WARNING: Spoilers from the start. Don't read this unless you've watched the whole of Stranger Things 2.
Steve Harrington is not well. A furious man with a weak moustache has just headbutted him to the floor and is now sitting on his chest, screaming in slow motion and pummelling his face with both fists. It's a proper pub carpark beating; bleeding on the brain sort of stuff, or at the very least a no-screens-for-a-week concussion.
Steve comes to in the back of a speeding Camaro full of 13-year-olds. One of them patronises him about his fighting ability, another is driving the car. They pull up at the opening of a tunnel system full of slimy black monster dogs from a parallel universe whose faces open up like those paper fortune-tellers from school, before the creatures eat you to death. A couple of the kids rappel into the darkness.
Steve – deeply unwell now, falling out of the car, just about supporting his own body weight – is handed a nail-spiked baseball bat and told by one of the children, Dustin, to "keep us safe". Reluctantly, and not for the first time that week, he does.
WATCH: British Comedy's Rising Star Michaela Coel on Swapping God for Filthy Jokes
This is the Steve Harrington of Stranger Things 2, the new season of the Netflix hit, which starts slow and has a few flaws but is largely just as moreish and likely to dominate every 4AM kitchen conversation for the next three months as the first season. Steve Harrington does not have a good Stranger Things 2. But it's for that reason he comes out of the final episode as the show's new fan favourite, the climax of an arc nobody really expected.
For most of the first season, Steve was just a dickhead who beat up shy weird-boys and publicly slut-shamed his own girlfriend. In Netflix's Beyond Stranger Things, Ross Duffer – who co-created the series with his twin brother, Matt – describes this incarnation of the jock king of Hawkins High as "a really bad dude".
Some the most iconic 80s movie jerks – The Breakfast Club's Bender, Back to the Future's Biff – eventually found their own forms of redemption. So it fits, given that the Duffer Brothers quite famously have a thing for the 1980s, that Steve, played by Joe Keery, also begins to redeem himself towards the end of season one: apologising to love rival Jonathan and helping his girlfriend Nancy fight the Upside Down final boss with thousands of teeth for a head.
But he doesn't redeem himself that much. Not enough to explain why Nancy doesn't dump him. After all, he's still the douchebag boyfriend with extravagant hair. She'd be happier with nice guy Jonathan instead, fulfilling that other classic 1980s movie trope. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Keery himself says of the ending: "I remember being like, 'What?' I was pretty shocked."
In Beyond Stranger Things, Matt Duffer admits that Steve's character began as a one-dimensional stereotype, "almost like [a] placeholder". (According to a Nerdist interview with Natalia Dyer – who plays Nancy – Steve was originally meant to die.) But once the brothers met Keery, the character "started to evolve a bit and became more charming and likeable", to the point that they "wanted to give him more of an arc", deciding at the last minute to have him go to the house and help "save the day".
To keep that arc going through season two, a lot needed to happen to Steve.
The bad stuff that happens to Steve Harrington in Stranger Things 2, in order of appearance: his discovery that he is not at all good at writing college applications; having to make small talk with the parents of the late and for some reason lionised Barb (who, we have established, actually sucked); going to a house party so his girlfriend can tell him she doesn't really love him; the introduction of Billy, a sociopathic new boy with a mullet who inexplicably smokes while lifting weights and is always rude to Steve; being beaten nearly to death by Billy and then being guilt-tripped into a dark subterranean hellscape and having to protect some children from dozens of monsters with only a bat.
As Matt Duffer says in Beyond Stranger Things, "he had a very depressing storyline."
Central to that depressing storyline is Billy, who knocks Steve off his perch by being better than him at basketball, and then turning his shower off in the locker room, and then absolutely pulverising his face in front of some kids. Downtrodden Steve becomes a sympathetic character for the first time, making all the good deeds he does look even better.
Because Steve Harrington does a lot of good deeds in Stranger Things 2: he stays relentlessly chill every time Billy, completely unprovoked, is a prick to him; gives Dustin, who's also a little heartbroken this season, both girl and hair advice, kicking off a bromance that's sure to be the subject of a hundred-thousand listicles; defends idiot children with a deathwish from monster dogs in a spooky junkyard; is mature about Nancy's relationship with Jonathan, in a complete about-face from season one; becomes a doting babysitter to four of the kids and accompanies them to the aforementioned hellscape.
He's also a little dopier – confusing all Germans for Nazis, believing he can genuinely protect the kids when it's fairly clear he can't – which pushes him into loveable comedic goofball territory, about as big a jump as he could have made from the Steve of season one. Hats off to the Duffer Brothers for so thoroughly bringing him round in the space of only eight or so scenes, and in an ensemble cast of like 13 main characters.
So, what's next for Steve? Considering he'll have left high school by next season, one fan has suggested he should train to become a police officer under Hopper. Which makes sense. He'll probably need to get rid of the spiky bat, but at least he can keep on playing protector.
More on VICE: