How Steve Harrington Became The Best Thing About ‘Stranger Things’
It's not *all* about the hair.
Spoilers for seasons one and two of Stranger Things!
By now, most of you will have watched at least some of Stranger Things 2, and there’s one thing you (and the rest of the world) will have noticed: Steve Harrington is now fucking amazing.
Much to many people’s surprise, Joe Keery’s popular jock, who in season one had a relatively small part battling against the outsider (creep?) Jonathan Byers for Nancy Wheeler’s affections, has been rounded out rather nicely in season two. Keery can balance humour and pathos better than most young actors on the screen, he can toss out an affectionate half-smile on a dime, and he wears his coiffed ’80s mullet very, very well.
Now he’s managing a complete, charming, foolish and funny character, who is actually a huge part of the resounding success of Stranger Things‘ highly anticipated second season.
The evolution of Steve Harrington hasn’t gone unnoticed by the vast majority of the Thirsty Internet. Article after article about the New Steve Harrington has exploded online — as far as media coverage goes, it’s clear Steve is the new fan favourite.
This isn’t a coincidence. Whether it’s down to the creators’ development of the character, Keery’s raw magnetism or a combination of both, Steve Harrington’s Hot Bully character captured many by the end of season one. His season two evolution may be some of the best and most productive fan service in pop culture history. So, how did we get here?
Uh Oh, Season One Steve Harrington
So, hands up if you thought Season One Steve Harrington was still pretty cute? Of course you did. I mean, look at him!
But, honestly, Season One Steve Harrington was a bit of a dick. I mean, he kinda coerced Nancy into sex with him before she was totally ready, then he slut-shamed her publicly. He also ripped up Jonathan’s stalker pics of Nancy, which is mean but also kind of understandable (hey men in TV and movies: stop stalking girls!). Season One Steve Harrington was a smarmy jock/bully, but in a kinda cute and adorably extra way.
I certainly rooted for Steve in season one, but I know many other fans of Stranger Things would’ve preferred that Nancy ended up with Jonathan Byers at the series’ end. (Spoiler: when they do eventually get together, it’s about as boring and creepy as Jonathan is himself.) And, when you think about it, beyond his relationship with Nancy, Season One Steve Harrington really had very little to do with the main Stranger Things story — with missing Will Byers, frantic Joyce and the triumph of Eleven — at all.
That is, until he does, in pretty spectacular fashion. Not only does Steve apologise to Jonathan for his bad behaviour, he also joins forces with Nancy and Jonathan — in a satisfying physical manifestation of a dull love triangle — to fight the Demogoron terrorising the Byers household. It’s here that Steve proves himself as worthy of potential redemption, and integration into the main Stranger Things storyline — and he earns himself a signature weapon to boot. We’re poised, as season one draws to a close, for a very different Steve Harrington in Stranger Things 2.
Still, something about Keery’s hypnotic performance, his doe eyes and his flippity floppity hair (because, be honest, a lot of the appeal of Steve Harrington is the hair) caught the eyes of Stranger Things audienc. Then the Steve Harrington hype caught the attention of the Duffer Bros.
Matt and Ross Duffer, the show’s creators, admitted that Keery’s performance captured the creative team during the show’s first series. “We love Joe”, Ross Duffer told The Hollywood Reporter. “Steve was supposed to be this jocky douchebag, and Joe was so much more than that. We knew moving into season two we really wanted to utilise him, but we didn’t actually know how to do it — especially once Nancy moves on. We didn’t know quite what to do with him.”
“Steve was supposed to be this jocky douchebag, and Joe was so much more than that.”
It certainly feels like the Duffer Bros tapped into Keery’s naturally sweet acting style to give him a little more depth and range to play around with in season two. And it’s not the first time a TV series or film has expanded a fan favourite character in later chapters to service the fans.
Think of Pirates Of The Caribbean‘s singular obsession with Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, which took a fan-favourite character (comedic relief for cardboard leads Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly) and turned him into the centre of the series. Depp is now the only one (dumb enough) to re-appear in the latest tired instalments of the series. Or, consider Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer on Parks And Recreation, a character who was originally going to “disappear” after the resolution of The Pit storyline (which is our first introduction to Parks and Recreation in the season one pilot). The creators stuck with him because “[they] were just having so much fun“.
