When Steve Harrington was introduced in Season 1 of Stranger Things, it seemed, on its face, very obvious what the parameters of his role would be. He had great hair, a set of yuppie parents money, a suburban bad boy streak, and an overbearing hold on his sort-of girlfriend Nancy. He was an archetype in acid-washed jeans. Then, unexpectedly, he redeemed himself by showing genuine kindness and, well, by beating the crap out of a Demogorgon. In Season 2, Steve continues to transform and one of the most notable traits of his character is one of the least expected: He’s great with kids and proud of it.
Note: From here on, this piece contains Stranger Things 2 spoilers. Really big ones. You’ve been warned!
The Duffer Brothers, who write and direct the Netflix bingeables, could have easily made Steve a forgettable red shirt douche. They also could have also forced him into the role of deposed tyrant. Instead, he becomes a babysitter — a really good one — and the weirdest thing about that is that it feels right. It makes sense despite being, especially amid all the 1980s pastiche, very odd. But, then again, the Duffer Brother’s whole thing is upending tropes.
Teenage boys, especially teenage boys depicted in the ’80s, rarely get the “lead a ragtag group of misfits that are four years younger” treatment. There are several tropes about the teen jock, and none of them are very kind: Jerk Jock, Lovable Jock, and the Jerk With a Heart of Gold. We know these characters. What we don’t know is the “Jerk Jock Who Becomes A Complex Character, Respects Kids, and Enjoys Spending Time With Them.” It was not a thing when Spielberg and John Hughes were going head-to-head at the box office. But maybe it should have been. It’s a great twist that leads to maybe the best line of the series: “I may be a pretty shitty boyfriend, but it turns out I’m actually a pretty damn good babysitter.” Fuck yeah, Steve.
That’s not to say that Steve’s character is unrealistic. He is someone who is easily encountered in real life: good-looking and athletic, but most likely cast into a rigid hierarchical role that he probably never wanted. He just had the chops to do it. His main friend in the first season — the freckled kid who is just a real doucher — was the type of kid that gloms onto that type of popularity, that obvious King-dom. But Steve isn’t really interested in any of that. He relinquishes his friends (punching freckled-kid in the face) and instead chooses to be with Nancy, a beautiful girl, but a nerd.
When Steve is around kids, he seems like he’s really being himself. No ego. No bullshit. It could be that he’s interested in the stuff they’re interested in — running around in the woods and hunting scaly, monster dogs — or maybe he just finds the lack of high school nonsense refreshing.
There’s a point in the beginning of Season 2 where Steve mentions to Nancy that he could stick around in Hawkins instead of going away to college. Of course, him saying that meant it was impossible and couldn’t happen, at least not in the way that he envisioned it (in the same way that when Bob mentioned moving to Maine, we knew he was going to die.) But beyond Nancy, it was also Steve’s way of avoiding adulthood and clinging to a more innocent past. Something he sees — despite the battle between a netherworld and our world — in Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Max, and Will. We’ve met some version of this kid in high school, but we’ve never seen him explored very often in popular culture. It’s good to see him along for the party.
Halfway through Season 2, Steve crosses paths with Dustin, who’s trying to kill his juvenile Demogorgon, D’artagnan. Their immediate connection has not only become meme-ified in internet culture but it also points to what a good person (and how good with kids) Steve actually is. Instead of ignoring Dustin, Steve talks to him with respect and doesn’t rag on him for his very obvious nerdiness. In what might be one of the best exchanges in the season, Steve shares his haircare secret with Dustin, who had recently expressed his adoration of Max. Steve recognized that Dustin was down and reacted by sharing something he once said he wouldn’t. It’s a great move, and one that shows a nimble understanding of what it means to be there for a young kid. Sure, Steve calls the gang “Shitheads,” but it’s not because he thinks they’re shitheads. He’s just exhausted from trying to keep them alive.
Steve also protects the kids from more than tulip-faced monsters. When he fights Max’s stepbrother, Billy, he’s not doing so to protect his spot at the top of the social food chain or to win anyone’s heart. He’s trying to protect Max, a young girl who could genuinely use the help. He reflexively puts himself on the line for a child. This is his first instinct.
The best men in Stranger Things are those who are surrogate fathers. We don’t know much about Lucas’s dad; Dustin’s dad doesn’t seem to be in the picture at all; and while Mike’s dad occupies a physical space, he certainly doesn’t do any parenting. Chief Hopper is in many ways the surrogate dad for all of these kids, not just Eleven. Bob, before his unfortunate demi-demise, is, too. He’s willing to step up when he sees what’s really wrong with Will. No, he doesn’t have a chance to, but there’s a moment between Hopper and Bob where Bob essentially tells Hopper to save everyone else but him. That’s real heroism and real fatherhood.
And it’s nice to see it in a non-adult. Steve is, at most, 18 years old. He doesn’t know anything about being a parent. But as he stands in the pumpkin-patch portal to the Upside Down with a nail-covered bat, willing to die with Dustin than leave him behind, you know he has the heart, too. Sure, he digs adventure. But he’s more than that. He’s become a type of father.
In the epilogue of the final episode, Steve drives Dustin to the Winter Ball, the first true portal into the kids’ budding adulthood. It’s pretty obvious Steve’s not being paid for it — he and Dustin just get along. When Dustin exits the car, going to a dance where he will confront, for the first time, his weirdness, Steve looks at Nancy, shakes his head, and drives away. He loves her, for sure. But there’s more to his life than a lost love. There’s also friendship. And that’s what makes him so good.