First of all, I know this is (::checks word count::) Way Too Long. This is very much an Overthinking It-style analysis, and maybe it would be better if I cut it way back, or focused on only one of the characters, or even if I broke this up into a couple of installments, but fuck it. I’ve been itching to write something like this, because so much of the critical focus on Stranger Things is about nostalgia and movie references, but little attention is paid to how the show undermines those elements.
A few months back, I was looking for a podcast with a solid analysis of the show, and I happily started playing something from Variety. Almost immediately, one of the hosts said, while laughing, that the references in the show were the only thing to talk about, and I immediately turned that metaphorical dial. I don’t care how prestigious you are in the trade. If you’re phoning it in, I’m hanging up.
Second of all, so much of the fan discussion of this show falls into either shipper obsession or why certain fans stan certain characters and I honestly it’s rare that I find any value in those conversations
I can certainly understand fans of the show who root for the characters, or want to see them kiss or whatever, but I never really understood the fervor for this sort of thing. Maybe it’s my essential boringness, but I just don’t engage with media this way. As long as the story is good, I’m not thinking about which character ought to be pairing up, or who is simply The Best. Wash over me, Show. I will think about you after.
Which is me saying that, if you’re reading this and thinking “He’s criticizing [Character], so he must stan [Other Character]” I promise I’ll be picking apart [Other Character] soon enough.
Also, it’s 2021. Why is this a blog post instead of a video essay?
I’m planning to analyze the subplot mentioned in the title of this post, and I’ll write a little bit about Nancy, but this will mainly be about Steve and Jonathan, the two guys who form a love triangle with Nancy in the first season. Steve has become a fan favorite over the course of three seasons, but Jonathan… not so much.
Frankly, that’s exactly the right way for audiences to react. It’s also kind of unfair.
How do the teenage characters in Stranger Things absolutely explode the standard teen romance plot in 80’s movies?
Here are the basic elements of that plot:
- the girl who serves as lynchpin, who is drawn toward the popular jerk at first but eventually realizes she’d be happier with Someone Else. She’s somewhat idealized and v sympathetic so the audience falls in love with her a little, too.
- that Someone Else, a boy who is a bit of an outcast, a quirky striver who has, maybe, an artistic bent. He’s a bit of a weirdo but in a cute way and eventually winds up with the girl.
- the popular jerk she’s already dating, who is handsome, wealthy, and athletic, and turns out to be a villain by the end. He’s The Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t.
I mean, that’s not the only type of romantic plot, but it’s a pretty common one. And, being movies and being from the 80’s, a lot of these stories center the outcast character. Since ST is a (dreaded) “eight-hour movie” it has the time to center all three characters.
If anyone has read the Duffer Brothers’ original pilot, MONTAUK, they would have seen a very different version of Steve. Instead of a clueless, sensitive baby-man, he’s an extremely troubled guy. When Nancy goes to meet him in the school bathroom before first period, he hides at first so he can jump out and scare her. Then, after they kiss, she asks him if he’s been drinking. Reminder: school hasn’t even started yet.
Later, at a party on the beach, he’s end-of-the-day drunk and stoned, and he physically drags her away from the party to assault her in the dark. That’s… not the same kind of story at all, and I’m glad they dropped it. The Steve Harrington we got was much more interesting than that villain would have been.
So what I’m saying is that, just as Steve (as he appears in the show, not in the pilot) doesn’t neatly fit the basic archetype, neither does Nancy or Jonathan. (For more about the pilot script, keep reading)
Let’s start this with
since she’s the easiest to talk about.
First of all, against all expectation, Nancy isn’t given an introduction designed to make us sympathetic toward her. The first thing she does is smirk at Dustin–adorable, fan-favorite Dustin–then slam a door in his face. Why? Because he dared to offer her a slice of pizza.
Personally, if a kid with the weapons-grade charisma of Dustin Henderson offered me a slice, I would thank him profusely and sincerely, then turn him down. No way would I eat the last of a pie that had been grubbed around by a bunch of 12-year-old boys playing in a basement. But I’d be nice about it.
Nancy clearly doesn’t feel the same way.
She’s also not that sympathetic in the way she treats her best friend. Barb tells Nancy that she’d “better still hang out with [her]” after she becomes friends with Steve and his pals. Nancy immediately assures Barb that of course they’ll still be friends, she’d never ditch their friendship. Nancy ditches her the very next day.
