For all the talk about New Coke being a "plot point" in the third season of Stranger Things, rest easy: The infamous 1985 reformulation doesn't prove toxic to creatures from the Upside Down, or anything else remotely pivotal to the story. It does, however, provide the new installment's most self-aware moment. Late in the season, during a rare moment of no one's life being in immediate peril, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) cracks a can of the stuff, much to the gang's disgust. "How do you even drink that?" Mike (Finn Wolfhard) asks.
"Because it's delicious," Lucas responds. "It's like Carpenter's The Thing. The original is a classic, no question about it. But the remake?"—and here he takes a comically loud gulp and exhales happily—"Sweeter. Bolder. Better."
Peter Rubin writes about media, culture, and virtual reality for WIRED.
If Lucas is messing with his friends, the trollery pales in comparison to what show creators Matt and Ross Duffer are doing. Sure, Coca-Cola Company, we'll gladly incorporate New Coke into the show! Of course we'll depict it favorably! But the Duffers' real message is for the rest of us. You like John Carpenter movies, right? We do too. So we'll give you one—our way.
Thankfully, that's exactly what happens, and the result is both sweeter and bolder than Stranger Things past. After a second season that developed its characters but lost its grip on mystery, the show roars back by sticking to one core rule: It keeps the dark stuff dark and the light stuff light.
There's plenty of both in the eight episodes, all of which arrive on Netflix today. This time around, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) mostly escapes the evils lurking around Hawkins, Indiana—which is good, because he's having a tough enough time with puberty. Mike and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) have paired off, as have Lucas and Max (Sadie Sink); even Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) claims to have met the girl of his dreams at sleepaway camp. But before those early-teen hormones can course too freely, things go awry. This is Hawkins, after all.
The awryness this time around comes in gratifyingly grosser form than it has in seasons past. The Duffers' grand homage incorporated Carpenter movies from the beginning, but never has it so consciously leaned into the viscerality of films like The Thing. It's not all at once; instead, the gore worms its way into the show. Drips give way to gouts, and by the season's 77-minute final episode you've been treated to some truly glorious moments of shock and ewww. It's an astonishing turnaround for a show whose balancing act hinges on Spielbergian sanitization. (With a few minor exceptions: Pour a little out for Bob Newby, y'all.)
That's not to say everything is raw and exposed. Eleven's independence continues to bloom, pulling her away not just from adoptive dad Hopper (David Harbour) but from her puppy-love beau. The friendship between Eleven and Max, and the ways both they and the boys try to navigate hazy new post-childhood rituals, are some of the show's keenest triumphs. Meanwhile, the grownups are still out there stumbling around. Hopper and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) reunite with paranoid gadgeteer Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman) for their own strand of the proceedings—proceedings that arise thanks to older siblings Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), both of whom are interning at the local newspaper.
The Duffers know what worked in season 2, especially the bear-cub bromance between Dustin and Steve (Joe Keery), and they approach this season like a Crispr experiment. Dustin and Steve get their own arc again, but this time their dynamic gets spliced and replicated: Steve with his ice-cream shop coworker Robin (Maya Hawke) and Dustin with Lucas' sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson). The mitosis works for the older pair, less so for the younger; the little-sister brattiness that was hilarious in Season 2 snippets wears thin here, though over the course of the season Ferguson modulates herself out of Ersatz Dee caricature and into someone who clearly will be the next generation of D&D-obsessed Hawkins-saver.
Where Stranger Things goes from here is both obvious and tenuous. You don't get out of the new season without sacrifice, though the Duffers are careful to leave just enough wiggle in the rope. Also, we’re still at risk of diving headfirst into the shallow end of the pastiche pool. Season 3 makes its macro play plumbing the mall culture of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but even its tiny trope moments—commandeering the car of a popped-collar douchebag with a vanity license plate, or a hall-of-mirrors showdown straight out of Enter the Dragon (or John Wick 2)—feel dutiful, if not derivative.
The creators always saw this show as going four seasons, five max. That it still feels as vital as it does is a feat unto itself. But to extend that magic is going to take some ingenuity—and maybe even some originality. Back in 1985, Coca-Cola ultimately caved; in 2020 and beyond, the Duffers are going to need to have faith in their new recipe.