When in doubt, count on Jude Law. Law is a reliable, effective leading man at this point in his career. He knows his lane and he manages to bring you into his orbit so you can see the world from his point of view. Because of this, having Law usher us into the world of HBO’s The Third Day is necessary. A show with this many ideas, numerous performances in varying degrees of effectiveness, mixed direction and writing, and one hell of a mid-season event requires a North Star like Law, who turns in a compelling, top-notch performance.
The Third Day is the result of a collaboration between Sky Studios, HBO, Plan B Entertainment, and Punchdrunk International. While the UK-U.S. alliance on this limited series is noteworthy, it’s the mention of Punchdrunk that’s the real attention-grabber here. Punchdrunk are the folks behind the immersive theatre production Sleep No More, based on Macbeth, which should tip you off to the high-concept, theatrics-prone show you’re about to dive into. Additionally, the limited series is split into two parts, “Summer” and “Winter,” with a one-take live episode directed by Punchdrunk Artistic Director Felix Barrett set to air on October 3 — one which will break these halves up while also filling in some narrative gaps about life on Osea.
Back to Jude. The first half of our story, “Summer,” begins with Sam (Law) driving along a country road somewhere deep in Essex. He’s making a pilgrimage, the reasons for which are integral to Sam’s emotional journey, but it already has him on edge. His trip is interrupted by a chance encounter which leads him to Osea, an island sitting just off the southeast coast of England at the mouth of the River Blackwater. I give all of this geographic detail because if there is one thing The Third Day nails, it’s immersing us almost immediately into this surreal yet familiar rustic setting. (Daydreams of going to Osea and escaping this tech-filled world are a very real risk while watching.) What should be a quick trip to the island — which is only accessible by a causeway exposed when tides are low — becomes a haunting spiral into self-discovery Sam is neither prepared for nor really willing to lean into.
This journey into Sam’s truth is helped along by the rogue’s gallery of Osea natives — including smashing turns from Emily Watson and Paddy Considine — all of whom are bound to the land by Celtic lore mixed with a pseudo-Christian ideology and devotion to preserving their cloistered way of life. As we’ve seen in The Wicker Man, Midsommar, and even Netflix’s Apostle, living in a contained group bound by a stringent ideology is the stuff of shadows and secrets and an opaque moral compass shared by the collective. The truth about Osea and its small community is as much a mystery to solve as the reasons why Sam simply cannot tear himself away from the island.
The reason for Sam’s time in Osea becomes clearer in the second half of The Third Day, “Winter,” which switches to Naomie Harris as Helen, dropping her into a new time but retains the same supporting cast and Osea setting. But while there is plenty of plot twistiness to keep you hooked, it feels superficial. The balance of risk-reward via the show’s lean into high-concept is strained when it dips into the fanciful. Masked characters, teases of a music festival with massive puppets, and even a pervasive and symbolic green tint to every frame are interesting choices here. The show purposely convolutes its relatively simple story with the flashiness of dream sequences that ultimately go nowhere, vague exchanges between Sam and the islanders which bring momentum to a dead stop, and one particularly silly drug-fueled sequence which has the trappings of Punchdrunk’s artistic vision written all over it.
If the creative innovation falters, The Third Day leans on the audience’s familiarity with, say, The Wicker Man and hopes that if we can’t latch on to the original bits, we can at least latch onto those easy comparisons to find our footing.
One of the most frustrating things about The Third Day is its failure to follow through on its thematic interests which could ultimately benefit it. The show, which exists in a post-Brexit England, is willing to make casual commentary on the country’s immigrant community and vaguely pit it against the majority white, Christian/Celtic community of Osea, without having the stones to really go there. There’s also an interest in exploring the weight of both motherhood and fatherhood without really finding anything interesting to say about it. Sam, his ally Jess (Katherine Waterston, who is, surprisingly, one of the show’s weakest performers), and Helen are all figure into this aspect but have little to work with. There’s even a spark of interest in looking at the state of religion in the modern world but The Third Day has, at best, a passing care for it in the confines of the story it’s telling. This is a real shame considering whatever religion the residents of Osea have cobbled together by this point feels extremely integral to their motivations in keep Sam on the island.
The Third Day is as lost and directionless as its characters. By the time you reach the end of the “Summer” section, you’re left with as many — if not more — questions as you have answers. You’ll feel slightly dazzled from its aesthetic pleasures, as it’s a show where the setting is as much as characters as the bodies that populate it, but your mileage may vary on how invested you feel by the time you get to the hurried, slightly sweaty second half to the final “Summer.” And look, I know I’m talking a lot about “Summer” but I do this only because if we talk about “Winter,” then I’m going to spoil some of The Third Day‘s best twists. Who wants that?
The Third Day‘s domestic premiere is tonight, September 14, on HBO at 9/8c. Then, on Tuesday, September 15, The Third Day will premiere in the UK on Sky Atlantic.
Allie Gemmill is the Weekend Contributing Editor for Collider. You can follow them on Twitter @_matineeidle.