What I’m saying is that Nancy is careless with other characters that we like, and that’s an odd choice for the lynchpin of our love triangle.
But once Barb goes missing, Nancy does another unusual thing for a character in a love triangle: she loses all interest in the romance plot. Honestly, once Nancy starts risking her life to find Barb, I started to sympathize with her deeply. (More on this later when we talk about Steve.) It’s not the first cool thing she did, but it was the one that made me change how I thought of her.
After that point, evidence of her actual interest in the romance aspects of the story are thin on the ground until the epilogue, when she gives Jonathan a Christmas gift that’s not really a gift, then gives him A Look. Being Jonathan, he thanks her and runs away, and she goes back to Steve and his awful Christmas sweater. New status quo: Nancy is back with the pretty himbo while Jonathan, the guy is actually seems to like, is still on the outside.
he’s a huge fan-favorite, and it’s easy to see why.
First is Joe Keery himself, who’s plays Steve as a guileless pretty boy who keeps trying to do the right thing but can’t seem to figure out what that is.
Second is that Steve is a villain who becomes good because of LOVE, which is a wildly popular trope. I’ve never really understood the visceral appeal of the Reformed Bad Boy, but I recognize that it has a powerful effect on some people. Adding it to Steve’s S1 arc is bound to give him a huge boost in popularity.
Third is that the show provides him with two friends who take on the role of scapegoat when he finally has his big villain moment. It’s not Steve who does the spray-painting, it’s these other guys. Steve’s big regret is not that he tried to ruin Nancy’s reputation, only that he stood by and did nothing.
Fourth, that big villain moment, which usually occurs at the climax of the story, is actually shunted to episode six. And why not? The love triangle is a D-plot at best. The real resolution to this story comes from the confrontation with the Demogorgon/Brenner/the upside down, and a showdown with Steve in the middle of all that, would be a distraction from what’s important.
That leaves plenty of time for the previously mentioned reformation of poor Steve. The show transitions from Hopper saying “Losers? What losers?” straight to Steve and his friends. Tommy talks about plotting some further revenge , but at this point Steve has nothing but regrets. So, instead of lashing out yet again, the rich, popular Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t does a sudden face turn.
And why not? There are two episodes left, and the plot is not interested in Steve’s heartbreak. The plot is bringing all these separate story lines together for the final confrontation, and the writers have to decide if Steve is going to be part of that, or if he’s going to vanish from those episodes. Or if he’s going to die.
So, face turn it is! And by the end of the season, he ends up with Nancy even though he’s STILL the Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t.
And the right guy, judging by Nancy’s Christmas Gift Look (and subsequent seasons) is
which invites an interesting question: At what point does Jonathan begin to have feelings for Nancy?
I’ve thought about this for quite a while–and I think the show is a little confusing on this–but I don’t think Jonathan really begins to care about Nancy until the scene where he rolls out the flowery sleeping bag on the floor of her bedroom.
This is going to take a little bit of text, but bear with me.
There’s a certain trick directors use when they want to show that one character secretly/quietly loves (or is infatuated) with another: The two characters have a scene together, usually a conversation. One of them walks away and it feels like the scene has ended. But no, actually, not yet, because there’s an extra shot that shows a character staring after the one that’s leaving with a look of blank interest. Call it a look of yearning or fascination, maybe, but their eyes are intently focused but the rest of their face is expressionless.
In the first scene where Jonathan and Nancy interact on the show, Jonathan gets one of those lingering shots of her as she walks back to her friends.
Except his expression is all wrong. He looks mildly confused, not fascinated. What’s more, the shot holds on him long enough to show him look away and walk toward the door. That is definitely not an unrequited attraction shot.
Context for the scene: Jonathan was all alone at the high school corkboard, hanging a flyer about his missing brother, and Nancy’s new friend group were standing in a row in the middle of the hallway, staring at him as though he’s some kind of zoo exhibit: The Weirdo and his Unnerving Tragedy.
Then Nancy crosses the space between them to offer her support and reassurance (the previously mentioned “first cool thing”) and Jonathan seems genuinely surprised. Is Nancy Wheeler one of them–the Steves and Barbs and Tommy Aitches standing across the hall, watching him like he’s barely a real person–or is she better than that?
Later, when Jonathan is taking pictures of the scene where his brother vanished, he hears a scream, runs toward it, and discovers Steve’s party. Now the situations are reversed, and it’s Jonathan looking at Steve/Barb/Tommy, etc as though they’re a zoo exhibit: The Social Habits of the Upper Class Suburban Teen.
