Warning: This post contains spoilers for the third season of Stranger Things. Stop reading NOW (!!!) if you haven’t seen it yet.
• Once again, Steve Harrington is the best character in Stranger Things.
• It’s a testament to how far he’s come since season one.
• The Duffer Brothers and Joe Keery both deserve significant credit.
The term “breakout characters” springs two specific names to mind: Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, from long-running ’70s-’80s sitcom Happy Days, and Steve Stifler, the fratboy goofball from the American Pie film series, which saw its original chapter turn 20 this week. With the release of Stranger Things 3, it’s time to start thinking about Steve Harrington in that same company.
The website TV Tropes defines a ‘breakout character’ as when “a minor character that they created for a show suddenly becomes much more popular than the other members of the cast.” With The Fonz, this meant more Happy Days screen time, especially as mainstays like Ron Howard exited the program. Stifler, meanwhile, saw an increased role with each succeeding film—actor Seann William Scott was billed nowhere near the top of the first movie, but by the third film, American Wedding, he was listed second, and the entire movie’s plot essentially revolved around his lewd, vulgar jerk of a character, whom the film series had decided to reform into a Decent Guy™️ .
In both of those cases, there’s an argument to be made that those characters worked better in smaller doses. As Steve Harrington’s character continues to evolve, and see his own role expand—he was recurring for the first season, before being bumped to main cast for the second and third—on Stranger Things, his character just continues to work better and better. Whether its his genuine friendship with the younger kids, or the thrill of watching a former jock come to grips with losing his ‘popular kid’ mojo, Steve has been a consistent highlight for two seasons running. Actor Joe Keery has clearly tapped into something special in his portrayal of the Freak-turned-Geek, and The Duffer Brothers very clearly understand what’s happened.
Consider Steve’s entrance in the first episode of Stranger Things 3. Mike, Lucas, and Will open the season walking through the mall, and they enter the Scoops Ahoy ice cream parlor. “Is he here?” they ask. We know who they’re asking for, but Robin plays dumb at least initially. “Dingus, your children are here!” she announces, as Steve emerges from a sliding door to the parlor’s back room. “Again? Really?” he asks. It’s undoubtably a heroes entrance, and it feels earned.
The mere presence of the Stranger Things kids makes the passage of time clear. Even if they wanted to, the fact that the kids look older now would prevent the writers from establishing anything other than a passage of time—which makes it make sense that Steve, who last season had become a reluctant but outstanding surrogate babysitter to not only Dustin, but several of these younger kids, would continue to have a strong relationship with them.
In fact, since the second season’s debut, Steve’s become a major meme in the Stranger Things community. A video titled “steve harrington being a mom for 5 minutes straight” has over 2 million views on YouTube, and a sequel, titled “steve harrington being a dad.” has passed the million view mark in less than a week since the third season’s debut. It would seem literally impossible for The Duffer Brothers to have somehow missed this sensation—even perhaps their biggest star, David Harbour, frequently gets in on the fun.
So the fact that they’ve written this into the third season is no surprise. After spending the first season supporting the Nancy/Jonathan story, and the second season developing into a great character alongside Dustin, season three gives Steve his own story area to anchor, with Dustin and Robin acting in his support.
Embracing the whole ‘Steve is a mom/dad/high-school-graduate-who-has-befriended-children’ thing, is a dangerous game for Stranger Things; their embracing of the #JusticeForBarb online frenzy led to the least interesting portion of Season 2.
Luckily, the self-awareness here fades as the season goes along (the lone other moment that stands out, a running joke about Steve losing fights to both Billy and Jonathan, works to perfect effect; despite the age difference between their characters, Dustin and Steve were simply born to bicker with one another), and it leaves time for Steve to further establish himself as a reformed jerk.
From their first scene together, it’s clear that Robin and Steve have two things: first, an obvious chemistry between Keery and Hawke, and second, clearly some type of romantic intertwining destined to come—Dustin encourages Steve to pursue her a few times, but Steve declines.
Lo and behold, not long after the pair are drugged, running rampant, and recovering in a bathroom after both vomiting their brains out, Steve starts to tell Robin about how he’s developed feelings for her. She told him previously about how she couldn’t stop staring at him in the class they had together, and he clearly took this to heart.
But, she says, it’s not why he thinks. She wasn’t looking at him because she had a crush—she was looking at him because her crush, Tami Thompson, was looking at him. That’s right—Tami Thompson. It takes Steve a second to process what Robin’s telling him—but he picks up immediately, and doesn’t skip a beat. “Tami Thompson? She’s cute and all, but, I mean, she’s a total dud!” He doesn’t treat Robin any differently. He doesn’t change his tune. He learns, he adjusts, and he keeps his cool.
The scene plays great, which is obviously in part due to the performances from Keery and Hawke. But it’s also a great feat from the Duffers, who clearly know the perfect way to make this ever-evolving character tick.
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