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The Man Who Was Memed: What’s Next for Steve Harrington on ‘Stranger Things’?

From Mean Jock to Cool Babysitter, Steve’s journey has been one of the series’ most surprising. Now, as he takes a job scooping ice cream at a mall, we head into the unknown.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Adjusting on the fly is an essential skill for crafting a television series—it’s how Breaking Bad, for instance, went from expecting to kill Jesse Pinkman in the first season to giving the character his own spinoff movie. Stranger Things has done a lot of that: It’s easy to forget that the Duffer brothers initially envisioned an anthology series that would tackle new characters and locations every season. (Presumably under the pretext of more ’80s nostalgia.) But with a roster of adorable, impeccably cast kids, a resurgent Winona Ryder, slimy creatures, and a ton of fun ’80s throwbacks, Stranger Things became one of Netflix’s biggest original hits. And so the Duffer brothers have stayed in Hawkins, Indiana, for three seasons and counting.

Obviously, nobody expected Stranger Things to get as big as it did—just like nobody expected Barb, a minor character, to become so beloved by the internet that actress Shannon Purser would inexplicably earn an Emmy nomination. In turn, Season 2 emphasized—in a really contrived way that felt like the show explicitly addressing the internet fervor—that Hawkins also wanted #JusticeForBarb. Thankfully, not all of Stranger Things’ adjustments have felt as haphazard. The evolution of Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery) has been one of Stranger Things’ most satisfying character developments—one that the third season will, hopefully, continue to mine in clever and enterprising ways.

When Steve was introduced in the first season as Nancy Wheeler’s hookup turned boyfriend and the self-professed king of high school, he was a one-dimensional jock. (Albeit one with an impressive, next-level grooming regimen.) And how do things usually go for the asshole-jock archetype in an ’80s-era horror series? Yeah, Steve seemed like a prime candidate to get torn apart by the Demogorgon—and initially, that’s exactly what the Duffer brothers planned for him. Instead, as Ross Duffer explained, the team “fell in love” with Keery’s performance during his audition, and Steve was retrofitted into a character who not only survives, but holds some pleasantly redeeming qualities.

Steve wasn’t exactly a great dude during that first season; he was complicit in his friends’ slut-shaming of Nancy, and generally acted like a jerk. The biggest complaint with Stranger Things is that it coasts too much on nostalgia and references to Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter. But Steve being the Jock With Feelings felt like one of the show’s most organic and subversive developments, and a sign that Stranger Things had more than just clever callbacks up its sleeve.

With Keery’s character bumped up to series regular for the second season, things took another unexpected but endearing turn. Nancy and Steve broke up, and a newcomer with a kickass mullet named Billy (Dacre Montgomery) threatened to take his spot as the coolest kid in school. (Billy absolutely wrecks Steve during basketball practice, although one questions Steve’s decision to post up Billy near the 3-point line when he could’ve initiated the Princeton offense.) After wallowing in self-pity over his breakup and demotion in the social hierarchy, Steve aligned himself with the much younger Dustin, who was raising a tiny and vicious “demo-dog” in his home.

So began a genuinely charming bromance between an estranged jock having an identity crisis and an unapologetic dweeb who inadvertently raised a monster. Their characters’ compatibility was heightened by the excellent chemistry between Keery and Gaten Matarazzo, who were simultaneously sharing their IRL bromance on Twitter. And while Steve didn’t have nearly as meaningful a bond with the rest of Dustin’s friends, adorned with a nail-studded baseball bat and lots of stern words, he still gamely accepted his responsibility as the group’s guardian/babysitter/dad. He was so good in this new role, in fact, that the internet quickly embraced some dank Dad Steve memes. Netflix got in on the fun, too, thereby confirming Dad Steve’s mainstream prevalence.

Dad Steve was another impressive pivot for a character who’s probably evolved more than anyone else on the series. It was, once again, not originally intended: the Duffer brothers wanted to find something for Steve to do after his breakup, and realized that Dustin was also off doing his own thing and could use a scene partner. The unexpected pairing and subsequent bromance was among Stranger Things’ greatest masterstrokes, and an instant highlight of the second season—made all the more pleasant because it truly came out of left field. Imagine explaining to someone who’s watched only a few episodes of the first season that, yeah, the dude who smashed Jonathan Byers’s camera is a potent source of memes, profound character moments, and intense fan adoration.

But with Steve’s status as a fan favorite secured heading into the third season, the question remains: What’s next for him? In a literal sense, he’s going to the new supersize mall that’s opened up in Hawkins: The footage we’ve seen of Steve shows more bromantic moments with Dustin, but also a job scooping ice cream in a dorky sailor’s costume. As executive producer Shawn Levy assured fans in March: “We’ll definitely get to see some more of Steve Harrington in Season 3, and I’ll just say we won’t be abandoning the Dad Steve magic.”

It’s unsurprising that Stranger Things would look to capitalize on Dad Steve—and certainly, the show should. But giving the fans what they want shouldn’t come at the expense of further character development for a surprisingly nuanced character. Because viewers were upset that Barb was unceremoniously killed by the Demogorgon, Barb’s parents were introduced in the second season just to mourn for a while, a bizarre detour that screamed, “Mea culpa.” Hopefully, Stranger Things will have some restraint when it comes to Dad Steve and won’t forget that he was a really interesting character before he became a great meme, not just because of it.

Just as the series will likely explore how the lives of its youngest characters are changing as they approach the terrifying and hormonal trials of adolescence, it may be wise to mine the depths of Steve’s ennui post–high school. A couple of seasons ago, he was the coolest kid in school—now he’s got a dead-end job at the mall, serving ice cream. (What happened to that job with his dad? TBD.) Does Steve really want to hang out in Hawkins for the rest of his life? Does he have aspirations beyond managing his god-level hair? Does he miss being the big guy on campus? And if this screengrab from the first trailer is anything to go off of, WILL HE SURVIVE THIS GIANT SYRINGE GOING STRAIGHT INTO HIS NECK?

Netflix

Maybe the roles this season will be inverted: This time, Dad Steve may need to be rescued by the kids. That’s fine with me, so long as we get enough of Steve Harrington the character, and not just the man who would be memed.