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From Bad Boyfriend to Beloved Babysitter: Steve Harrington from Stranger Things

It’s fair to say the increasing cast of characters in Stranger Things have firmly stuck in the minds of fans. There’s quite a range of colourful personalities that cast a wide net to capture the audience. But the one character who worked his way into our hearts is Steve Harrington. Despite starting off as a bit of an antagonist, his development ensured he quickly became a fan favourite. Let’s have a look at what makes him so beloved.

Season 1: Jerk Boyfriend

When we first meet Steve, he’s dating Nancy Wheeler. At school, he’s the most popular guy, nicknamed ‘King Steve’ as a result. His group of popular kids involve Tommy Hagan and Carol Perkins, mean-spirited bullies who mocked him for dating Nancy. Together, they would pick on Jonathan Byers, going so far as to break his camera and tear up his photographs. Steve also called Jonathan homophobic slurs in the first season as part of his bullying. So, you know, not the most likeable of guys.

Steve’s rivalry with Jonathan is probably the most significant aspect of his plot in Season 1. Jonathan’s crush on Nancy spurs this on. At Steve’s house party in Episode 2, “The Weirdo on Maple Street,” Jonathan photographs Nancy in secret, and Steve later discovers these photos. This is what causes him and his friends to smash up the camera. Although this is cruel, I can’t really blame Steve’s reaction, considering how creepy it is that Jonathan was hiding in a bush taking pictures of his girlfriend without her knowledge. However, Steve’s motivations don’t take into consideration Nancy’s feelings, only his own jealousy.

Nancy’s feelings in regards to Barb’s disappearance are also neglected by Steve. She tells Steve about going to the police, recounting the circumstances of Barb going missing. Instead of supporting Nancy, or doing what he can to help Barb, he instead complains that now his parents will find out about the house party he hosted. Not getting into trouble is his priority above anyone else, showing selfishness and a significant lack of empathy. All-in-all, he’s a pretty terrible boyfriend.

Nancy and Steve in a bathroom at Hawkins School in Season 1

To his merit, Steve recognises he was wrong in their argument and goes to Nancy’s house to make amends. Instead of this resolving the situation, it makes things a hundred times worse, as he discovers Jonathan in her bedroom with her and assumes she’s cheating with him. This leads to a fist fight between Steve and Jonathan in Episode 6, “The Monster,” after Steve calls Nancy a “slut.” Ironically, Steve loses the fight by a mile; even Tommy has to intervene to protect Steve. Though he’s been built up as some kind of tough guy jock, Steve’s bark is proven to be worse than his bite. Getting beaten up by a nerd has gotta hurt that ego.

The fight clearly brings Steve down a peg, since that’s the catalyst of his fallout with Tommy and Carol. After the fight, the two of them continue being rude about Jonathan and Nancy, and Steve finally calls them out for being “assholes.” He defends Nancy, pointing out that she “actually cares about other people,” and walks away from the bullies. This is the turning point for Steve, finally distancing himself from bad friends that enabled his own nasty behaviour.

In the Season 1 finale, “The Upside Down,” Steve once again makes an effort to rectify things by heading to Jonathan’s house to apologise. His timing is even worse than when he went to Nancy’s; she and Jonathan are about to fight the Demogorgon right as Steve shows up. Even Steve’s words would have been enough to show his redemption, as he takes full responsibility for his actions and states, “I just want to make things right.” However, the timing of it gives him the opportunity to take direct action in defending Nancy and Jonathan by joining in on the fight against the Demogorgon. He is completely on their side now, doing all he can to support them, despite not having a clue what’s going on. This shows bravery and selflessness, a considerable improvement from how he started off the season.

Steve’s change of heart had so much of an effect on Nancy that the two start dating again right at the end of Season 1. An alliance between Steve and Jonathan has also been made, so the three characters are on the same page with mutual respect and friendship. 

Steve, Nancy, and Jonathan aiming weapons at the Demogorgon in the Season 1 finale

Season 2: Becoming Part of the Group

Only a couple of episodes into Season 2, Steve is berated by Nancy for his lack of empathy towards Barb’s parents, as he thinks that telling them the truth about Barb is a bad idea. Her point is valid, however it’s obvious that Steve’s angle concerns the protection of their group at large, as agents may come after them if they start mouthing off about the Upside Down. Already, he’s shifted from self-interest to protecting those around him.

