There is no denying the power and pull of Stranger Things. The Netflix drama, which started out as a fairly low-stakes horror series about a young boy going missing in a small Midwestern town, is a bona fide generational hit that sits alongside Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad in the pop culture pantheon. It’s exceptionally enjoyable television. But even so, the show is far from perfect.
Every single one of Season 4’s nine episodes well exceeded an hour in length, testing viewers’ patience as we sat through a season in which our disparate heroes were separated by both physical and emotional distance (or trapped in a Russian prison arc that turned out to be almost completely unnecessary). And even though the season filled in holes in Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) backstory and gave an explanation for her personal connection to the Upside Down, the show’s tendency to repeat the same narrative beats season after season again reared its ugly head. So, all things considered, this was probably the show’s weakest season yet. But through it all, there also remained one bright spot: Joe Keery’s Steve Harrington.
Steve and his perfectly coiffed hair have been on a path of redemption since the end of Season 1, when he bravely returned to fight the Demogorgon after spending much of the season filling the role of quasi-antagonist as a self-centered jock who dates Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer). But Steve’s transformation into the glue of Stranger Things truly began in Season 2. By pairing him with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and allowing him to play the role of babysitter and protector, the Duffer Brothers were able to fully rehabilitate the character, effectively paving the way for him to eventually become the show’s emotional anchor, the beating heart without which the series could not survive.
If you’d tried to predict after Season 1 who would ultimately fill this role, you’d probably have said Dustin (and to an extent, he still nails it when the show gives Matarazzo the opportunity, like his heartbreaking moment with Eddie’s uncle in the finale). But the right combination of actor and character has the potential to change even the best laid plans. Breaking Bad had Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had James Marsters as Spike. Justified had Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder. And Stranger Things has Keery as Steve Harrington. The character who wasn’t supposed to mean much to the overall story has since come to define it. His transformation from narrow-minded jerk to stalwart protector and all-around cool guy has made it impossible to imagine Stranger Things without him. Where would Dustin be without his guidance and friendship? What about Robin (Maya Hawke)? What about the entire town of Hawkins?
This might not be Steve’s story, but he is the heart and soul of Stranger Things, and as such, he is also many viewers’ emotional connection to the show. It is this attachment that is beneficial for the Duffers, because they know they can plug the character into any situation with any character and fans will immediately be invested in the outcome. You want us to care about new guy Eddie (Joseph Quinn)? Pair him with Steve in the Upside Down and allow us to see him through Eddie’s eyes. You want us to care about Nancy and her suddenly precarious relationship with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton)? Put it up against the hair and charisma of a version of Steve who is thoughtfully seeking his own partner and seriously questioning what he wants for his future after years of personal growth.
In Season 4, Steve starts to challenge (or at least question) his role as the group’s de facto babysitter, eager to carve out his place in the world, hopefully beyond the common horrors of Hawkins. While he’s often defined himself by his relationships, his desire for human connection this season is palpable and serves to strengthen the show’s emotional core. While Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) are sweet and Will’s (Noah Schnapp) feelings for Mike (Finn Wolfhard) add a new layer to the complicated relationships between the younger characters, it’s Steve’s yearning for Nancy and the future that creates a grounded center of gravity around which the pervasive horror and supernatural elements can revolve. Regardless of how one ultimately feels about his pining and whether or not Steve deserves a better partner, you cannot deny its ability to constantly remind us what’s at stake.
It helps that Steve is also at the center of the season’s main story arc—Vecna’s (Jamie Campbell Bower) terrifying killing spree in Hawkins—while Eleven, Hopper, and several more characters appear in less exciting but concurrent storylines. However, even if she were in Hawkins, Eleven would not have played a similar role in the story this season. She remains a puzzle for the show to solve, a powerful device that explains why bad, twisted things are coming to Hawkins and beyond.
Unsurprisingly, Brown is excellent this season, drawing empathy during grave revelations about El’s upbringing, but it is also expected that Eleven will persevere. It’s expected that she’ll play the role of the superhero. And it’s expected that she’ll live through it. Steve has none of Eleven’s powers but just as much heart (if not more). He has a drive to protect not just his friends, but everyone around him, too. And sure, you can say that about pretty much everyone in the show at this point, but we must remember that Steve didn’t start out this way. He’s matured. He’s grown into this selfless person over the course of the show. Although there’s no guarantee he’ll survive the next five minutes, he jumps in anyway, and that’s what makes him a compelling hero. That’s what makes him a character worthy of our love and admiration. And perhaps more importantly, that’s what makes us willing to overlook Stranger Things’ biggest flaws. At this point, no one else even comes close to achieving that.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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