'Stranger Things': How Steve Harrington Became Season 2's Breakout Hero

"It came from a place of not wanting Joe Keery to play the sad sack beat for nine episodes," executive producer Shawn Levy tells THR.
Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: this story contains full spoilers for season two of Netflix's Stranger Things.]

While he wasn't an active participant in the effort to attain justice for Barb (Shannon Purser), the Hawkins High hotshot known as Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) walks away from the second season of Stranger Things as a fan-favorite hero all the same.

At the start of season two, viewers find Steve much as they left him: enjoying a kind-hearted makeover, still in a relationship with Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and overall much more at peace within his own skin than the aggressive front he projected in the first part of the series. But soon, Steve's world crumbles beneath him, thanks to a turbulent Halloween party that culminates in his breakup with Nancy — and much like Steve himself, the Duffers and executive producer Shawn Levy found themselves at a loss about the character's next steps.

"We love Joe," Ross Duffer tells The Hollywood Reporter about working with Keery, the man who brings Steve Harrington (and his hair) to luscious life. "We fell in love with him during the making of season one, which is why we ended up writing that arc for him where he's helping to save the day with Jonathan [Charlie Heaton] and Nancy. Steve was supposed to be this jocky douche bag, and Joe was so much more than that. We knew moving into season two we really wanted to utilize him, but we didn't actually know how to do it — especially once Nancy moves on. We didn't know quite what to do with him."

According to Levy, the answer about Steve's evolving role in the story came to light halfway into the writing process: "The storyline of Steve Harrington in the second half of season two was completely unanticipated in the outlines for this season. That was the Duffer Brothers reacting to what they were seeing in the first couple of episodes and having the audacity to say, 'You know what? We have a better idea. We're going to completely change the game plan for episodes five through nine.' "

The result: Steve crossing paths with Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) on a mission to track down a rogue "demo-dog."

"We were in the middle of writing the season when we realized Dustin was also all alone," says Ross Duffer. "He was also about to suffer from this heartbreak [in the love triangle with Sadie Sink's Max and Caleb McLaughlin's Lucas]. We realized Steve was also suffering from heartbreak. It was very much in the middle of the season — we're talking about months into the writing — that we decided to put these two characters together. The second we started writing it, we got really excited about the possibilities. What Joe and Gaten did exceeded our expectations. Their bromance, for us, is one of the highlights this season."

"Him and Steve are very, very different," Matarazzo tells THR about the character pairing. "I don't know that Dustin really wants to be like Steve, or even really likes Steve all that much in their first interactions, but I think they grow on each other. Though they're very different, they kind of complement each other in a way. Dustin is a very book-smart, but he's not exactly up to the trends like maybe Steve is. He helps Steve out with knowing about what's going on, but Steve helps out Dustin when it comes to girls and even being more courageous and confident."

From Levy's perspective, Steve and Dustin's friendship allowed the Stranger Things team to find a way forward with two of their most electric characters, both of whom were suffering through feelings of loneliness. 

"It pained us to see Steve so beaten down by Billy and by Nancy and by circumstance, and we couldn't let our guy spend the second half of the season wallowing," says Levy. "That led to the Duffers' notion of pairing him with Dustin, who's also kind of keeping a secret and is about to have his heart broken in a similar love triangle. It came from a place of not wanting Joe Keery to play the sad sack beat for nine episodes. What's the scenario we can put Steve in to once again surprise us and once again step up in a way that a stereotypical character wouldn't? That led to the Steve and Dustin alliance, which led to such incredible character work and moments for the second half of the season."

Over the course of their time together, Matarazzo says he found himself looking at Keery in much the same way Dustin started viewing Steve: as a hero of sorts.

"I love Joe so much," says the young actor. "For me to get to work with him so much this season? It was amazing. He's such a great guy, and he really is a great actor. He's very passionate about what he does. I look up to him in a way like that. He's kind of like a big brother to me."

What's your take on the Steve-Dustin dynamic? Let us know in the comments below, and keep it tuned to THR.com/StrangerThings for more coverage of season two.

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