And because, as he later admits, he’d rather observe people than talk to them, he starts taking pictures. (I’ll get back to this in a bit)
There’s a final, lingering shot of Jonathan in the scene by Steve’s pool, too, but he doesn’t have a look of fascination here, either. It’s disappointment. Nancy has chosen Steve, which means she’s chosen the boring, normal people.
And of course, up until now we like Jonathan. He’s suffered a terrible tragedy, and he’s doing his best to look after his mother. He’s gotten a hero’s introduction, and because Nancy dared to leave her himbo boyfriend to talk to him, Jonathan is positioned as the Someone Else, the quirky, artistic outsider who’s a bit of a weirdo, who is also the right guy for Our Heroine.
Right up to the moment we see him snapping pics of Nancy undressing in Steve’s bedroom window. He’s not supposed to be that much of a weirdo.
I get that the plot requires those photos for Nancy to spot the demogorgon so the show can combine the teenage Will and Barb plotlines. They really needed that cross. And sometimes, when the need for a plot solution is powerful enough, you can find yourself defining characters so that they fill that need.
Which means that Jonathan, a caregiver character who makes breakfast for his family, works extra shifts (as a high school sophomore) to help cover bills, and who is trying to comfort his mother so she doesn’t go spinning off the rails, is also a creepy stalker dude who takes secret pictures of a girl during a very private moment.
That’s a bad look for the guy who is slotted into the role of the romantic lead of this particular subplot. So what the fuck?
I puzzled over this for a while. Sure, the show needed to have Jonathan accidentally snap a photo of the demogorgon, but why did it need him to take photos of Nancy in Steve’s bedroom window? Why not just have him see them, get that look of disappointment, then have him see Barb on the diving board. A lonely teenage girl sitting by herself, full of sadness, is a solid choice for an artsy photograph. Click. Demogorgon captured on film
Or why not have him snap a few photos of the kids by the pool, so they could keep the scene where Steve punishes him, then, through the viewfinder, he sees Nancy undressing in the window but doesn’t press the shutter. Let him make his disappointment face, then take the plot-necessary photos of Barb?
Why not draw the line on the correct side of a picture of Nancy undressing?
I keep thinking about that absolutely electric scene with Dacre Montgomery and Cara Buono at the end of season 2. If the show had paid it off in season 3 with a night (or series of nights) at a no-tell motel, that would have been fine by me. Logical, even.
But there’s a significant portion of the population that has been badly hurt by real-life infidelity, and they would hate Karen forever if she cheated on Ted. Nevermind Karen’s loneliness or Ted’s neglect, they’d turn on her because she did things “the wrong way” (ie: not getting a divorce first). Therefore, the show has Karen back out of the tryst.
Part of me wonders if they made that decision because of the way fans responded to the stalker shit that Jonathan pulls in season one.
But Jonathan is a character, not a real person, and I’ve been wondering what character motivation, if any, they give for him to have taken that shot.
I think the answer is revealed in the moment of conflict when Nancy and Jonathan are out in the woods with Lonnie’s gun, actively hunting the monster. In the earlier darkroom scene, Jonathan said he takes pictures because he thinks they’re “saying something” and he wants to capture that moment. In the woods, Nancy asks him what she was “saying”  when he took her picture, and Jonathan says that he could see a girl who was trying to be something she wasn’t.
Nancy immediately recognizes that as a dig and rightly calls bullshit. Jonathan, who apparently thought “I can see that you’re better than those people you call friends even if you can’t” was some kind of compliment, tries to retreat, but she keeps pushing him. He admits that he doesn’t like (most) people and then they trade insults.
And they insults they choose are revealing.
Nancy’s dig at Jonathan is specific to him (and aimed at his reputation). “Maybe he’s not the pretentious creep everyone says he is.” Oh no! His reputation is accurate! Better to stick with Steve, because why else would she date an earnest dope like Steve who (to quote Steve himself in another context) “is cute and all, but [is] a total dud” except that he’s the BMOC?
In contrast, Jonathan’s dig at Nancy is not specific to her at all. He talks to her as if she’s a type of person, a generalization instead of an individual. “The suburban girl who thinks she’s rebelling…” etc. 
