Maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all.
Photo: Curtis Baker/Netflix
It’s no secret that Stranger Things is heavily influenced by a certain decade in filmmaking. The callbacks and references to the 1980s are numerous enough to merit their own glossary, and for those of us who came of age on E.T., Alien, and old-school Stephen King, the new Netflix series feels of a kind with the oeuvre that inspired it. But when it comes to the teen love triangle that forms one of the show’s non-supernatural side plots, Stranger Things goes next-level, and becomes more about subverting classic ‘80s tropes than honoring them.
According to the rules of retro moviemaking, the romantic entanglements of Nancy Wheeler should have been resolved as follows: By the time the credits rolled, her boyfriend, Steve, would be history (and possibly monster chow, depending on how badly he’d behaved), and Nancy would be in the arms of the sweet and misunderstood Jonathan Byers.
This formula was a tried-and-true favorite during the decade in question; the love triangle in Stranger Things even bears a particularly striking resemblance the one from The Goonies (where Andy ultimately jilts her bratty beau, Troy, to continue treasure-hunting with the film’s ragtag crew of kids — including Brand, the guy she really belongs with). Scroll through a list of ‘80s classics, and you’ll see the Douchebag Boyfriend everywhere: entitled, obnoxious, frequently sporting a power mullet, and almost always bullying the guy his girlfriend is ultimately going to end up with. He’s Hardy Jenns in Some Kind of Wonderful; Roy in Better Off Dead; Billy Zabka’s character in Back to School (and everything else, really). Some actors even got to experience the trope from both sides; five years before he appeared as the archetypal bully boyfriend in Edward Scissorhands, Anthony Michael Hall had Slurpee rained upon him by a pair of Douchebag Boyfriends in Weird Science.
But where the Douchebag Boyfriend of yore was a one-note villain who mostly existed to make the hero look good by comparison, Stranger Things makes something more of Steve, its teenage bad boy. And over the course of the series’ eight-episode run, the showrunners clearly enjoyed playing with Steve’s character. Below, we’ve rounded up the moments we were supposed to write Steve off as a jerk extraordinaire, only to end up liking him in spite of everything we’ve been conditioned to feel. Spoilers ahead.
The study date.
We’d already seen Steve acting the part of a horny, boundary-challenged jackass by the time he climbed through Nancy’s window in the first episode, and so you think you know exactly what’s coming. This is the scene where he pressures her for sex, then calls her a tease and a prude when she refuses. Why? Because Douchebag Boyfriend, that’s why! Imagine our surprise when, after suggesting a strip-study session and getting shot down by Nancy’s own, well-timed play of the “I’m Not Like Other Girls” trope, Steve backs off and respectfully resumes helping her study for her chemistry test. Huh.
Douchebag alarms go off all over the place when Steve takes advantage of his parents’ absence to throw a wee party — the kind that’s a perfect setup for adding an ambivalent Nancy to his list of successful conquests. And when she goes upstairs with him despite her friend’s warnings, the outcome is a foregone conclusion: First, they’ll have sex. (They do.) Then, Steve will roll over and fall asleep. (He does.) And having claimed his prize and tapped that booty, he’ll cruelly discard her and move on to the next ex-girlfriend-to-be. He doesn’t.
Instead, Steve shows up at Nancy’s locker the next day in a scene that’s sweet and awkward and intimate all at once. Rather than be aloof, he gently ribs her about how hard she’s trying to play it cool.
The bullying of Jonathan Byers.
It’s a non-negotiable requirement of this role that the bad boyfriend antagonize the story’s misunderstood hero; hence, the scene in which Jonathan’s surreptitious picture-taking during the pool party leads to an angry confrontation, during which Steve intentionally breaks Jonathan’s camera. But as with all things Steve-related, this act of villainy is complicated, and maybe even kind of sympathetic. Sure, Jonathan didn’t explicitly set out to hide in the woods and take pervy pictures of Nancy in her underwear, but Steve and Nancy don’t know that. Do you really blame the guy for being upset, or for smashing the perv’s primary peeping instrument?
If Steve’s jerk status was ambiguous before, surely the act of writing “Nancy the Slut” on a movie marquee in the town square makes it official … or does it? After Steve takes a serious beating for his rudeness (and the police receptionist baits the hook even further by telling Nancy that Jonathan is in love with her), we learn that he didn’t even write the offensive message; it was Tommy, with whom Steve severs his friendship over the entire incident. And next thing we know, Steve is on a ladder, contritely wiping the hideous graffiti away — almost like he’s a responsible and decent human being or something.
The final comeuppance.
But here it is now, the moment of truth. If Steve is the Douchebag Boyfriend, then his last acts on the show should be as follows:
- Show up to the booby-trapped Byer house at the most inopportune moment possible.
- Do something obnoxious.
- Die. (Leaving Nancy free to date Jonathan, of course.)
It’s the perfect setup for a bloodbath — and it’s when the show goes for broke and turns the stereotype totally on its head. Instead of being torn to pieces fleeing the scene, Steve reappears just in time to play a pivotal role in defeating the monster. And what seemed at the start like a tired love triangle waiting to happen turned out to be a trio of legitimate heroes, each vital in their own right.
Stranger Things did conclude on a cliff-hanger that may or may not leave the door open for a future Nancy–Jonathan romance. But if that happens, expect anything but a stereotypical, made-in-the-’80s movie hookup between two one-dimensional teen archetypes. Douchebag Boyfriends wind up humiliated or decapitated, not cuddling on the couch with the heroine wearing an adorably dorky holiday sweater. And no matter how much you love the originals, it is kind of refreshing, at least this once, to see the popular bro with the power mullet turn out to be a decent guy after all.