It was self-surprising to choose Joe Keery’s Steve as the scene-stealer for Stranger Things 2, but amidst a sea of scene-stealing youngsters, Keery just tops it.
King Steve Harrington has it all. Joe Keery’s Steve had been the Danny Zuko everyone hated. And he hasn’t changed much. Granted, he lacks the malice of breaking Jonathan’s (Charlie Heaton) camera. Keery’s softened subtly. The reason? Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) of course. From simply wanting to get into her pants, Keery allowed Steve to soften until she became his vulnerability.
New-town Billy (Dacre Montgomery) shakes things up by kicking his arse twice. And you don’t want to pity Steve, but you do. Part of it is because Billy is such a stark contrast. Where Montgomery’s Billy is two-dimensional, flat and seems to act in one mood only, Keery has layered Steve with weaknesses and a chagrin with school politics. His exasperation in the car with Nancy at his grades is very real. And so are his plans to just go into work and ditch education.
Keery’s Steve doesn’t retaliate to Billy’s fight; he takes the beatings. Similarly, his fight for Nancy is reluctant. Stranger Things 2 allows Keery to quietly downsize Steve. Even his frustrated vent in the car is controlled, just like his reaction to Billy. Keery’s Steve is a young man who’s seen things and he’s aware he’s supposedly normal in a very abnormal universe. Keery, like any teenage heart-throb, should be one extreme or the other: the social recluse or the popular king. Last year, he was the latter. This year, he’s a halfway house and Keery’s haplessness, swimming from one end to the other, is clearly depicted in the way he just…loses. Keery refuses the extremities. He allows mediocrity because that is being a teenager. And that’s what makes Keery work so much better this season.
Surrounded by unbelievably talented youngsters, Keery steals this one. And we’ll explain why.
Steve Harrington is a self-absorbed, crowd-pleasing pleb, but we have to remember that he’s your typical high-schooler in a small-town gone bonkers.
What Joe Keery does finely is poke holes into the cliched school villain archetype. Despite Billy’s needlessly bad-boy antics, Steve remains top of the social ladder. And as the season progresses, Keery not only leaks vulnerability and tenderness, especially with Nancy, but integrity. However, Keery balances that with the boy who’s also King, because that’s who he is. During the season, we see Keery’s growing frustration with that label. We see the conflict of a teenager in turmoil over his popularity and his girlfriend, because unless you have a Demagorgon inside of you, that’s exactly the kind of life you lead at school.
Keery doesn’t have the luxury of scenes like convulsing in a room full of heat-lights as Winona Ryder screams in panic, hammering horror into your heart. He doesn’t give us an aneurysm by nearly choking to death getting caught in the Upside Down’s vines like Hopper. And no, he doesn’t eat an entire Demagorgon, either.
However on a show where the unbelievable literally happens, it’s almost even more unbelievable that such normal people can go to school and fuss over grades. But something equally complex comes into the equation: a teenager. (Oh boy). Despite that, Steve Harrington remains petty, self-absorbed and arrogant. He’s not always likeable and he’s definitely no Prince Charming. Keery does well in maintaining those flaws. Given a scene where Wolfhard’s crying, or Brown’s yelling, or Schnapp’s welling up–it’s not easy to say Joe Keery is a scene-stealer. Television has been always subjective, and for some, the tiniest of gestures or the slightest glimmer into what reality truly is and was, is a scene-grabber. Keery’s on-point depiction of a relatively insecure teen is exactly what that is. It won’t be, for many. But for some, it is.
His chemistry with Natalia Dyer is rivalled only by Charlie Heaton’s, and he has extra, brilliant hilarity with the ‘party’.
As much as we adore Jonathan, Steve is not a bad guy for Nancy. In fact, neither of them really are. Nancy’s headstrong and independent. Steve is the typical protector type. Jonathan’s meek and withdrawn. But Keery’s so charismatic as Steve that when he removes the spray-paint in season one and Nancy spots him, you just assume they will be together.
And they work. They do! Natalia Dyer and Joe Keery have insatiable chemistry, and their fallout and everything before is utterly believable. Both actors portray teenagers exceptionally well. Dyer pretending to herself every day she loves Steve is obvious and heartbreaking, whereas Keery’s depiction of Steve–who truly is in love with Nancy–is arguably even more so.
You know when things change when Nancy promptly “bullshits” him into a black hole of expletives, and the response on Twitter is that people feel horrible for Steve. Well, who wouldn’t? Granted–Nancy should probably never drink alcohol. But everything she says, wouldn’t you just agree with in season one? In Stranger Things 2, the sympathy for Steve is overwhelming. A lot of that is down to Keery’s crack in his voice as he asks a drunk Nancy:
Steve: “You…don’t love me?”
