Castlevania has escaped Dracula’s thrall. The big bad vampire lording over the land (and the monstrous spookery taking place in its darkest shadows) fell in the penultimate episode of the Netflix show’s second season—and, in the aftermath of Dracula’s death, all that’s really changed for the world of Castlevania is that there’s a power vacuum in Eastern Europe and its central characters have lost their external purpose. “If you don’t have your own story, you become part of someone else’s,” a mysterious Caribbean captain (Lance Reddick) tells the wandering, revenge-hungry forgemaster Isaac (Adetokumboh M’Cormack) midway through Powerhouse Animation’s latest 10 episodes. The third season of Castlevania acknowledges the futility of its original premise’s quest (killing Dracula) and finds power in redefining its characters, free from the darkness of an iconic monster’s shadow. Killing Dracula and moving on was the best thing the show could’ve done.
Series writer Warren Ellis hones in on the idea of personal stories this season, giving fantasy lovers a show ballsy enough to dispense with its Big Bad and reflect on how little achieving that goal has changed … well, anything. Even though he said that “Season 3 is the psychedelic horror season; Ellis has really made Season 3 into the existential horror season. The psychedelia only really takes hold in a single one of the Game of Thrones-esque split storylines (but sweet rainbow demons does it take hold starting in Episode 6), leaving the rest of the show to wander in its angst. If the first seasons were an ordered progression of good (or at least good-ish) against evil, Season 3 dramatically confronted its characters and instantiated change—giving the anime depth beyond its final boss.
For Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage) and Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), that means wandering the countryside together, finding pleasure in battling monsters and helping towns along their way. When a small town’s leader, The Judge (Jason Isaacs), asks the duo to help with a corrupted church somewhere between Hellraiser and Event Horizon, Trevor is wary about getting sidetracked and focused once again on an external goal.
The church itself is heavily symbolic of the larger plot. It is rife, like all fallen churches, with existential fallout. Dracula’s death did not solve anything and, in some instances, made lives worse thanks to the increasing amount and boldness of night creatures. So perhaps Dracula was good, preaches Prior Sala (Navid Negahban). Perhaps Hell, in fact, rules very hard.
But it’s different this time around. It’s not the story of Dracula. “It’s all our story,” Sypha reassures Trevor. They speak of what they enjoy in life, what matters to them, and their strong relationship makes both characters shine like never before. With their confident connection, alloying their senses of self in the forge of each other’s arms, they have the ability to tackle quests without losing their identities to them.
However, this isn’t the only danger the season presents—and not everyone has a companion to lean on. Ellis has crafted his thematically linked arcs to show how exploitation and cruelty (or blindness to those two sins) can run rampant throughout society, all in service of a search for purpose. Alucard (James Callis), lonely and depressed, is briefly rejuvenated by would-be vampire hunters Taka (Toru Uchikado) and Sumi (Rila Fukushima); Isaac, also lonely and depressed, sees his hatred of humanity only briefly waver as he prepares to enact revenge; and Hector (Theo James)—again lonely and depressed—strives to survive his captivity now that Carmilla (Jaime Murray) has reunited with her vampiric sisters/co-rulers Lenore (Jessica Brown Findlay), Striga (Ivana Milicevic), and Morana (Yasmine Al Massri). They’re all reduced to base personal needs, and all see this leveraged against them.
All of it works like gangbusters, mostly because it’s so desperately personal in a show that’s previously reveled in the otherworldly and hedonistic—or pushed all these characters’ larger problems aside because there was a much bigger one (Dracula!) in the way. But exploring the smaller scale issues is often even better. The desire to be needed, either as a teacher (Alucard), a weapon of justice (Isaac), or simply something more than a living forge (Hector), opens them all up to the ulterior motives of others. Alucard’s bisexy love scene telegraphed its tragic end while Lenore’s kinky power play seduction (a must in any vampire story) of Hector was never going to end well. And Isaac? He’s buffeting all remaining humanity still coursing through his psyche, ignoring any flickers of worth in the vast wasteland left by his people.
These complicated personal failings leave everyone at effectively the same place at the end of this season, only harder, harsher, and more disenchanted with the world. The show is still on the precipice of a new vampire threat, its heroes scattered and cynical, but with a more mature cast that realizes its grand fairy tale (or videogame) notions of defeating evil and seeking justice might not be as impactful as they may have thought.
The only person that really finds what they’re after is newcomer magician Saint Germain (Bill Nighy), who fulfills his own quest inside that fallen church’s extra-dimensional portals. But it wasn’t a quest of death. It was a reunion. A rescue—or as close as you get to a rescue when you have to jump into a demon portal. At least Germain and whoever he went to find were no longer alone. Before his portal pointed at the correct dimension, it looked into Hell and saw Dracula holding his wife—not only a great fake-out (“Are they bringing him back?”) but a thematic pay-off on his bittersweet end. The murder of Dracula’s wife spurred his extinction-oriented plan for humanity, but his love was ultimately all that remained—even in Lucifer’s domain.
The season’s couplings were not only part of Castlevania’s casual diversity—vampires and those working for or against them come in every shade, and a mixed-race lesbian vampire couple is about as awesome as it sounds—but were necessary bastions for its adrift characters. It’s what made the betrayals of tragic twinks Hector and Alucard so painful to watch: they just needed a connection. Even Lenore, who turns Hector into a magical slave by the end of the season, still wants his chambers fashioned with an extra-large bed for her to share when she pleases. The dramatic season’s true pair, Trevor and Sypha, fittingly ride off at its finale with no easy answers. With R-rated novelty fading from the violence, sex, and profanity, Castlevania’s third season found its latest way to be fresh: by showing its characters that it’s no longer a videogame, and that life is only harder after the final boss falls.
Castlevania is currently streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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