In story telling, it’s crucial that characters act according to their own motivations, and not because the plot requires it of them. There is an elegant way to make the character serve the plot when it doesn’t really make sense, what Michael Byers (no relation) calls the Sure-But-And-So, but that’s a discussion for another time (the end of this post actually).
A very simple way to test whether a character is acting according to their own motivations is to ask what the character wants, and whether what they’re doing helps to get them closer to it. Sometimes people act irrationally, make mistakes, or act on false information and that’s fine, but when those things are absent, we ought to be able to understand how a character’s choices advance their goals.
What Are Grigori and Jango Fett Up To
On my first viewing of Season 3, when Grigori shows up at Hawkins Lab and beats up Hopper I was thoroughly entertained and couldn’t shove popcorn into my face fast enough. On my second viewing, I was confused, and I noticed it seemed suspiciously like Jango Fett’s plot line in Star Wars: Send in the Clones.
Why does Jango Fett, the most talented bounty hunter in the galaxy outsource the assassination of Senator Amidala to (I assume) an intern? Why does he then kill that intern with a poison dart that can be traced back to Kamino instead of using a generic dart or just a regular blaster? Did he want the Jedi to learn about Kamino? If so, does that mean the assassination attempt against Amidala was meant to fail? Why not just shoot Amidala with the dart? Why not give the intern a huge bag of traceable darts? And when Jango leaves Kamino with a tracking device on his ship and heads to Geonosis, why is he going there? Does he know he’s being tracked? If so, was he really trying to kill Obi-Wan or was he just putting on a good show? I know there’s the explanation that Palpatine is playing both sides and wants the Jedi to get an army and then go to war against the Separatists, but did Jango know all that? What did Jango think was going on exactly? Was he intentionally leaving breadcrumbs the whole way?
The writing on Stranger Things is at least 12 parsecs ahead of the Star Wars prequels, but the character of Grigori (the Russian T-1000 super soldier) suffers a similar problem to Jango, but without the “Palpatine’s behind it” bailout.
Why does Grigori attack Hopper in Hawkins Lab?
Hopper and Joyce go to the lab to try to find whatever is messing with the magnets. When they get there, they discover the lab is empty and the gate room has been completely sealed with concrete. At this point their investigation is at a dead end.
Then Grigori arrives, jumps Hopper, beats him within an inch of his life, and leaves. Afterwards, Hopper realizes he’d seen Grigori at Mayor Kline’s office, beats information out of Kline about the land deals, and uses that information to find the location of Alexei’s lab (which is for some reason not part of the underground complex).
So, what was Grigori hoping to accomplish by attacking Hopper? Did he want to stop Hopper from finding something? There’s no indication there’s anything to find. Did he want to kill Hopper? He had plenty of opportunity, and Joyce didn’t exactly scare him off.
The only explanation is that Grigori not only wanted Hopper to continue investigating, but knew Hopper would recognize him from the mayor’s office, and then use the mayor to find out more about the Russian plot. Likewise, we’re not given any reason for Alexei to have a secondary lab at Hess Farm other than so Hopper can discover it. I have to assume Palpatine is behind all this and set the whole thing up to provoke an armed conflict between the US and Russia.
Plot Holes vs. Pot Holes
Sometimes when people talk about plot holes, they’ll hang on to some rather minor things which don’t make sense, but at the same time don’t totally undermine the story. Smaller things I’ll call pot holes.
For a true plot hole, look at Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The entire Tri-Wizard Tournament is rigged to not only get Harry entered, but Barty Crouch Jr. is working to make sure Harry wins and gets to the trophy, which he doesn’t realize is a portkey and will teleport him to a graveyard for a ritual to restore Voldemort. …Except any item, special to mundane, can be made into a portkey and we see this done with a simple boot in the opening. Why an elaborate plot, instead of Crouch Jr, disguised as Mad Eye Moody just summoning Harry to his office and saying “Bring me that portke-I-mean-book over there” and being done with it? Instead, they go allow Potter to go through multiple tournament rounds any one of which could have resulted in his death, thus preventing Voldemort’s resurrection. That’s the entire plot of the film, and it’s a pretty big friggin’ hole. (I still have fun watching it, provided enough popcorn is on hand.)
Grigori’s motivation is more like a pot hole than plot hole, though a fairly sizable one. It’s something you feel when you drive over it, but you keep on going and forget about it by the end. Instead of 90% of the plot not making sense, maybe only 5% of it is off. And fortunately for Stranger Things, this happens very early on in the season so we get distracted by all the more exciting stuff happening later, and it wasn’t dealing with the flesh golem plot line, so we’re not even paying as much attention to the details (we really want to know the mechanics of the Mind Flayer and his army).
It’d be tempting to say “better writers would have caught it,” but then I’d have to ask “who are those better writers?” In TV right now, maybe Vince Gilligan, but I’m pretty sure he’s busy. Having done enough editing work myself, I know just how little big companies like to spend on editing, and how many bigger issues were probably caught and fixed. Still, it’s just one of those basic writing boxes to make sure is checked: every character needs their own internally-consistent reasons for their actions.
I won’t go into length on this, but to make characters serve the plot (what Byers calls the “false, necessary conclusion”), a writer needs to simply acknowledge the problem, and then give two reasons why it’s happening anyways. Our primitive lizard brains easily buy “two reasons for Y are better than one reason for X.” “Sure, Grigori is now tipping off Hopper that something else is going on, but [reason 1], and [reason 2], so he attacks him.” Perhaps (with the inclusion of a later scene with Grigori’s bosses): “Sure, Grigori risks tipping Hopper off, but it seems Hopper knows something is up with the gate already (why else be at the lab?), and he may be top American agent (why else is he involved in covering up what happened?), so, he has to die.” Just make Joyce scaring him off more believable, and it all comes together.
Again, not a huge issue, and the rest of the season doesn’t suffer for this, but Byers’s Sure-But-And-So is an extremely efficient way to quickly patch a writing pot hole.