Behind The Outsider and Lovecraft Country, HBO has really been leaning into horror in 2020 (and who can blame them, really). That trend continues with the network’s latest miniseries, the sci-fi/horror/thriller The Third Day, starring Jude Law and Naomie Harris in a story that is as puzzle box as any—we truly are learning details by the minute in each episode, and those details are constantly more puzzling, confusing, and, at times, disturbing than the last.
Fans of Ari Aster’s 2019 horror film Midsommar will feel right at home when watching The Third Day, which follows a pair of protagonists (Law and Harris) during separate trips to a strange, commune-like island with a very specific group of people living there, all of whom are said to have lived there for generations.
While Midsommar worked remarkably well as a film thanks to its constant drug-trip feeling combined with an atmospheric sense of dread (combined with beautiful imagery, a compelling storyline, and brilliant performances from both Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor, of course), The Third Day instead opts for a different route to explore its creepy commune world.
Based primarily on the real-life Osea Island (where many people and events discussed in the episode actually existed), the show has creepy, stunning imagery much in the same way that Midsommar did, but instead opts to build its world from the inside out, with a storytelling method that J.J. Abrams would call “mystery box.” We start the series knowing nothing—we know nothing about Law’s character, Sam. We know nothing about a girl he runs into, Epona. We know nothing abotu Osea Island, or the festival they are supposedly putting on, Esus and the Sea.
But we’re learning it little by little, which in a way makes for an extra compelling experience. All the intrigue and confusion that we have as viewers, we’re sharing with Sam. And if and when there’s something about Sam that we don’t know, or don’t expect to know, well, that’s when things can really start to go off the rails.
The first episode is one of the better starts you’ll see in any series this year, and Dennis Kelly (who’s previous series, Utopia, is being adapted by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn for release on Amazon Prime Video later this month) does a wonderful job crafting a story full of twists and turns—at least for the time being. It’s something that not only works as a companion piece for Midsommar, but also feels a little bit out of the playbook of Black Mirror master Charlie Brooker.
Spoiler alert: The rest of this story contains spoilers for the first episode of HBO’s The Third Day.
The first episode of The Third Day has a confounding ending.
At the end of the first episode of The Third Day, in the midst of getting quite drunk with Jess (Katherine Waterston) and several other patrons of the bar, Sam steps into the bathroom. While it’s already clear he’s intoxicated, things all of a sudden get real weird: suddenly he’s no longer in the bathroom, but in an open field, dark skies and wheat all around him (it’s beautifully shot by director Marc Munden).
Sam looks ahead, and sees a little boy with curly in the distance: the same little boy with curly hair who was helping Epona tie up the rope with which to hang herself earlier in the episode. Sam chases the boy through the woods, eventually finding himself climbing into some sort of a dungeon, where he sees flesh, meat, and bones all over the ground. He has no idea what this is—until he sees a shirt that’s easily recognizable as the one Epona was wearing during their encounter earlier in the episode. Horrified, he begins to believe that Epona has been mauled into pieces.
He looks up and sees the boy, a mask over his head (similar to Scarecrow from a Batman movie or comic), large shears in his hands, and screaming in the background. He blinks more and suddenly he’s the one with blood all over his hands, sitting still, screaming. He blinks again, and suddenly he’s behind the wheel of his car.
He gets up, seemingly confused on what’s happened, and how he got from the bar bathroom to his car, and goes to his trunk; there we see that he’s the one who has the $40,000 in cash that he’s been discussing all episode. His colleague didn’t steal it, nor did random burglars—he has it. He heads back inside, and we’re unsure what he knows and what he doesn’t.
What might be happening.
There are a few things that could be happening; a clear one would be that Sam knew exactly what he was doing, and is simply on a rogue scheme to steal money for either his own personal gain, his and his wife’s garden center, or both. This would make sense after hearing his extreme reluctance to call the police at the start of the episode.
Given his confusion, and the shots of him in that dungeon covered in blood, though, it’s also possible that something far more disturbing is at play, and that perhaps he has been demented, or cursed, for a while, or perhaps his landing on Osea Island has simply gotten him in well over his head.
What is clear, though, is that Osea Island is more than just a private place for a small community to live (and probably more than just a place to see Blink-182 or U2 play, which they seem to be attempting to convince people; it’s being set up sort of like a Bonnaroo). We’ve seen enough movies, we’ve watched enough TV—it never is. And when Mr. Martin (Paddy Considine) signaled to the dubious-seeming Tomo (Tom Lawrence), well, that’s all the convincing we needed. We can’t wait to see how much darker this already disturbing series gets in the coming episodes.
Evan is an associate editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE.
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