As early as the second episode of Stranger Things’ second season, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) is having his reign over Hawkins High School tested. “We got ourselves a new Keg King, Harrington,” a Halloween reveler tells the feathered-haired pretty boy, dressed in the Ray-Bans and smart blazer worn by Tom Cruise in the role of Princeton-bound teenage pimp Joel Goodson. The challenger to that throne, Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery), wears his leather jacket open, exposing a sweat-and-suds-slicked six-pack in a getup that’s part British Steel, part hyper-alloy combat chassis. It’s Halloween 1984, and Risky Business is yesterday’s news—The Terminator stomped into movie theaters just five days ago.
These opposing visions of Reagan-era hunk are set on a collision course, and it’s only appropriate that Billy keeps throwing around Steve’s royal title. He’s come at the king, and he does not intend to miss. There’s nothing Stranger Things loves more than a tried-and-true story, and Steve’s is one of the triedest-and-truest: a fallen monarch. But Steve’s lot is not that of King Lear or Henry II; he’s humbled, but granted a second chance. By the beginning of the season, he’s already seen the errors of his ways. But once that well-defined mug of his is pounded into hamburger, and he’s traded his designer shades for dorky, monster-luring goggles, he’s become a man of the people—and the hero viewers only joked about him being in season one.
This is one of those inherent joys of series television: witnessing the incremental evolution of a character, seeing a performer come in one end of the show as one thing and watching them go out the next as another. And for Steve Harrington, that transition began before he even hit the screen, as the latest in a long line of TV characters so delightfully embodied by their characters that their time on the show is extended—or, in the case of fan favorite rakes like Steve, Jesse Pinkman, or Boyd Crowder, their lives are spared.
“Steve started to change the second we cast Joe Keery, because that is not how we were envisioning Steve at all. He was just sort of this asshole jock,” co-creator Ross Duffer has said. In the same interview, Duffer recalls the magnetism that Keery brought to his audition, which was centered on one of Steve’s most loathsome season-one scenes: the destruction of Jonathan Byers’ camera. “Even though he’s being just this total asshole in that scene, he was so charming and we all fell in love with him.”
And thus began a roller-coaster ride to redemption that passed through additional odiousness (rumor-mongering graffiti directed at girlfriend Nancy Wheeler, a brawl with romantic rival Jonathan) and a sincere, demogorgon-disrupted apology, the likes of which leaves the one-time bully in a new position at the start of Stranger Things 2. In the car with Nancy, he’s the one hung up on schoolwork. On Halloween, he’s the one vying for her affection. Cut out of the older kids’ trip to conspiracy-theorist land, he’s the one playing ringleader to his ex-girlfriend’s little brother and his dorky friends. When Steve pulls up to the Wheelers’ door just as Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) is leaving, another of season two’s fateful collisions takes place. Why shouldn’t two Stranger Things scene-stealers be so compatible, or forge the type of sibling dynamic that helps define the show’s other high school leads?
But while the unlikely bond they strike up is one of the bright spots of season two’s later episodes, it’s also the latest step in a charm offensive that Keery launched simultaneously with the premiere of Stranger Things. He’s far from press shy. He gamely threw himself into the metatextual joke that Steve is the real father of fellow big-haired, misunderstood Hoosier douche Jean-Ralphio Saperstein. Before standing in for Josh Brolin at the head of Stranger Things 2’s makeshift Goonies, he filled Matthew Broderick’s sweater vest for a Domino’s commercial. Either hating Joe Keery and Steve was never in the cards, or Joe Keery and the people who created Steve have gone the extra mile to abate that hatred.
And let us not discount this: Nothing endears a cocky, athletic looker to a nation of couch potatoes like having those picturesque features rearranged for our amusement. A.V. Club film editor A.A. Dowd has a pet theory that audiences love seeing Tom Cruise get his ass kicked—and maybe, just maybe, the Mission: Impossible star enjoys it, too. After potentially damaging his public reputation through manic talk-show appearances, his discomfiting marriage to Katie Holmes, and his continued advocacy for the Church Of Scientology, Cruise has returned to (if not exceeded) his Risky Business-era stardom by enduring a gauntlet of physical abuse, and at least one starring role in which his character is killed ad nauseam.
And who’s Steve’s chosen Halloween alter ego again? That’s right: Tom Cruise. The Duffers may have pulled back on an Edge Of Tomorrow fate for Steve, but they do have a habit of scripting pummelings for Keery.
“Steve has to get beat up once every season,” the actor jokingly told Vanity Fair recently. “It must be in my contract or something. They just want to make sure I stay grounded.”
Despite Billy’s best efforts, the king is not dead, but he’s bent and bruised, and some dirtbag bashed his crown in with a plate. And he’s all the better for it. In the words of another handsome punching bag who tangled with monsters in the 1980s: Hail to the king, baby.