Reviewby James Beckett,
Castlevania Season 3
In the months since Dracula's defeat at the hands of monster hunter Trevor Belmont, the magical Speaker Sypha Belnades, and the half-vampire Alucard, the world has rapidly begun to change, though not necessarily for the better. Trevor and Sypha have gone on many monster-slaying adventures together, but their partnership and relationship will be tested when they arrive at the village of Lindenfield, which the local Judge reveals has been haunted by otherworldly visitations, along with the presence a growing cult that harbors a frightening obsession with the recently deceased Count. In further reaches of the world, Isaac has risen an army of demons to trek across the world in a campaign to avenge Dracula and destroy his rival Forgemaster, Hector, who himself has been taken captive by the ambitious Carmilla and her coterie of Vampiress sisters-in-arms. While the would-be Queen of the Vampires plots her own bloody path towards the subjugation of humankind, Alucard finds himself wasting away in his father's lonely castle, until two wayward vampire hunters from the fear east form an unlikely bond with him. As hero and monster alike is consumed by the dark threats that would tear the world asunder yet again, it becomes increasingly clear that killing Dracula was only the beginning of the nightmare.
It's been over a year since I reviewed the surprisingly well-crafted and action-packed first two seasons of Netflix's Castlevania. At the time, one of my chief complaints was that the best of the show's characterization and storytelling was buried beneath an overbearing emphasis on brutal (but undeniably satisfying) action scenes. Season 3 takes nearly the inverse approach, spreading no fewer than four separate storylines that span multiple continents and planes of existence across ten episodes of roughly thirty-minutes apiece. Given that the art, music, and animation of Castlevania has more-or-less remained consistent in quality, you'd think I would be elated. It's everything I already liked about the first two seasons, along with much more of what I asked for.
It's a shame, then, that I seemed to have invoked the Monkey's Paw yet again. While there is a lot to like about Castlevania's experimental and greatly expanded scope, the show's ambitions come at quite the cost. What I liked about this season, I liked a great deal; when it didn't work, though, the results weren't just underwhelming, but borderline disastrous. What stings the most is that nearly all of its failures come from it giving me exactly what I wished for: More character development, and more focus on plot and worldbuilding. I got what I wanted, alright, so much so that I was damn near choking on it all by the time the final episode drew to a close.
The splitting-up of the cast and the story is an undeniable problem. When done right, this approach can yield bountiful returns, effectively giving you a bundle of excellent stories wrapped in one. What Castlevania struggles with is in making each of its disparate storylines individually compelling enough to last the whole season. Trevor and Sypha's misadventure in Lindenfield is far and away the most successful of the bunch in that regard. The pair's relationship is a charming as ever (Richard Armitage is never more likable than when he is bantering with Alejandra Reynoso), and each of them are tested in unique ways across all ten episodes as they uncover the fresh hell waiting for them in the dark corners of the Priory's halls. Most of the new characters we meet here are frankly quite disposable, except for one: The enigmatic Count Saint Germain, played to mirthful perfection by the inimitable Bill Nighy. I have a lot of issues with how so many of the cast members in this show are compelled to deliver their lines in a constant, droll whisper, but Nighy is a king amongst men, and his gung-ho efforts make literally every scene he is in a delight (even when Saint Germain's story is less-than resolved by the end of the season). The Lindenfield story also provides the most twisted and downright viscous action that we get this time around; mind you, it's nothing that comes close to the cathartic heights the assault on Dracula's castle provided back in 2018, but it's hellacious fun all the same.
Isaac and Hector's respective arcs are much less entertaining, largely because the show's dialogue and pacing make their interludes feel agonizingly overlong. The script and actors often read like they're tuned to the sensibilities of an hour-long live-action drama, but that just isn't what Castlevania is. In a show like Game of Thrones, for example, you might be able to sustain a nearly ten-minute conversation held between two brooding, soft-spoken figures, as the many nuances of cinematography and the actors' physical performances would hold your attention in between the spoken lines of dialogue. Not here – whenever Isaac goes on at length about his hatred of mankind, or when Hector is being abused and seduced by a vampire with ulterior motives, you can't help but notice all of the awkward pauses and static facial expressions. By the time both stories reach their climax at the tail-end of the season, the over-the-top action and sex scenes come as a relief mostly because it means everyone will finally shut up for a while. There are neat ideas to be found in these plots, as well as some interesting setup being done for future stories, but there's absolutely no reason either plotline had to be dragged out for so long.
That's nothing compared to Alucard's storyline, which is such a baffling waste of time and potential that it singlehandedly drags the entire show down in quality with it. Hector and Isaac's stories are only tangentially related to each other, it's true, and neither of them ever feel as urgent as Trevor and Sypha's half of the plot, but Alucard's story is the one thread here that feels like a genuine waste of time. At first, the arrival of Japanese vampire hunters Sumi and TAKA into Alucard's lonely life seems like an interesting step for Castlevania to take, expanding its cast and its world while also nodding towards the culture that produced its source material (not to mention the many anime that serve as its aesthetic inspiration). Then you realize that the storyline is maybe substantial enough to produce a half-hour of material at most, and that it isn't just written inconsistently – it's straight-up cringe worthy at times, with the kind of twists and turns that depend on every character involved being making really stupid choices with obviously terrible consequences. If Alucard's entire character arc had been confined to a single episode or two as its own little aside, it would have been deeply disappointing, but tolerable. Less forgivable is having the plot interrupt almost every episode on a regular basis, just so it can arrive at a shockingly lame conclusion that only exists to shove certain characters into positions for a hypothetical follow-up season that may or may not get made.
I really wanted to love Castlevania bold new direction, but the show is hellbent on making it as hard as possible. It says a lot that this season about as long as the first two were combined, but it feels like very little actually happens. I can forgive the show for indulging a little too much in Warren Ellis' crass dialogue; I can also take it in stride when it ends up being being goofy, or inconsistent, or dumb. After all, we're talking about a hard-R rated adult cartoon based on a beloved series of action-platforming games where you kill Dracula a bunch of times, make frenemies with the Grim Reaper, and steal whole roast chickens from the walls of an ancient murder castle. The cardinal sin that Castlevania Season 3 commits is in becoming the one thing a Castlevania property should never, ever be: Boring.
Overall : C-
Story : C-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : B-
+ It's as bloody and brutal as ever when the action kicks in and the monsters come out to play, Trevor and Sypha's story is a lot of fun, Bill Nighy steals the show as Count Saint Germain
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