I’ll never forget the first time I watched the penultimate episode of Stranger Things’ season three. Because hidden deep within a nesting doll of conspiracy, carnage, and bloody goings-on at the Starcourt Mall is a perfect, tender moment I never knew I needed. It happens on a bathroom floor. A loopy Steve Harrington, drugged by Russian operatives, confesses his feelings for his new friend Robin Buckley. The two work together at the ice cream shop Scoops Ahoy and unravel a top-secret Russian scheme together. They’re bonded now. It makes sense that they’d fall in love.
But then Robin confesses something herself. She’s not in love with Steve: she wants to be Steve. Because the ladies love him, and she loves ladies. “He doesn’t even know this girl,” Robin explains in third person, “and if he did know her, like… really know her… I don’t think he’d even want to be her friend.” It’s the ’80s after all, a time of rampant homophobia, slurs, and fear of other. Steve is a meathead jock with a history of bullying and violence.
And yet, despite all expectations, he does want to be her friend. Instead of mocking her, he makes a joke about her teen crush, Tammy Thompson, and her bad singing voice. (She sounds like a Muppet.) The tension between the two softens—right as the drugs wear off—and they laugh. Like, really laugh. Suddenly, Steve and Robin are something we could have never expected. They’re best friends.
I remember this scene with fondness because it feels almost unprecedented. It’s a moment of pure, unspoken acceptance; exactly what any queer teen could hope for in a coming out. Steve isn’t dramatic about it, nor does he make insensitive jokes. It’s just… normal. And it’s perfect because of that normalcy. It’s an example of what remains Stranger Things’ ultimate superpower, four seasons in: its cultivation and celebration of platonic love.
Steve and Robin’s friendship is one of the best parts of Stranger Things 4 too. Because once again, it luxuriates in normalcy; that safe space only two best friends can occupy. A lesser show would have Steve pining after Robin, as she continues to be unlucky in love, going on dates that lead nowhere. But never once does he make a cheap shot at Robin about how it’d all be easier if she wasn’t gay. He doesn’t lament what could have been if only she loved him back. Instead, he’s completely supportive of her crush on fellow band nerd Vickie, even giving Robin her own advice to be her most authentic self. He also cracks jokes about their mutual love of boobies, because really, who doesn’t love boobies?
Robin returns the favor as the season progresses, encouraging Steve’s renewed feelings for Nancy. Again, no quips about how it’d be nice if they could be together, no stupid jokes—nothing but comfortable, easy support and constant reassurance. It’s not sickly sweet, either, but genuine, lived in. Steve doesn’t bat an eye when Robin stumbles through vines in the Upside Down like she stumbles on words when she’s overexcited. It’s just who she is. It’s just who they are.
Their friendship is a nice antidote to the more outright romantic stuff. No offense to couples like Eleven and Mike, or Joyce and Hopper, or Jonathan and Nancy, but Stranger Things can get a little syrupy and meandering when it goes hard for traditional courtships. These pairings often feel like convenient ways to keep our core characters in the same narrative rather than relationships borne of genuine longing. There’s a decided lack of energy to the amorous scenes, even when they hit the right notes.
But the show strikes gold when it pairs off random characters and tests their platonic chemistry. What would Stranger Things be without Steve and Dustin? Or Eleven and Max, Murray and Alexei, Eddie and Chrissy, Dustin and Dart, or Dustin and Eddie? (Okay, Dustin is great with everyone.) There’s magic in these unexpected team ups. And at the end of the day, these bonds will help Stranger Things stand the test of time. Because it doesn’t play it safe or formulaic, but reminds us that there’s beauty and joy in the most surprising places—and the most surprising people.
For me, Steve and Robin are the little figures topping this cake of platonic love. There’s unspoken electricity between them in the fourth season. As they shelve blockbusters at Family Video and swap stories of their mutual lack of luck in love, they speak in shorthand, finishing each other’s sentences. They laugh again when Tammy Thompson sings at a pep rally. And eventually, Robin dives headfirst into this year’s mystery, just as Steve has done so many times before, because they’re in this together now.
I worry for Steve. His confession to Nancy—that he dreams of a future together, with their six “nuggets” in a Winnebago—feels like a speech that precedes a death scene. The kind of “give it your all” declaration that ushers in a grand finale. But I hope that isn’t the case. I hope Steve gets that Winnebago dream. It’s what he deserves after four seasons of evolution and maturation and a whole lot of babysitting. But he doesn’t need Nancy in the passenger seat, because Robin can meet that quota, too. Nuggets needn’t be biological. Family is more than marriage and happily ever afters.
Robin showed Steve that there’s more than one way to manifest a dream; that different roads can lead to the same future. When they sat there on that bathroom floor, he thought he needed love. And he was right—he needed the love only an unexpected best friend can offer.
Because those are the bonds that transcend and transform. Those are the connections that rub your back when your crush’s boyfriend comes home, or look on proudly as you flirt with the girl of your dreams. They’re what we need when the world cracks open and the smoke plumes rise and the fire spills. And they’re who’ll take the piss out of us when we get too cocky about saving the world. (“What does he want us to do, applaud?”) Stranger Things is a better show because it let Steve and Robin be those people for each other.