**Spoiler warning for seasons 1-3 of Stranger Things.**
Steve Harrington has been a fan favorite on Netflix’s Stranger Things for a good long time now and only gained more love after season 3 dropped in July. At the very beginning of the show, Steve fit right into the ’80s stereotype of the popular jock kid who rules the school, and for a good portion of season 1, he went back and forth between really fitting into the role of being “King Steve,” as he was called, and showing his more real side.
Season 1 saw a fine line drawn between these two aspects of the character. His friend group primarily consisted of other kids that threw parties, drank, and generally filled the small town popular group category quite well. He was dating Nancy Wheeler, who fell pretty far out of his social circle, though, which was really where the line between Steve’s stereotype role and more two-dimensional self started to appear.
Many people came out of season 1 saying they really disliked or hated Steve, and that’s a completely fair reaction. When you have a character that was originally meant to only fill a stereotypical role, and a generally negative one, it makes sense that people wouldn’t like that character very much. He made poor choices in how he reacted to things; from starting a back-alley fight with Jonathan Byers, jumping to the conclusion that Nancy was cheating on him, and participating in painting those suspicions across the theater in town.
While he did have a handful of moments where he made some better choices in season 1, like when he apologized for being ”a total dick” to Nancy and helped to fight off the Demogorgon at the end of the season, it’s fair to say that Steve spent a good portion of season 1 fitting into his stereotypical ’80s role, and that “total dick” description, for the most part. There was plenty to not like about him and the choices he made.
So, season 1 Steve was a bit of an asshole who got thrown into a monstrous situation along with the rest of the cast of Stranger Things. It would have been easy to let him stay that way, especially when one considers that Steve lives in a small town where the popular rich kid normally doesn’t have to have a character arc of any sort, but what sets Steve Harrington apart is that by season 2, he doesn’t fall back into season 1 behavior. He comes to realize that he was making poor decisions about how to act and how he was treating the people around him. You can see him consciously making an effort in season 2 and 3 to be a better person.
This is especially evident in the sudden friendship Steve develops with Dustin Henderson.
Steve is pulled into the hunt for Dart after Dustin asks if he still has his bat, and from there, it’s a quick slide into his new role as best babysitter. Steve may not outright choose to be pulled into the Demodog business, but he steps in when he needs to and does a pretty good job of making sure the kids don’t end up dead.
He gains a pretty fantastic found family of sorts in the Party and the rest of the ragtag main characters. Compared to the somewhat superficial friends Steve had previously, Steve really finds a fit within the group. He’s their friend and comes to really care about the “shitheads” that are now a huge part of his life thanks to all the Upside Down goings-on. Steve goes out of his way for them, even when doing so clearly puts him in danger.
This sort of growth is only furthered in season 3. Steve has matured a great deal over the course of the show and finds himself in a not-so-great summer job after having graduated from high school. His very first scene is him attempting to hit on some girls as they order ice cream at Scoops Ahoy! and ultimately failing. He even says himself that he “has no future.” The stereotypes of season 1 have essentially been left in the dust by this point. Steve has no luck with girls, is working a job that he’s not overly enthusiastic about, and is in that uncomfortable period right after high school where he’s left wondering what’s happening next.
Throughout season 3, it’s made clear that Steve is kind of stuck for the summer, with no college in his near future and a sense of uncertainty. Mix in a secret Russian base beneath the workplace and a new best friend in the form of Robin Buckley, and Steve’s got a lot going on in season 3. But Steve’s arc subverts what we might expect to happen to him throughout this season. He’s the guy that has become a better person, and this is normally something that is rewarded by the narrative in some way, most often in the form of a love interest.
This was apparently almost the case, but in the end, Steve gets no new love interest. We’re given the idea that Robin may fill the role of this potential love interest early on, but after she comes out to Steve as a lesbian towards the latter half of the season, Steve’s romantic prospects are left unfulfilled. Steve isn’t rewarded by the narrative for becoming a better person in the traditional way. He just realized that he wasn’t all that great, made an effort to be better, and gained some very close friends along the way, as opposed to a love interest.
Steve’s subsequent character arc throughout the show is truly something refreshing. We see him grow from a teen whose generally good intentions are muddled behind a popular-guy persona, who makes poor choices, to someone who realized that he was being shitty and makes the effort to become a better person. He genuinely cares about his friends and goes out of his way to show it in his actions and decisions. He took the time to better himself, and it pays off in the form of real friendships and personal growth.
The ’80s stereotype he was meant to be has been shed completely by the end of season 3, and we’re left with a character who feels very real in more than one way.
Paige Lyman is a geeky writer with a focus on fiction and a serious love for pop culture. When she’s not buried in her latest writing projects, she’s hunkered down with her Playstation 4, re-watching Lilo and Stitch for the 1,000th time, and is an avid fan of Star Wars.
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