Stranger Things and “The Hero’s Journey”

"Redemption arcs only work when the character actively recognizes their mistakes, sincerely apologizes and consciously works to better themselves. This is why we as an audience have become attached to Joe Keery’s character."
Por Fernanda Treviño
Jul 10, 2022

Stranger Things is the great phenomenon of Netflix. A combination of 80s nostalgia, friendship dynamics, supernatural elements and a well written plot has taken the world by the storm since season one premiered in 2016. The premise of the show follows a group of middle school kids, whose friend Will disappeared under mysterious circumstances. In their task of finding him, they encounter a girl named Eleven with telekinesis powers, who can very well be their key to solving everything. The rest, I dare say, is television history.

The fourth season just aired, split into two parts: the first one dropping on June 27 and the second on July 1st.  It seems the whole world has watched it, because the platform somewhat crashed when the second part dropped. The stakes were high with this second installment and the fans tuned in to see which of their favorite characters would die or survive this season. There was a lot of fear for Steve Harrington, a character who managed to win the viewer’s hearts over the last 3 seasons.

But why is Steve a fan favorite?

Yes, the former King of Hawkins High School undergoes the most tangible character development in the whole show. We know that he went from a jock douch-bag to the best babysitter in town. Basically, what we witnessed was a redemption arc. But what exactly makes a good redemption arc? What makes his story a good one?

The art of telling a story is ultimately reduced to its basic structure. American writer Dan Harmon, better known for the popular comedy series Rick & Morty, created a simplified version of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. The structure of The Hero’s Journey consists of twelve steps, where the hero goes outside his ordinary world into a special world and faces trials and obstacles, finding allies and enemies along the way with multiple turning points. A good example of a character going through the hero’s journey is Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.

Dan Harmon’s Circle of Stories describes eight steps for the protagonist to travel to this “special” world:

  1. A Character is in a Zone of Comfort or Familiarity
    • In the first step, the protagonist is surrounded by a world he knows, where he has control of his situation. This world presents no challenges and the protagonist lives a relatively mundane day to day life.
  2. They Desire Something
    • The protagonist really wants something. He wants to achieve this goal so much that he will do his best to achieve it. However, this desire is out of reach and takes him out of his comfort zone.
  3. They Enter an Unfamiliar Situation
    • To achieve this goal or desire, the protagonist has to enter unknown territory. He is thrown into a world beyond his control.
  4. They Adapt to that Situation
    • The protagonist combines his already established skills with his newly acquired skills to fully adapt to his new environment.
  5. They Get that Which They Wanted
    • The only thing he really wanted is his to win, but other obstacles follow him closely.
  6. They Pay a Heavy Price for It
    • When things go too well, bad things start to happen. The protagonist wins something, but loses something else. Something important or significant for the protagonist has been lost.
  7. They Return to Their Familiar Situation
    • The protagonist returns to his normal world. As a result, he returns to his comfort zone, where everything becomes familiar.
  8. They Have Changed as a Result of the Journey

However, after re-entering his familiar world, the protagonist does not return as the same person. A deeply ingrained trait has changed within him, either a fear he has overcome or a character defect that has changed. At the end of the journey, the daily life of the character has been enriched with his experience.

Now let’s apply this formula to Stranger Things’ Steve Harrington (beware of spoilers):

  1. Steve is the most popular guy in high school. His girlfriend is Nancy Wheeler.
  2. Steve, most of all, wants to be loved and accepted. That’s why, after messing up with Nancy, he tries to apologize.
  3. This leads to him inadvertently helping Nancy and Jonathan fight the Demogorgon.
  4. Steve adapts into this new knowledge about the Upside Down.
  5. He patches things up with Nancy and even apologizes to Jonathan for his past behavior, but his relationship with Nancy is not the same.
  6. By season two, Steve is still trying to change his ways and be a better person when Nancy breaks up with him. This is when Dustin and the rest of the kids stumble into Steve’s life and so he finds a new purpose as the kids’ protector.
  7. Steve doesn’t return to his comfort zone: he embraces his new one.
  8. Season 3 and 4 sees Steve as a completely different person. Gone is King Steve, now he is Momma Steve: Robin Buckley’s “Platonic with a Capital P” soulmate and practically the mother of Dustin, Lucas, Max, Erica and Mike.  

It can be said then that Steve Harrington underwent a Positive Character Arc. A Character Arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. Character arcs are ultimately the centerpiece of fiction. So, a Positive Character Arc is the most common, and often the one that resonates the most. The character will begin with different levels of personal dissatisfaction and denial. Throughout the story, he will be forced to challenge his beliefs about himself and the world, until he finally conquers his inner demons (and, as a result, probably also his external antagonists) and at the end of his arc changes positively.

And there’s more: his is a redemption arc that feels earned.

In the Season One Finale we see the seed of Steve’s redemption, his very first act of selflessness that will be cultivated along the seasons. Season 2 shows him facing the consequences of his decisions. Nancy breaks up with him and tells him he never really loved him. New bully Billy Hargrove’s arrival knocks him off from the top of the Hawkins High social pyramid. And after breaking off from his friends last season after realizing they were bad company; he is completely alone. Which gives him time to reflect on his mistakes and try to do better: hence his involvement in protecting the kids. This reflection continues into Season 3, particularly when his new friend Robin reminds him what a jerk he was in school, something that Steve agrees with. He never denies his past or makes excuses for his poor behavior.

Redemption arcs only work when the character actively recognizes their mistakes, sincerely apologizes and consciously works to better themselves. This is why we as an audience have become attached to Joe Keery’s character. Julianne Kerver explains it beautifully:

“He earns his redemption through both physical acts and emotional realizations. Steve easily could’ve swept his errors under the rug and blamed others for the consequences of his actions. But he subverts expectations by taking accountability and improving himself, two very mature and unexpected moves for a teenage to take”

Besides, seeing a character like Steve Harrington (who’s supposed to be like the 80s mean jock stereotypes) lean toward his better nature as a caretaker and protector rather than an exploiter is so satisfying because it is a choice – and a change – to which he sticks with and builds on. What’s not to love about that?

Fernanda Treviño

Fernanda Treviño

Actriz y cinéfila.
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