There’s a plethora concerning Stranger Things’ Steve Harrington’s past that we still don’t know about, but one thing’s been reaching the shore since day one—the amount of love he’s capable of giving. Where does that immense compassion come from, and how much of it do some people truly deserve? There are reasons he’s been the fan-favorite character throughout the show’s run, and a lot boils down to the sense of safety his character’s presence evokes even while we’re all tirelessly on edge while fearing for his fictional life.
In examining his desires to love, it’s imperative to look into the moment in Season 1 when he goes over to help remove the cruel words written on the theater marquee. There’s something about Joe Keery‘s line delivery here that hits like a ton of bricks while showing us that though Steve doesn’t really know how to be of use, he just wants to help. He wants to do something that’ll benefit someone else. He wants to make lives more accessible, especially for those he’s hurt in his selfishness. Now, while we don’t know concrete details about his parents other than that his father is a “grade-A asshole,” we can be sure that there’s a significant amount of love lacking in Steve’s life. We see this rather evidently in the first season based on his behavior and approach to everything, but especially in how his growth later leads to exhibiting the parental-like adoration that’s inherently missing in his life.
In the second season, much of his desperation becomes a bit more apparent, hidden beyond the layers he avidly tries to conceal in the chaos of dealing with everything. But in Stranger Things Season 4 especially, there’s very little Steve Harrington holds back, and it simmers down to his conversation with Nancy Wheeler about the kind of life he’s always dreamed of. Six kids—the man wants six kids! (You’re not the one giving birth to them, bud.) But we know damn well he’d go through hell and back for them, and that much we have concrete proof of.
Steve Harrington, Six Kids, and the Fight of Their Lives
This vision ultimately reflects the fact that Steve wants to care for people in a way that no one’s ever looked out for him. Sure, he’s a relatively healthy teen and all, but how much love did he grow up with? Were his parents ever affectionate? How often did they leave him alone for business trips? Did they ever try to help him get better grades in school? Is he an only child? Did his father physically hurt him, or was he just verbally unkind? Again, there’s so much here that’s left unanswered for the viewers, but we can see clear as day that the love he outpours is a boundless reflection of what he’s missing. And that’s especially the case today as everything he does is to protect kids who could very well defend themselves, but why should they have to? He could do it. He could stand beside them and take every beating because they now matter to him as much as fighting for the right thing does.
We can accredit some of Steve’s growth to Nancy being hard on him, but a lot is due to his personal choices to do better. Yes, he needed things put in perspective, and he needed to understand that the road he was on wouldn’t lead him towards a life with a purpose, but in the end, Steve Harrington chose to be the person he is today on his own. He decided to be better, knowing he wouldn’t get much in return and that he could lose his life in the process too.
And we know of his unceasing selflessness for a fact now because one of the most achingly telling scenes in Season 4 is the utter joy on his face as he watches Robin flirt with Vicky in the end, knowing that might not be the case for him and Nancy after his confession. He doesn’t allow his own sadness or pain to hinder his joy for others, which really—come on now. It’s human to be sad and heartbroken, but because he’s spent so much time wallowing in the lack of love, there’s too much of it now to hold back.
When he spreads his limitless adoration to his friends, it replaces Steve’s heartaches in a way nothing else could, allowing him to see that there’s a purpose in his life that’s greater than what he could’ve imagined.
We joke about it a lot. Netflix’s social media accounts are consistently on board calling him mom of the year, but really, it’s not even a joke at this point. Steve Harrington would give every part of himself to ensure that everyone he cares for (however reluctantly) lives to see the sun another day. He grumbles through so much of it (as we all would), but there’s no part of him who’d dare to stand back and watch anyone he loves suffer. If we look at the lyrics of “Running Up That Hill,”—he would be the one to make a deal with God, getting him to swap places with the kids. (I nearly thought he would do so for Nancy in “Papa.”) As much as the song reflects Max’s journey, it’s the season’s theme and the idea that despite his fears and doubts, his character will never back down.
It’s hard to believe the parents on this show would give as much as Steve does; his would never, and that’s partly what makes his arc as tragic as it is beautiful. He’s too good—genuinely, at this point, the compassion within him can only compete with the love Joyce Byers exudes for her kids. Because really, so few care as deeply to act even when they’re so hesitant, they have to vocalize it aloud.
Steve isn’t a nerd either, which makes his presence among this group that much more interesting. He doesn’t play Dungeons and Dragons, the man’s never seen Lord of the Rings, and science isn’t exactly his best subject. Still, he always shows up because one accidental thrust towards protecting them became his most important role yet. More often than not, he thinks he knows best when that’s far from the case, but it’s a sign not of the detail that he wants to be correct but that he doesn’t want to be wrong. We can presume this is due to his upbringing and the absence of any form of acknowledgment in his childhood, but simultaneously, it’s because if he’s wrong, then he’s not doing right by the kids.
Their opinions matter to him because their presence in his life, along with Robin and Nancy’s, is his greatest blessing. He loves them, truly and sincerely, to the point where there’s nothing he wouldn’t do should the time come. (We already know he would, Duffer Brothers; there’s no need to prove it.) It’s evident in all his expressions, each of his complaints, and the selfless joy he consistently showcases when they get something right. Steve Harrington is far from a perfect person. Still, his worth comes from his sincere desire to give beyond the adoration he’s known, wanting nothing more than to ensure that people never drown in the desperation to become something else in order to cope with the absence of love.