SPOILER ALERT: Do not read until you’ve seen season 3 of “Stranger Things,” which premiered July 4 on Netflix.
When “Stranger Things” introduces a new character, it’s almost immediately obvious which archetype they’re supposed to represent. As a deliberate throwback to 1980’s blockbusters that prioritized thrills and jokes over characterization, most everyone can be described in just a couple basic words. There are heroes and bad guys, cool jerks and funny nerds. Three seasons in, the core cast has evolved more past their initial descriptors, but any addition is usually ripped straight from central casting. (See: Cary Elwes’ slimy mayor, who smirks about corruption while literally chomping on cigars.)
So when Robin (Maya Hawke) entered the picture in the premiere of season 3, a familiar pattern seemed to emerge. Positioned against prom king Steve “The Hair” Harrington (Joe Keery), Robin is initially a deadpan smartass completely immune to her new co-worker’s charms — at least, until she isn’t. As the two become closer while fighting nefarious Russians (naturally), both reluctantly letting their icy instincts around each other thaw, their becoming an opposites-attract couple seems like a no brainer — at least, until it’s not.
In the penultimate episode, after insisting all season long that she could never be his type, Steve tells Robin that he has a crush on her. Everything we’ve been primed to expect — from both “Stranger Things” and the teen romance genre it draws from in season 3 — makes it seem like this is the triumphant moment when the cool guy finally lets his guard down, admits that the girl misfit he’s overlooked for years might actually be the girl for him, and they ride off into the sunset. But instead, as he keeps listing all the reasons he likes her, Robin’s face falls. As it turns out, Robin doesn’t want Steve, because she wants another person entirely, one who also happens to be a girl.
This scene is one of the best the series has to offer, and not just because Keery and Hawke both knock it right out of the park. It’s great because it’s truly surprising in a way that “Stranger Things” rarely is.
As a purposeful homage to adventure movies that tend to only include female characters in the margins, it wasn’t exactly surprising that “Stranger Things” didn’t quite know what to do with its own. Though the Duffer Brothers knew enough to include women and girls, they still struggled to find ways to make the characters distinctive on their own merits outside of which boy or man they’re inextricably tied to. Even when played by the iconic Winona Ryder, Joyce has rarely been more than a frantic mother. Even as she learned to stand on her own, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) primarily served as the common point in a love triangle between outcast Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and cool guy Steve (Joe Keery). And even though she’s a telekinetic marvel, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has always been defined by her relationships to Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour).
In season 2, “Stranger Things” — maybe realizing after an overwhelming reaction to side character Barb (Shannon Purser) unceremoniously dying that fans were hungry for even a shred of a decent female character — did its best to adjust all this. The introduction of new girl Max (Sadie Sink) was a well-intentioned but clumsy attempt to even out the gender balance of the Dungeons and Dragons party; the scripts forgot to give her much of a personality beyond “another girl,” especially once they forced her into a tired rivalry with Eleven. It was frustrating, but given the show’s commitment to embracing tropes with open arms, also felt inevitable. Season 3, to its credit, does real work to undo the previous seasons’ stumbles by having Max and Eleven bond, Nancy commit to investigative journalism, and Joyce stand up more to Hopper’s steamrolling.
But it’s still Robin who ends up breaking free of the show’s typical tropes and running away with the season. This is thanks in large part to Hawke and Keery, whose immediately electric chemistry proves that not every worthwhile dynamic between male and female characters needs to be romantic, and probably also the fact that Robin’s sexuality means she can’t quite be paired off with a male character in the way that every other female character can. Sure, she and Steve are clearly bonded together by the season’s end (her securing him a job at the local video store despite his “pedestrian” taste is a sweet and hilarious coda), but their friendship is a unique spot of innovation within the show’s usual pastiche constraints. Robin shooting Steve down because she’s gay — not to mention him quickly recovering to fondly tease her that she can do better than her crush — is a deviation from the usual script that none of the show’s beloved reference points would’ve ever approached. “Stranger Things” is way better off for embracing it.