Stranger Things fans have no problem suspending their disbelief when it comes to the existence of demogorgons and alternate universes. But there is one thing I can't bring myself to believe, and that's the idea that Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) is anything other than a perfect human being, despite how so many characters — and viewers — treat him like dirt.
During the first season, Steve definitely had his low points, standing back while his friends slut-shamed Nancy (Natalia Dyer) with graffiti around town and lashing out at Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) when he was hurt. But Steve was never the misogynistic, selfish '80s jock cliché that many of the characters (particularly Barb and often Nancy) treated him as. And as Season 2 has made plainly clear, King Steve is dead and gone forever.
Throughout the second season, Steve's status as the high school's cock-of-the-walk is repeatedly challenged by Billy (Dacre Montgomery) and he's never seen with any of his old goons or lackeys. That's because King Steve died the second he picked up that baseball bat to fight the demogorgon, and yet nothing Steve does is ever still good enough for Nancy.
In their big blowout in Season 2's "Trick or Treat, Freak," a drunken Nancy gives Steve a memorable, expletive-riddled speech that reveals she thinks Steve, their whole relationship and how he's coping with their shared trauma is "bullsh--." That night, Nancy tells her boyfriend of a year that she doesn't love him, but the next day, she's too cowardly to own up to her true feelings when Steve confronts her about it.
Steve later apologizes to Nancy, saying he's a "pretty sh---y boyfriend," but that's what's total sh--. It's Nancy who's a sh--ty partner for not being able to understand that people cope with trauma differently. Just because Steve doesn't outwardly show that he's deeply affected by what happened the previous year doesn't mean that he doesn't care. To judge him for that is, to use Nancy's word of choice, bullsh--.
Even according to the show's stars, Steve represents comfort and safety to Nancy, which should be cornerstones of a good relationship, but in this case, is shorthand for boring. In the world of Stranger Things, good guys do finish last. Bob (Sean Astin) was another sweet, but basic love interest who clearly was never going to be endgame for Joyce (Winona Ryder). That honor goes to the more brooding Hopper (David Harbour). So although Steve is reliable, brave and has a great sense of humor, he's never going to be the one true pairing for Nancy because she's always going to be drawn to Jonathan with all of his trust issues, struggles with expressing emotions and various other complications that make him more "interesting."
But if Steve is so nice, why do people hate him so much? Is it because he has awesome hair? Or because he's popular? Has anyone ever stopped to consider that maybe Steve is popular because he's a just a really great guy anyone would be lucky to have in their life? One doesn't have to look farther than his blossoming mentorship with Dustin to see proof of that!
It's easy to forget that Steve and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) never really interacted in the first season, and yet Steve doesn't hesitate when this weird middle schooler demands he grab his trusted baseball bat and go to his storm cellar to fight a monster. And when Steve and the kids are cornered by the demodog in the abandoned school bus, Steve wastes no time before throwing himself in front of the terrified gang of misfits. That's because Steve Harrington is someone you want on your side and someone worth looking up to, especially for an outcast like Dustin.
Sure, his dating advice to Dustin was terrible ("just act like you don't care"), but he's a teenager! What teenage boy do you know has a sound, nuanced grasp on romantic relationships and proper behaviors? And while we're speaking of proper behaviors, let's not pretend that his romantic rival Jonathan would give any better advice. Acting like you don't care is a dick move, yes, but stalking a girl and taking photographs of someone changing can land you in jail! So really, don't judge Steve's flaws and past mistakes unless you're equally willing to judge Jonathan's, OK? Fair is fair.
Of course, in the end, there is no amount of growing Steve could do that would likely ever earn Nancy's affection back. And I'm actually fine with that. Other than dancing with Dustin at the winter dance, Nancy spent most of the season being extremely reckless and fairly selfish, prioritizing easing her own conscience over the risk she was putting her family and Barb's in during her quest to expose the Hawkins Lab. Steve deserves better, and I hope he realizes that soon.
Stranger Things 2 is available to stream on Netflix.