Because Jonathan does not think of people outside his tiny circle as individuals. He sees them (to use his own words from season two) as “normal”, as people choosing to travel inside the ruts that society carved for them because those ruts are easy. They have pre-fab interior lives. They’re people with nothing interesting or worthwhile to offer.
That’s why he was so contemptuous of Bob in the second season, and was also so very wrong about him.
That’s also why, when Nancy approaches him at the corkboard to offer a few supportive words, Jonathan looks back at the crowd she left–Barb with Steve and Tommy H and Carol–and they are framed as a cohesive group, all standing together the same way, looking at him with the same expression. To Jonathan, those are all the same type of people: normals. To him, it’s unremarkable for Barb and Tommy H. to be standing next to each other, because they’re both in the “vast majority” and his vision of them doesn’t recognize divisions of conflicts between them. They’re just… all hanging out together, as far as he can tell.
That is also why, I believe, he takes that picture of Nancy. What privacy do people like them really need when he’s so sure he already knows who they are, inside and out?
So we pit Steve, the villain with the hero’s flaw (he needs to figure out what’s *really* important) against Jonathan, the hero with the villain’s flaw (thinks most people suck and are beneath him) which is one of the reasons this dopey show about petal-faced monsters and psychic little girls has such interesting characters, and why all the talk about nostalgia and borrowing from other sources misses the subversive touches that make this show compelling.
To circle back to one of the earliest questions I had about this subplot, when does Jonathan actually start to have feelings for Nancy?
After he’s arrested, Flo says he beat up Steve because he’s in love with Nancy. Is she right?
I’m sure Flo heard about the circumstances of the fight: seeing the movie theater graffiti, beating Steve like a rented mule, then bloodying a cop’s nose. Nevermind that Jonathan didn’t mean to elbow Callahan in the face, no cop ever believes they got hit by accident. To Flo, it would make sense that there’s a coherent through line with these elements, and that Jonathan was motivated by love.
However, watching the scene again, its pretty clear that Jonathan doesn’t start throwing punches when Steve is insulting Nancy. At that point, he’s saying “Let’s leave. Let’s leave.”
It’s only when Steve starts insulting Jonathan’s family, saying Will is missing because he’s a screw-up from a family of screw-ups, that Jonathan throws that first punch. The fight is evidence that Jonathan loves his little brother, not the cute girl beside him.
Even so, I don’t think Flo is entirely wrong, even if she uses flawed evidence to reach her conclusion. I think Jonathan does already care about Nancy by that point. Maybe it’s not full-blown, let’s-portmanteau-our-names lurve, but I think he started to care for her from the moment he pulled her out of the tree to safety, then rolled out the sleeping bag onto her bedroom floor. Before that, he was sort of figuring her out, swapping stories about their parents while they were shooting cans, talking about his photography, whatever. He was getting to know her.
Once Nancy crawls through some extra-dimensional mucus portal into a world of murder monsters, she levels up to Proper Show Hero. And when she returns to our world, she’s a complete mess, justifiably freaked out to have accidentally ventured into an alternate Earth where she was hunted by a monster.
Jonathan is a care-giver and a helper. He cooks the family breakfast. He shops for a coffin, alone. He tracks down his deadbeat dad.
Then he and Nancy venture into the woods to find the monster, and she’s confronts it all by herself. His voice leads her back to safety. He’s the one comforting her, just as he had to comfort his mom and would try to comfort Will in season two, when the kids are calling him zombie boy.
He also offers to crash on Nancy’s floor so she won’t have to be alone, if that’s what she wants, and when he says that, his tone has completely changed from the “What’s the matter? You tired?” moment from earlier that night. His relationship toward her has done a 180, because she needs his help and he’s giving it.
I’m pretty sure this is where Nancy genuinely starts to care for him, too. She’s intelligent and full of initiative, and she needs someone who can help her get shit done. Jonathan does that for her, while Steve very much doesn’t.
In the morning, when Karen tries to open the door, they do that panicky hand-grasp thing, a Stranger Things-specific indicator of growing closeness between two characters (of different genders, of course). Murray will call it “shared trauma” but up to this point, it’s Nancy’s trauma. Jonathan is just there to make it better.
Of course, later he gets monster snot dripped into his open mouth, so he eventually gets his trauma, too.
There’s more to say about this triangle in the second season, when Nancy is trying to get Jonathan to go to a party so he could maybe meet someone, which he does and he does, and poor Steve, like so very many boyfriends and husbands, is shocked to discover that his partner is unhappy. Plus, Dorothy Sayers. But this post is already too long.
