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Best Performances: Stranger Things' David Harbour Breaks Down Chief Hopper's Path From Cynic to Hero

His nuanced performance makes his triumphant redemption easy to miss

Malcolm Venable

TVGuide.com's Best Performances series focuses on stand-out actors and actresses from the past year of television. Whether they made you cry, laugh or a mix of both, these are the performers -- and characters -- we won't forget, all year long.

By the time Stranger Things concluded its first breakout season with Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) miraculously back from the Upside Down, many characters had become heroes. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is the most notable of course, given her decision to sacrifice herself in order to stop a monster threatening her new friends. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) also rose, to become great in their own right.

But the character to make the strongest, most compelling transition from sorta-scumbag to redeemed idol was Chief Jim Hopper, played with stoic gruffness by David Harbour. Though the beats of his type of story -- the hard-shelled skeptic comes to champion the believers -- feel like an old song we never forgot the words to, Harbour brought a fresh take to the tropes.

It's easy to forget though, that when we first meet Hopper, he's in his own hellish limbo after the loss of his daughter. Harbour pulls off the feat of making an emotionless man magnetic, so much so that you kinda want to give him a hug even when he's being an ass. In an interview with TVGuide.com, Harbour shared how he was able to make a man suspended in private rage and bitterness display vulnerable sweetness under the surface.

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"He's a mess," Harbour said of Hopper when we meet him, five years after his daughter's death. "He's shut down, he's very sarcastic, kind of a jerk to kids... He's just a total mess. By the time he saves Will though, you really get to see this other side where this sweet man that's been beaten down so much gets to do something heroic and noble that he' always dreamed."

Harbour's re-telling of Hopper's arc sheds new light on his story and humanity, reminding us how seamlessly the actor conveyed distinctly different sides to the same man. Sure, Hopper never becomes the life of the party -- even after saving Will's life and in a way closing the loop on his own suffering -- but Harbour skillfully found a way to retain the tough exterior, while letting a little bit of healing peek through.

"You get to see this guy open up and have this moment of, Maybe I can live my life in a bit more of a fuller way," he recalled. "Maybe I don't' have to carry around all this rage."

Stranger Things 2 premieres Friday, Oct. 27 on Netflix.

Additional reporting by Keisha Hatchett.