Spoilers ahead for Stranger Things season 3.
The finale of Stranger Things season 3 was already emotional, but if one went into the latest batch of episodes having read all of the tie-in books, it’s made all the sadder – and more satisfactory.
The so-called Stranger Things Expanded Universe – which includes comic books and video games as well as the novels – has been quickly growing and includes a lot of background material on characters like Police Chief Jim Hopper and plot elements like Project MKUltra, the initiative that ultimately produced the superpowered Eleven. While some of these stories may seem like nothing more than filler on first blush, the Netflix show’s third installment really pays off on their developments in some perhaps-surprising ways, making them must-reads.
There are two ways in particular this dramatic heightening occurs, and they both revolve around figures who perish by the season’s end (or, at least, who appear to be killed off): Billy Hargrove and Hopper. The most recent of the Stranger Things releases, Runaway Max, retells the events of season 2 from the perspective of Max Mayfield, dropping in a slew of flashbacks to how she first met her step-dad and -brother – providing a better understanding of how the deranged Billy came to be so psychologically damaged. Along the way, audiences learn about Billy’s special relationship with his car – the only one he truly cares about – and realize that he may very well physically brutalize Lucas Sinclair, Max’s newfound Midwest love interest, since the last time one of his step-sister’s friends defied him, he ended up breaking the adolescent’s arm.
The revelation at the end of season 3 that Billy was a good-hearted boy with a loving mom who was chased away by a sadistic dad doesn’t come as a shocker in the slightest. What does prove to be shocking, however, is the way in which the teenager both verbally and physically accosts his car, easily his most valuable possession and the thing that might best be described as his closest companion – meaning that the beginning of his character arc this season is weighted with a lot more emotion, thereby helping it better parallel his heartbreaking climax. (Speaking of which, readers might be forgiven for weeping alongside Max once he is slaughtered by the Mind Flayer.)
Then there is Darkness on the Edge of Town, a novel that ostensibly is about Jim Hopper tracking down a (slightly-telepathic) serial killer in New York City six years before Stranger Things begins but which is really a meditation on his recovery from the Vietnam War and his relationship with his family, both in the past (with Sara, his late daughter, and his ex-wife) and the present (his newly-adopted daughter of Eleven). The book opens on Christmas 1984, just a few weeks after season 2 has ended, with the police chief actually enjoying his formerly-favorite holiday for the first time since his first little girl died, and it closes with Christmas 1977, the last one he would ever spend with Sara – a beautiful and yet haunting bookend that perfectly manages to get into the psyche of, arguably, the TV show’s main lead.
It’s easy to see how this makes Hopper’s apparent sacrifice in the third season finale all the more tragic, and how it would render it all the more devastating still for book readers. The scant pages both Jim and Eleven manage to share together in their little cabin, in the midst of a snowstorm with nothing else to do but keep each other company, suddenly becomes, in retrospect, one of the highlights of Stranger Things’ entire run to date.
It’s harder to think of a better compliment – or a better way to appreciate season 3.
NEXT: Predicting How Stranger Things Season 4 Can End the Show
Marc N. Kleinhenz