Stranger Things! Where everyone sees the references to older stories, images, and tones, but no one seems to recognize how the show undermines them. 
If you’ve read this far, thank you! (Also: I write books)
 I joked about this with my son and he immediately started saying: “Do you want to make a video essay?” in the tone I always used with him when I was offering to jump into a big project. Like, he would help me make a video essay. I brushed it off, because of the time it would take, and also my ugly face and weird voice, but I’m sure that was a mistake.
 Nancy doesn’t actually redeem that door slam until the Snow Ball at the end of season 2, when she finds poor rejected Dustin crying by himself, dances with him and tells him that everything is going to be all right. Of course, she also tells him that girls his age are dumb, which… come on, Nancy. No need to build up a young boy by dumping on young girls.
 Stranger Things has two types of human villains: First are the Connie/Troy/Billy types, people who are cruel or violent and who do traditionally villainous acts like punch, humiliate, or kill.
Second are the Lonnie types, who aren’t going to slap someone around or whatever, but who are selfish and lazy. Their priorities suck, so when Joyce calls Lonnie about Will, Lonnie does nothing. He doesn’t even return her call, because he’s hoping the situation will resolve itself without him having to be inconvenienced. And he shows up for Will’s funeral with a flyer from an ambulance-chasing lawyer, because he figures his son’s death is somebody’s fault, and he’s going to cash in. He’s selfish.
Hopper starts off the show as a Lonnie type. That’s why he responds to news of a missing kid with “Coffee and Contemplation.”
Early S1 Steve is a Lonnie-style villain, with his “Don’t tell them about the beers” and “Why don’t we see All The Right Moves tonight?”. Nancy has her priorities right: her friend is missing and must be found. Steve still thinks he can ignore all that and go on dates. He’s selfish. He doesn’t transition to the more active villain type until he and his friends try to ruin Nancy’s reputation with the movie theater graffiti.
 The way I see it, if Steve hadn’t made that face turn, and stuck with Tommy and Carol, he would most likely have died at the end of S1. If the three of them had turned up with some kind of stupid revenge scheme in the middle of the Demogorgon confrontation, it would have killed them. That’s just story logic.
And while “Complete jerks do something stupid and get themselves ganked by the monster” is so 80’s that it was designed by the Memphis Group, that has more of a slasher vibe to it. It wouldn’t fit the tone of Stranger Things, which is more about community and coming together.
 For the second time. The first time she asks, he gets all embarrassed and apologizes. Which makes me realize that I can’t remember another time, in all three seasons, when he apologizes to anyone. He makes (well-intentioned) mistakes and he’s often wrong (Then again, anyone who disagrees with Joyce is going to be wrong) but the closest he comes to apologizing again is the hospital elevator scene in season three, where he admits that he was “mortifyingly wrong” but he never says that he’s sorry. Then again, “I was completely, mortifyingly wrong” might be better than “I’m sorry”.
 I thought it was pretty funny that Jonathan’s dig at Nancy, which is that she was on a path to an ordinary boring suburban life, is exactly the future that Steve, former jock, offers her in S2E1 when he says that he could skip college, stay in Hawkins with her, and go to work for his father.
 Seriously one of the worst Steve moments of the entire series. It might not be as harmful as the movie theater graffiti, but it is absolutely vicious, and I never hear anyone talking about it.
However, it’s clear that Steve knows he crossed a line he shouldn’t have. When it’s time for him to bang on someone’s door and shout that he wants to apologize, he doesn’t go to Nancy’s house. He goes to Jonathan’s.
 Another fun contrast between Steve and Jonathan: When Steve enters Nancy’s bedroom, it’s right after she’s explicitly told him not to come in. Throughout the rest of the scene, he tests her boundaries over and over, trying to get her clothes off, until she loses her temper. Then he gives a cutesy apology and everything is fine. Jonathan pushes exactly zero boundaries when he’s in Nancy’s room, checks with her that it’s alright for him to stay, and only gets into the bed (on top of the covers) when she asks him to. Steve is a guy who is accustomed to pulling shit on people, while Jonathan does not.
Unless he has a camera and you’re part of “the vast majority”. Get over that shit, Jonathan.
 Crap! I planned to talk a bit more about the original (and quite excellent) pilot for the show, but it’s just too much. It was called Montauk, and if you want to read it for yourself–tv pilots are quite short–you can do so here.
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