The Third Day, HBO’s excellent new miniseries that concluded on Monday, trades in the conventions of the horror genre. There are dead animals strewn about, their guts aligned in unsettling patterns. There are lone figures (mainly children) standing and staring in the pose I think of as “emotionless chic” at the end of natural or interior corridors. There are sudden jump cuts. There are swarming insects. There’s ominous, tinkling music. There are dreamlike chases through hedge rows. There are plenty of people in animal masks pacing through forests wielding sharp weapons. There are implications of psychosis, perfectly rational explanations that dissolve in the face of further terror, and mind-numbingly poor decisions by protagonists on the verge of escape, which will make you scream at your television.
And I understand why they have to be there, how they are tried and true methods of provoking a fear response. This is what plants The Third Day squarely in the horror genre, and distinguishes it from mystery or pure metaphor. Yet I can’t help thinking that these dietary staples are the weakest and most unnecessary part of a show that, in six one-hour episodes, manages to capture something elemental about the terror of modern, western life, while rarely leaving an island resolutely stuck in a pre-modern mindset.
That backwater is Osea Island, which is a very real place in east England on the River Blackwater, and it’s only reachable by a causeway that is flooded during high tide. (Well, okay, in real life there’s a boat, but let’s indulge the ambiance for a moment.) As a metaphor, it’s perfect, and perfectly clear: The mainland is both everything we’ve escaped from and everything we long to return to, with the road back tantalizingly clear in one moment, so tangible you can place your feet on solid ground, only for it to become, in the next, impassable, a wide forbidding sea that isolates you in the present. The analogies can be as broad as the umbilical cord connecting you to the womb, or as specific as … oh, I don’t know … a democracy that has taken a profound misstep, finds itself in the midst of political hell, and yearns for a way back.
On a less intellectual level, Osea is beautiful—a lush, verdant, pastoral kind of place that people rave about on TripAdvisor, and which attracts the likes of Rihanna when she wants to record a new album in solitude. With a dusky palette of unrelenting grays and dark greens, the directors make terrific use of the place, and the cinematography alone is worth the watch. The causeway, built by the Romans, is the spellbinding centerpiece, set off with overhead shots of the brackish steel-blue waters slowly overflowing the twisting road, cutting off the mainland and isolating Osea in a world of its own.
It’s this world that Sam, played by Jude Law, finds himself drawn to under strange circumstances while mourning the death of his son Nathan. As it turns out, he’s the unwitting heir of a man called Frederick Charrington, a philanthropist from a brewing family who established a retreat on the island in 1903. (Charrington is a real historical figure and a remarkable man who started a settlement on the island, but serious liberties have been taken with his story, including the scurrilous implication that he was Jack the Ripper.) The people of the island, numbering less than 100, see him as a potential “Father of the Island,” a title passed down through generations of Charrington heirs. Nor is it merely a ceremonial title; as every villager is eager to tell Sam, the ancient Celts believed that Osea was the “soul of the world,” and their views have not evolved an inch. What happens in Osea happens in the world, and so the fate of their small patch reverberates across the globe. As cults go, this one is extraordinarily egotistical, and Sam is, at first, duly skeptical.
But things change. Without succumbing to the rising tide of spoilers, suffice it to say he’s drawn deeper and deeper into the strange, dark mythology of the place. The performances are brilliant throughout this show—Emily Watson deserves special mention as the crass, flinty innkeeper Mrs. Martin—but Jude Law is the straw that stirs the drink. He’s the sort of actor who seems to contain a world of emotions in a square inch of facial expression, all of it built on a bedrock of some secret suffering. Whether he’s playing a tormented cult leader or a ruthless pope, I leave every performance thinking he must be the greatest actor of his generation, and then forgetting about him until he pops up in the next semi-obscure show or movie and amazes me all over again. Here, he’s a perfect match for the island, mesmerizing on the outside and inscrutable beneath; both entities rotting in some way that nobody quite knows how to stop.
Which brings me to the cultural parallels. At the risk of sounding obvious, it’s hard for me as an American to watch this show without connecting the exceptionalism of the Osea people to my own deluded countrymen, and the fading glory of the island to whatever decrepitude is settling in here. “The island is divided” is a phrase repeated on end, and I could only nod along and think, yes, so are we. Half of us want a restoration, an impossible causeway back to a better time, and the other half put their faith in ambitious con artists who use the myth of the place to manipulate and grasp at power. I’m sure there are viewers from any number of countries, England included, who could extrapolate and draw the same comparisons.
If the spy genre, led by John LeCarre, was among the purest methods of incisive cultural commentary during the Cold War, perhaps horror has taken its place in 2020. The mechanisms of fear today are no longer institutional or bureaucratic; they are based in the soul. We sense an impulse for destruction, for terror, for hatred, and those of us with the desire to resist it feel as though we’re sinking into a morass. The subtle encroachment of these elements are the psychological backbone of the horror genre; the sense that you can’t make yourself understood, that you can’t escape, that beneath a veneer of politesse, the other human beings around you want to succumb to ancient, occult impulses and bring on the dark catharsis we call fascism. As The Third Day shows in its best moments, we don’t need the Shakespearean symbology of imminent terror in our art; the people are scary enough.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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