.
And then Stranger Things season 3 pulled the rug out from under their feet. In Stranger Things season 3, episode 8, Hopper and Joyce infiltrated the Russian lab beneath Hawkins in order to sabotage and destroy the Gate generator. Their mission went badly wrong, with poor Hopper stranded in the Gate room. The Russian traitor Alexei had warned Hopper and Joyce that anyone in the Gate room when the generator malfunctioned would be turned to dust. But Hopper knew they didn't have any time; he gave Joyce one last, lingering look, and nodded to her to turn the keys and begin the overload.
The end of Stranger Things season 3 was poignant and apparently final for Jim Hopper. But a tie-in piece of marketing - a pre-recorded message when you ring conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman's phone number - seems to hint that may not be the case. Meanwhile, David Harbour's contract includes an option for Stranger Things season 4. Given the Duffer brothers are known to have planned the full Stranger Things story out, this is naturally leading to speculation that Hopper isn't dead after all. How could he survive to play a major part in Stranger Things season 4?
How Hopper Could Have Survived Stranger Things Season 3
Death has already proved to be something of a revolving door for Stranger Things, with the season 2 confirmation of Dr. Brenner's survival proving that viewers shouldn't believe someone is dead until they've seen the body. Stranger Things is a mash-up of various different genres - from science-fiction to horror, from superhero action to period drama - all of which have a reputation for fake deaths. Hopper has seemingly died in such a way that there would be no body, and that's frankly rather convenient.
What's more, a careful look at the circumstances of Jim Hopper's death suggests that he may well be alive. Stranger Things season 3 opened with a malfunction at the Russians' Kamchatka Gate, a disaster that led the Russians to realize they could only open a Gate at Hawkins. But the Russians seem to have learned from that experience; as a result, they built their Hawkins Gate room with some safety features. Several shots in episode 8 reveal that there's a ladder off the gantry Hopper is stood on, one that would take him down to an area where he'd be shielded from the Gate's destructive energies.
As the Stranger Things season 3 finale showed it, Hopper didn't know about this ladder; instead of run for it he settled for standing on the gantry, watching Joyce, at peace with the fact that his sacrifice would save his adopted daughter Eleven from the Mind Flayer. But that doesn't mean he was there during the explosion; indeed, he's not seen in any shots after the keys are turned. Even if he didn't make it to the ladder, it's quite possible the initial kinetic force of the exploding Gate generator tossed him down into the shielded area, where he'd be protected from the waves of energy that would have atomized his body.
The Russians Have An American Prisoner
If this theory is correct, though, it raises one further question; where was Hopper's body? When American forces raided the Russian base, Dr. Owens - Hopper's contact in the US Government, the man who shut down Hawkins Lab on Hopper's recommendation - climbed down the ladder and walked up to the Gate itself. If Hopper's body had been there, he should have seen it.
But here's the catch; the Americans didn't actually capture any Russians at all when they took the lab at the end of Stranger Things season 3. It seems to have taken them some time to break in, long enough for the Russians to complete an evacuation. It's quite possible that, during the escape, some of the Russians found Hopper's unconscious and injured body and took him. They wouldn't necessarily even know they were taking an American prisoner; after all, Hopper was wearing a Russian uniform, so they could have thought they were rescuing one of their own.
Fast-forward to Stranger Things season 3's mid-credits scene, which strongly supports this theory. This is clearly intended to set up Stranger Things season 4, and it establishes that the Russian threat is far from over. The Soviets successfully acquired biological samples from the Upside Down while their Gate was operational, including at one least Demogorgon. They're feeding the Demogorgon on a diet of prisoners, and one crucial line of dialogue sees one soldier instruct a subordinate that "the American" is to be kept alive. It's possible this could be a new character, or perhaps the long-missing Dr. Brenner, but frankly, it doesn't seem much of a stretch to suggest this could well be Jim Hopper. Perhaps the Russians want him kept alive because they want to find out why a random police chief knows so much about the Upside Down and proved to be such a problem at Hawkins.
How Hopper Could Fit Into Stranger Things Season 4
Assuming that this theory is correct, and that Jim Hopper is a Russian prisoner, it's important to remember that he'll presumably stay captive for some time. There will be a time jump between Stranger Things seasons 3 and 4; that's why the Duffer brother didn't have to film the two seasons back-to-back in order to keep the kids at the same age. For Eleven and Joyce, this time jump means they'll have the time to mourn, to get over the worst of their grief and begin remembering the good times they had with Hopper. For Hopper, however, it could potentially mean he'll be a Russian prisoner for at least a few months, if not a year or so.
If the Russian plot will be central to Stranger Things season 4, that may suggest the show will finally move out of Hawkins; the Duffer brothers experimented with other locations in the controversial season 2 episode "The Lost Sister," and maybe season 4 will actually see the kids go to Kamchatka Province. If Hopper is a Russian prisoner, then Eleven would be able to discover that as soon as she recovers her powers; she'd be able to track him. Alternatively, the kids could simply stumble upon Hopper in a cell, with their attempt at sabotage becoming an unexpected rescue mission. That would be a perfect end for Stranger Things, and it would fit with the show's core themes. In a neat inversion, Hopper becomes the one who needs to be rescued rather than the rescuer; he's thus confronted with the fact that the kids he's been striving to keep safe are becoming adults, and they no longer need his protection.