That vulnerability lacked last year. It lacked before Nancy. Even after their break-up, he still speaks fondly of her to Dustin. Keery’s acceptance of her speech and his lack of fight with her is arguably more upsetting than if he’d truly argued back. Because really, he had a case. And that’s why Keery’s convincing set-up as a superficial high school ‘king’ crumbled so spectacularly. The reason? We didn’t want it. Didn’t expect it. It happened, and Keery’s Steve watched it and silently accepted it. And if you’d asked camera-breaking Steve if he’d ever let that happen, he’d say no.
The brilliance of Keery’s performance was not just his ability to act so petulant, but also because he did it so believably. Steve’s fall from popularity was not dramatic. Stranger Things isn’t the show for that. But Keery ensured his fall was slow and gradual, and that’s why it worked so well.
Pitching Steve, the middle-ground between Jonathan’s meekness and Billy’s nastiness, with the boys, was a genius idea.
Pairing Keery and Gatarazzo was the most hilariously unexpected decision of the season. It’s ridiculous–and brilliant. A standout scene is when they’re spreading meat across the rail-tracks to trap Dart, and Keery retains that cocky Steve everyone initially hated. He advises Dustin to act distant, either “like a lion” or “like a ninja”. But when quizzed about Nancy, Keery’s face falls.
Steve: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hey. You’re not fallin’ in love with this girl, are you?”
Steve: “Okay, good. Don’t. She’s only gonna break your heart and you’re way too young for that shit.”
And when cooperating with ‘the party’, the number of times Keery’s exasperation blooms on his face is difficult but well-done comedic timing as he steals the camera every time they pan to him whilst they argue.
In a universe where the unbelievable seems the norm, Joe Keery’s Steve is the epitome of ‘Typical’. He darts towards the ‘shadow monster’ not because of heroics, but because if he doesn’t, they’re all toast. Like Eleven’s bus-flip moment, this is Steve’s heroism.
But there are small Demagorgons surrounding him, and suddenly you realise it’s a normal boy, his breath puffing in the cold, armed with only a spiked baseball bat. The blood running through Keery’s Steve’s veins is ice; so is ours. It’s the normalcy of Steve Harrington that makes you empathise with him so much. Horror pulsates violently because you know Steve can’t get out of this supernaturally like Eleven. You cannot look away. And that’s why Keery is a scene-stealer in a pit of talent. He’s so unabashedly normal, and when you’re surrounded by a cast whose decidedly abnormal, it’s hard to imagine how he retains appeal. So kudos, kudos, Joe Keery–for being normal.
FINAL VERDICT: Whomever he plays in the future, Joe Keery has the talent for it. And we couldn’t have his hair as the scene-stealer–he already told Dustin the secret!
Well, it’d just be inappropriate to name Joe Keery’s hair as a scene-stealer as it’s far too magical for our normal eyes. And he also reveals the secret to Dustin as well. But the choice of Joe Keery is surprising mostly to your reviewer here because it’s not the first choice at all. And it’s difficult because in Stranger Things, the cast seem to switch between the main and supporting all the time. It would’ve been easy to choose Dyer again (arguably she was much better this season than the last) or David Harbour. Harbour in particular possessed much more dramatic scenes.
Yet there’s something that should be emphasised. It’s the painful normality of which Keery depicts Steve that wins him the title of ‘scene-stealer’. If he wasn’t cliched at times, or he didn’t feel so human, then Keery wouldn’t have succeeded. But in a story filled with nostalgia and nods to the past, even kids not born in the eighties can relate. Who was the kid, the most popular one in school? So who tried to be? Who just wasn’t? Keery embodies the first, so convincingly you want to smack him initially. Then he’s lured into this weird, ridiculous mystery involving Upside Downs and gooey monsters, and you witness the most miraculous, subtle fall from carefree King Steve to Steve Harrington, a boy who cares.
Sometimes, exceptionality derives from normality. Keery has charisma in bucket-loads. It’s no wonder he plays ‘King Steve’ in Stranger Things, but it’s also no wonder he truly does steal scenes. As he says to Dustin–”like a ninja”.
STRANGER THINGS 2 is available now on NETFLIX.
Joe Keery may be King Steve, but we won’t be surprised if you didn’t expect him to be our scene-stealer. Hey, our surprise was apparent, too. But here’s the thing: performances are performances. Steve was always meant to be a normal kid and he’s yanked into this horrific situation. Keery’s depiction of utter ridicule compared to the boys’ fanatical joy of the unknown is an excellent contrast, and is so perfect for a teenager that he wins it by a mile.