Unfortunately, Nancy gets drunk at a Halloween party shortly afterwards. She brings up the same discussion, a little more heated this time, fuelled by the alcohol. Except this time, she lets slip that she doesn’t love Steve. As reactions go, I’d say Steve’s is pretty standard. He leaves the party, and confronts Nancy about their conversation the next day. Even sober, Nancy can’t tell Steve she loves him, which confirms his anxieties. Funnily enough, it was always Nancy who felt Steve didn’t take their relationship seriously, but it’s Nancy’s lack of feelings that ends it. The fact that Steve is so visibly crushed demonstrates his genuine care for Nancy. 

To rub salt in the wound, new boy Billy Hargrove and his old friend Tommy start mocking Steve. After making a botched move during school basketball, Steve draws Billy’s attention, who points out how he used to be “King Steve.” He implies that Nancy and Jonathan are already dating, and also that he’s more attractive to women than Steve. Essentially, Billy has filled Season 1 Steve’s boots. This emphasises his downfall even more, proving he’s already no longer the popular jock he once was.

Left with no proper friends, Steve ends up getting recruited by Dustin Henderson to help him with D’Artagnan, a baby Demodog that Dustin accidentally adopted. Their interaction is pure coincidence, as Steve is once again looking for Nancy to make amends with her. In a roundabout way, he proves himself to be loyal and loving by protecting her little brother and his friends. But it’s not a method to get closer to Nancy; Steve genuinely cares for the kids and does his best to protect them.

Throughout Season 2, Steve and Billy’s rivalry escalates. It’s evident from quite early on that Billy is abusive towards his step-sister, Max Mayfield, who becomes part of the main friend group of kids. Since Steve’s journey throughout Season 2 involves befriending and helping the kids, it’s inevitable that he butts heads with Billy. By the final episode, “The Gate,” he ends up facing off against Billy in a physical fight in order to protect Max from him. It’s an obvious parallel with his fight with Jonathan towards the end of the previous season, especially since Steve appears to be the weaker one yet again. He just can’t get a break! Max cleverly intervenes and saves Steve by drugging Billy—although Steve tries to save the kids, they ironically always end up saving him. But his intentions are good, and that’s what matters.

Billy and Steve in a standoff against one another in Season 2

Another important breakthrough in Season 2 is Steve’s reconciliation with Nancy. She sees the goodness in him now, while he accepts she doesn’t have feelings for him anymore. Even more so, Steve actually encourages her to start dating Jonathan. As opposed to in Season 1, he’s now prioritising her feelings over his own, which shows real development and strength of character. His motivations now involve looking after the kids, as he tells her, “I may be a sh*tty boyfriend, but turns out I’m a pretty damn good babysitter.” Instead of pursuing something doomed to fail, he’s now got the maturity to let it go and focus on something he’s good at. Well, he does end up getting knocked out and wakes up to find Max driving, with the other kids holding gasoline, so his babysitting skills are questionable…but he does what he can to avoid putting the kids in direct danger. 

Realising he can’t stop them, Steve joins the kids as they enter the tunnels in the Season 2 finale. What he can do, however, is lead the way with his signature spiky baseball bat. This method sets the tone for Steve’s role in the group in future seasons. We finish the season with an even more likeable version of Steve. It only gets better from here!

Season 3: Scoops Ahoy!

After pressure from his dad to get a job, Steve spends Season 3 working at the ice cream parlour Scoops Ahoy. He’s quite down-hearted this season; his grades weren’t good enough to get into college, he’s no longer with Nancy, and he’s generally having bad luck in his love life. Any attempts to flirt with customers fails drastically. It could obviously be a low self-esteem thing, but Steve’s awkwardness with women is ironic considering his previous status as the most popular, attractive guy at his school. We never actually saw him get with Nancy in the first place, so for all we know, he could have been just as bad at flirting back then.

So, with a lack of prospects and a crushed ego, Steve jumps on the opportunity to help Dustin. The two of them become even closer throughout the season, as Dustin is pretty much constantly at the ice cream parlour distracting him from work. Steve and Dustin have a very brotherly relationship, forever teasing one another, but you know ultimately they’d do anything to protect each other.

Steve and Robin in their Scoops Ahoy uniforms in Season 3

A new addition to the cast in Season 3 is Robin Buckley, Steve’s co-worker and former classmate. Along with Steve and Dustin, she joins the good fight, using her intelligence to help the group. Her friendship with Steve is an integral part of the season for him, as they’re both in the same boat with their job and uncertain path in life. Robin’s cheerful attitude boosts Steve’s morale, and it’s also really nice seeing him form a strong platonic bond with a woman, as we’ve not seen that so far. Their dynamic is refreshing and fun!

Now, Steve does get feelings for Robin in Season 3. However, the typical match-making is subverted when Robin comes out to him as a lesbian. Steve responds with acceptance and kindness, which demonstrates his character development from Season 1, when he used homophobic language in bullying Jonathan. He now has more empathy, and above anything values his friendship with Robin. Of course, the bar is low, but it’s important to acknowledge this is set in the 1980s, when homophobia was a lot more rife, especially with the timing of the AIDS crisis. Coming out, particularly to a guy that fancies her, would have been a huge deal for Robin, so everything hinged on Steve’s response. It’s a real turning point for him, and it also deepens his bond with Robin, securing their friendship.

Away from the main action, Steve, Dustin, and Robin have their own little investigation plot in Season 3, mostly by accident. They’re also joined by Erica Sinclair, Lucas’s sister, making for a cool team. Working at Scoops Ahoy turns out to be a convenient choice for Steve, as it gives them easy access to a secret Russian lab underneath the Starcourt mall. Once again, it’s the younger kids that drive the action and prove their competence; Steve and Robin get captured by the Russians and have to be rescued by Dustin and Erica. Bless Steve, he tries his best, but he’s still a himbo.

Season 4: Single Dad Babysits Unruly Kids

Moving on from Scoops Ahoy, Steve and Robin are working at Family Video when Season 4 begins, a few months later. He’s a lot happier now, getting to spend most of his time with a supportive best friend. Their friendship is even more concrete now, as Steve attempts to give Robin relationship advice by encouraging her to ask out a girl she fancies. Because they’re so close, Nancy assumes they’re dating. When she questions him on this, Steve denies it but keeps Robin’s identity a secret to protect her. Again, the bar is low, as outing a queer person is a pretty awful thing to do. But it shows that Steve cares deeply for his friend and will do everything he can to support her.

Robin, Steve, and Eddie in the caravan making a getaway in Season 4

As always, Steve maintains his role as the babysitter of the group in Season 4. He’s essentially the dad at this point, taking the kids under his wing and doing what he can to make sure no harm comes to them. He takes on an important role in protecting Max, the person in most danger, in Season 4. It reflects how he’s been there for her since she moved to Hawkins. First, he stood up against her abusive brother, now he’s watching over her while Vecna’s after her. In a way, Steve is the brother Max never had. He’s the brother Billy should have been.

The responsibility of protecting Eddie Munson also partly falls on Steve. After he goes into hiding from murder accusations, Dustin goes to find him and brings Steve and Robin with him. Dustin is the common ground between Eddie and Steve—they’re both good friends and older brother figures to him. Therefore, they bond over teasing Dustin, which is amusing and wholesome. Additionally, the fact that Steve bonds with a guy who was a nerdy, non-conformist outsider at school, the polar opposite to Steve, again shows his character development. His ability to empathise with those who are unpopular and different from him goes to show he’s changed a lot since Season 1.

Another demonstration of Steve’s maturity in Season 4 is his interactions with Nancy. It’s evident he still has feelings for her, and he discusses this with Robin. Instead of being too forward with Nancy, he remains at a comfortable, friendly distance as he works through his feelings. In the final episode, Steve does end up confessing that he still loves her. However, he places no expectations on her to reciprocate. He simply wants to get it off his chest, considering he’s likely assuming at this point that one or both of them might die in the Upside Down. Even once the danger has passed (well, at least they think it has), Steve doesn’t push Nancy. She acknowledges how he’s changed, saying to Jonathan that he’s “grown up” a lot now.

In confessing his feelings to Nancy, Steve mentions his ideal picture of his future that he brought up earlier in the season. Previously, he admitted dreaming of having six kids and travelling in a little caravan with them, adding that he always pictured Nancy there with him. In my opinion, this isn’t pushing expectations of childbirth on Nancy. He’s simply describing what his dreams and ambitions are, and the nurturing role is placed on him rather than her. This is a nice rejection of stereotypical masculinity, as Steve’s caring, parental nature is emphasised. It also makes sense that after babysitting the kids for a few seasons, Steve has finally realised that that’s what he wants out of life. Caring for others is something he’s good at, so he’s content with this role. He’s also purposely rejecting the toxic, negative, patriarchal approach of his own father, who is implied to be controlling and strict on various occasions.

Steve looking confused, stood in the forest in Season 4

Steve comes out of the other end of Season 4 a mature, kind-hearted, brave person. We see him accompany Robin and Dustin to Hawkins High School with donations for those who have been made homeless or injured from the events of the finale. After heading into the Upside Down, fighting the Demobats, facing Vecna head-on, he’s all the more stronger for it. However, it’s not this tough, battle-proficient aspect of Steve that defines him. It’s his empathy and willingness to put others first. It’s no wonder that he worked his way into our hearts when he is the very heart of the show himself.

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Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world. Follow them on Twitter @robinmoonwrites!

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