WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the entirety of Stranger Things 2. Read at your own risk!
Expectations were high for Stranger Things 2, but the follow up to last summer's breakout hit successfully expands upon the nostalgia-driven narrative of Season 1 to deliver one of pop culture's truly worthwhile sequels. One of the ways the Duffer Brothers achieve this is by exploring different character dynamics in Hawkins in round two, a decision that results in the unlikely pairing of fan favorite Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and the perfectly coiffed Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).
Now, the endlessly charismatic Matarazzo, arguably the MVP of Season 1 (sorry, Millie Bobby Brown), probably could have been paired with anyone in Season 2 and magic would have sparked. By allowing him to bounce off an equally charming actor in Keery, Stranger Things 2 is able to strike comedy gold while also giving Steve, whose Season 1 storyline largely involved being one of the points in a love triangle, a meatier role within the overall narrative.
But given that Steve and Dustin barely shared any screentime in Season 1, the writers needed to find a way to bring them together, and it's almost comical how natural and easy their relationship is to orchestrate this season. After being dumped by a guilt-ridden Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Steve arrives at the Wheeler residence in the season's fifth episode, "Dig Dug," with flowers and the intention of winning her back. Instead of reuniting with the eldest Wheeler, though, he quickly finds himself being recruited by a determined Dustin as a last resort to help him with the latest threat to Hawkins. Despite the fact they aren't friends -- you could hardly even call them acquaintances at this point -- it actually takes very little to convince Steve to help the younger boy.
For obvious reasons, their unlikely friendship is largely used for laughs throughout the nine-episode season. There's them bonding over girl trouble. There's Dustin forcing Steve down into the storm cellar first because he's afraid. There's Steve shoving a deceased demodog into Joyce's (Winona Ryder) fridge to preserve it for science on Dustin's order.
In all of these situations, Steve brilliantly plays the exasperated straight man to Dustin's endlessly goofy, bossy persona, and it would have been very easy for the show to fall into this sweet spot and never attempt to dig deeper. But if a series of well-placed jokes and gags was all their unlikely relationship was meant to be, this wouldn't be Stranger Things, which has built a familiar, if fantastical, world out of strong characterization and great hair. So it's not at all surprising that along the way the two boys form a genuine friendship as mentor and mentee.
While setting a trap to capture growing-larger-by-the-minute Dart, for example, Steve imparts what little "wisdom" he possesses as a teenager onto Dustin. He gives (admittedly bad) advice about how to win over new girl Max (Sadie Sink) -- high school boys aren't the best at expressing their feelings -- and even goes so far as to reveal the secret to his impeccable hairstyle. Basically, it's all lighthearted fun and games with just the slightest hint of danger hanging over their heads. But when multiple demodogs attack Steve, Dustin, Max and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) at the junkyard, the elder boy wastes no time putting himself between the vicious creatures and the younger children.
It's in this moment that Steve, who's not only lost the girl but now also his alpha status in the high school hierarchy thanks to newcomer Billy (Dacre Montgomery), truly begins to find his place again. He fully accepts his role within the fight to save Hawkins from the monsters of the Upside Down then, and it's through his relationship with Dustin that he's in the position to do so at all.
This friendship is also what allows the series to "redeem" Steve -- if you think he needed redeeming at all. In Season 1, the character appeared to be little more than a stereotypical jerk, even attacking Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and breaking his camera, but he also put aside his issues in the finale and rose to the occasion, something fans of the show might be quick to forget. By taking on Billy and the creatures of the Upside Down in Season 2, his rise to hero is more evident. As the season progresses, the series peels back the cool-guy facade Steve has built up and reminds viewers that he's a real human with real feelings who's just trying to do his best.
Although he jokes to Nancy in the Season 2 finale that he might have been a shitty boyfriend (something that's actually probably up for debate, especially considering the guy she left him for took nudes of her without consent) but has become a pretty good babysitter, the truth is Steve is so much more than that. His place by Dustin's side during Season 2 allows him to become a protector and a voice of reason. It is what eventually gives him the strength to stand up to Billy when he comes looking for Max in the finale. And sure, Steve gets his ass kicked in that altercation, but it's the noble intent that counts. And by the end of the season, he 's emerged as a selfless hero, and it's all because he decided to team up with Dustin on a whim.
But this isn't just about how Dustin helped Steve become a better person. The most important development is actually the genuine bond that has formed between the boys now that they've gone through hell and come out the other side together. Steve has become Dustin's Yoda in sense -- if Yoda gave out questionable dating advice but always meant well when he did it. In their final scene together, Steve drops Dustin -- with his own Steve-inspired hairdo -- off at the Snowball, and gives him encouragement as he prepares to walk into the dance and kill it. It's honest and sweet. After all, what soon to be high school graduate would drive a middle schooler to a dance, complete with a pep talk, if they weren't related? It's obvious that Steve genuinely cares about Dustin and what happens to him in that moment. And that's all you can really ask for in a friend.
Stranger Things 2 is now streaming on Netflix.