In season one of Stranger Things, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) was a take on the classic 1980s movie bully—popular, good-looking, dating the girl the scrappy underdog hero liked, and a total asshole. By the end of that season, we learned that Steve isn’t quite the raging asshole he seems, and in season two, we watched as he became the dad friend to a pack of feral children who fight monsters. Suddenly, Steve Harrington was no longer the classic bully, but part of the gang—the most dependable member of the monster squad. Now, in Stranger Things 3, Steve evolves again, this time into captain of the Scoops Troop and the LGTBQ ally no one saw coming. Steve’s arc over three seasons is one of the most interesting and rewarding elements of Stranger Things.
Steve’s turnabout is so significant I wonder if it’s the reason for Billy showing up in season two and becoming the Mind Flayer’s host in season three. Was this supposed to be Steve all along? He was originally introduced as the high school hotshot who bullied our heroes, after all. It’s just that Joe Keery is SO likeable and it turns out, he has fantastic chemistry with the kid-cast of Stranger Things—better chemistry, even, than Charlie Heaton and Natalia Dyer, whose characters, Jonathan and Nancy, were originally set up as the monster squad’s allies with drivers’ licenses. But in season two that started to shift, as Jonathan and Nancy went off on an adventure of their own and Steve stepped up to (badly) supervise the monster squad, a dynamic that holds in season three. It kind of seems like Steve—and Keery—turned out to be such an asset to the show that the Duffer Brothers elected to keep him around and write in another town bully to become the Mind Flayer’s victim.
Planned or not, Steve becoming part of the monster squad meant he had to grow past his bully roots. Season two is largely invested in him losing his most popular status in school—truly supplanted by Billy—and season three shows Steve post-graduation, not going to college and stuck in Hawkins in a dead-end job. Cool Guy Steve Harrington is no more. Even his famous hair is a wreck, smashed down by his lame Scoops Ahoy uniform hat. That hat is Steve’s Delilah, robbing him of the source of his power. There is no impressing hot girls with that hat on, and he knows it.
The magic of Steve Harrington, besides being the most ultra-dad friend of all time, is that the lamer Steve gets, the better he is as a character. Bully Steve was pretty one note, but this season, peaked-in-high-school loser Steve is a fully realized character, and one of the most interesting on the show. He’s dealing with disappointment over not going to college, he’s not cool anymore, all his friends are twelve, and he has no girlfriend. But this is also when Steve shines the brightest. He is at his bravest, defying Russian spies, protecting his brood of feral children, and being an unexpected yet amazing friend to Robin when she comes out to him, even though it means his own disappointment as his crush will go unrequited. Steve absorbs Robin’s revelation, processes his feelings, and immediately comes through to support the woman who is, first and foremost, his friend. We should all be so lucky to have a friend as accepting and supportive as Steve.
Since Stranger Things has decided not to have a theme or a point, the entire purpose of the show becomes the characters as objects worth watching. There is no character on Stranger Things more worth watching than Steve, who is also one of the only characters to have a real developmental arc. Most of the characters either stay in their lane (Will Byers), or they see-saw wildly between emotional extremes for no discernible reason (Hopper, who is unaccountably a rage monster this season). But Steve has trekked from stereotypical bully to dad friend to steadfast true friend. He has suffered losses and learned and grown with each one, unlike 90% of the characters on Stranger Things, who keep f-cking up in the exact same ways. It’s almost okay that Stranger Things isn’t about anything if we can just keep watching the continuing evolution of Steve Harrington.