Rounding out a fan favourite character doesn’t always work — something the writers on Glee will remember well from their efforts to put Jane Lynch’s breakout baddie Sue Sylvester front and centre for the latter half of its tortured (but masochistically beloved) run.
Writing on Glee‘s “Sue Sylvester Problem“, Vulture’s Margaret Lyons wrote that, while Sue initially served as a breath of fresh but caustic air in Glee‘s saccharine love-fest, “now Sue’s profound sadism overshadows whatever humour and humanity was left in the character. She no longer has a natural place in the narrative ecosystem of McKinley High. Sue’s role has been reduced to just zingers, and as the other characters make deep connections and forge stronger relationships with one another, Sue hasn’t done that at all.”
Sometimes giving a small but effective supporting player a bigger spotlight only serves to point out how grating one-dimensional comedic relief is when it’s on a larger platform. But not so with Steve, who was cleverly integrated into Stranger Things 2‘s central story, with interesting plot points, emotive character beats and motivations all his own.
The Redemption Of Steve Harrington
Elevating a breakout supporting player to a heroic lead is a task that requires a great deal of dexterity and restraint. What works so well about the Steve Harrington fan service in Stranger Things 2 is, aside from Keery’s excellent performance, there’s nothing the public loves more than the redemptive arc of a Bad Boy.
For as long as straight men have been adorably Bad, straight women have longed to reform them.
Pop culture’s male romantic leads are very loosely separated into two categories: The Nice Guy and The Bad Boy. Think of any great love triangle in pop culture: Carrie/Big/Aidan in Sex and the City, Dawson/Joey/Pacey in Dawson’s Creek, Buffy/Angel/Spike in Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Bridget/Mark/Daniel in Bridget Jones’s Diary. In the love triangle between Nancy/Steve/Jonathan, Jonathan is clearly supposed to be “The Good Guy”, while Bully Steve Harrington is “The Bad Boy”.
But there’s nothing hotter than a reformed Bad Boy; it’s the reason there’s an entire cult in Dawson’s Creek fandom devoted to re-watching the series as ‘Pacey’s Creek‘. For as long as straight men have been adorably Bad, straight women have longed to reform them.
Into this grand tradition strolls Steve Harrington and His Hair, longing to be reformed from season one where, despite still being pretty cute, he did genuinely slut-shame his girlfriend and beat up nerds. So the show brought Steve down by having Nancy drunkenly admit she doesn’t love him, paired him off with the series most loveably innocuous character (Dustin) and built him back up again as a hero, independent of his relationship with Nancy.
It’s the kind of fan service that works a lot better than season two’s more awkward crusade, #JusticeForBarb. #JusticeForBarb feels like an unnatural extension of a storyline that actually ended in season one: Barb died in the Upside Down, it was sad, the end. But the evolution of Steve Harrington serves to round out the entire Stranger Things cast and give the show exciting new directions in which to branch.
Consider his unlikely but adorable relationship with Dustin. Sure, Steve Harrington gives really, really bad romantic advice, but their conversation about Farrah Fawcett hairspray is one of the show’s most singularly delightful nods to the fans — the Duffer Bros know you love Steve’s hair, and they’re giving you a big ol’ cute wink.
Beyond that, Steve’s alliance with Dustin, and then with Lucas, Max and Mike at the end of season two, gives him a new purpose and allows him to integrate into the main story more organically. The show’s fan service (giving us more Steve Harrington to love) is a success beyond mere winks to the viewers, and Stranger Things is a richer and more delightful show for it.
And, if you’re not convinced by Steve Harrington’s Bad Boy Evolution, consider his once-a-season beatings. In season one, he fought with Jonathan and was delivered what many considered to be karmic retribution for his bad, bullying acts. In season two, he stands before the mulleted racist Billy, in defence of his new young charges, and takes a hero’s beating to protect Max, Lucas and the gang. Now that’s what I can a redemption arc.
Stranger Things is streaming on Netflix now.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets @mdixonsmith.