What We’ve Been Watching: Castlevania S3

What a time to be alive. We are officially on season 3 of the Netflix adaptation of one of the most iconic gothic-horror action game series ever. Written by Warren Ellis, one of the most outstanding writers in the business, and performed by several esteemed British actors makes it even more surreal to dwell upon. All of this talent bringing dimension and depth to a series that just amounted to a family of vampire hunters trying to take down the king, Dracula.

And after finishing up this latest season, one question keeps popping into my head: how did all of this go so right? Famous well-renowned actors and talented animators attached to the production. A script by Warren Ellis, one of the most venerated modern authors with an eye for human-driven drama and wry humor. Some fantastic animation that clearly revels in the schlocky gothic action the series is known for. But the best conceit of this adaptation is that it manages to look at all of the world-building elements set in the margins of the Castlevania videogames, and manages to reframe them as central pillars of dramatic storytelling and character drama, all to make sure the show isn’t just an extended storming of Castle Dracula by Clan Belmont ad nauseum.

The first two seasons of the show were a great showcase of this approach. Taking the very basic plot of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, season one became all about Dracula losing his human wife to the zealotry of the Church and amassing his centuries of scientific and occult knowledge to raise an army against all of humanity, with protagonist Trevor Belmont trying to pull his head out of a stein of ale long enough to get back into the fight; all drenched in themes of nature, faith, and some delightful off-color humor. Season two doubled down on this approach, making Dracula’s war with humanity feel closer to a vampire-themed Game of Thrones, with his warlords and allies conspiring with and against him, and giving some painfully relatable angst to Dracula’s son, Alucard, who continues to wrestle with the necessary evil of stopping his father but conflicted about his nature. All of this, but the show still remembers to revel in the gratuitous blood, gore, and sexual tension the genre embodies.

Season three is set in the aftermath of Dracula’s death during the prior season’s climax, and the absolute cavalcade of consequences that go with it. The major plot involves Trevor Belmont and his partner Sypha Belnades traveling the countryside finishing off the monsters and horrors left behind in the aftermath of Dracula’s war, attempting to bring some order and stability back to the people. Eventually it leads to them settling in a small village where tensions are beginning to rise between the local Judge, a mysterious traveling scholar with a personal agenda, and a secretive order of monks who have an unusual fascination with Dracula. Meanwhile, the remnants of Dracula’s War Council made up of Carmilla retreat, realizing they can use the fallout of the war to expand their dominion across more of Europe.

It is quite a risk to have the third season of the show continue after the death of arguably it’s most iconic character, but it does pay off for the most part. Across ten episodes, the main cast does become more fleshed out, the absolute best of the bunch has to go to Trevor and Sypha’s blossoming romance and brilliant chemistry, played with charm and delight by Richard Armitage and Alejandra Reynoso. There is a psychological back and forth between the captured Forgemaster Hector and Carmilla’s vampire warlords which leads to some surprisingly charged moments, as well as a subplot involving Isaac as he slowly amasses an army of monsters to lay siege to Carmilla’s keep. This does lead to this season feeling a bit unfocused due to the multiple characters in multiple locations, but the performances and character beats introduced help maintain the gothic atmosphere and a sense of people collectively catching their breaths after a hellish disaster.

Sadly, there is a case of infamous “Netflix bloat” that does drag the pacing a bit. There are at least two subplots with Trevor and Sypha involving a radical group of mad monks and a mysterious wandering scholar that goes on a little too long. Isaac’s journey, while well acted and produced, does feel narratively pointless since a lot of his journey feels so disconnected from everything else. But probably the most thorny side story involves Alucard. After going hermit to deal with killing his own father, he eventually becomes a mentor to two aspiring vampire hunters. The side story isn’t terrible by any stretch in terms of character motivations, presentation, or pacing, but the resolution of it feels like Warren Ellis falling back to some of his worst habits in terms of pitch black depressing story turns.

The third season of Castlevania is a great continuation of the weird energy that has helped this series thrive. There’s still a lot of creative electricity kicking around, and the characters manage to be well-developed and bounce off eachother with mesmerizing interplay. And when the action gets going, it is a visual feast for the eyes. Hopefully they can keep this momentum going for season four.

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