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Castlevania, season 3 review

Part one in a future series, this post reviews Castlevania season three (2020) in its entirety. Spoilers!

Castlevania's third season is so refreshingly competent that I hesitate to say anything bad about it. To be sure, I could complain. However, the overall experience is rock-solid—darkly funny, clever and brutal. There's even a healthy dose of sex, despite my earlier fears. The wide cast features vampires, hunters, Judges, magicians, and craftsman. Bound up inside a larger conflict, the simple notion of good-versus-evil is abandoned for a more complex take.


This drama is the heart of the show, its ace-in-the-hole. This isn't to say its other areas—the actors, action and artistry—don't merit tremendous praise. They do. However, it's how these interact that makes Castlevania so rare: It's not a good videogame adaptation; it's an amazing videogame adaptation, something of a holy grail for me. It would have been easy for the writers to fall back onto the franchise's infamously wicked music, legionary monsters and iconic action. Instead, they craft these elements around a story that works incredibly well all on its own.

The premise is simple enough. With Dracula dead, Eastern Europe is a mess. Camilla has taken Hector home, but lost her army in the process; Alucard is steward of a ruined house; Trevor and Sypha are traveling the countryside fighting monsters; and Isaac is wandering the earth, making monsters. Nearly everyone's adrift, and those who aren't stand on the edge of a knife.

Right off the bat, there's a lot of pieces on the board. All interact smoothly thanks to the show's quick, snappy dialogue. The sardonic characters know the mess they're in and chew the scenery with aplomb. But when they fail—and fail they sometimes do—their choices feel human. This doesn't mean we need to agree with anything that they do, but we can at least understand what drives them. Dracula's motives for season one helped make his madness relatable. That's far more affecting than a simple cartoon character.


Camilla and her sisters are ambitious, not tragic, but the same rule applies. They rule over Styria, a fictional realm. Following Dracula's collapse, it stretches "eight hundred miles" (so much for the metric system). When the old man died, he left Camilla to pick up the pieces of an abandoned plan: enslave humanity. Whereas Dracula actually wanted to exterminate the human race, Camilla and her sisters want to herd people into camps. An absence of misery makes the whole ordeal frankly pragmatic, and why not? The sisters rule in a time when war crimes had yet to be outlined. According to them, it's their right to be what they are—members of a superior race, and aristocrats from an older, fantastical time when women ruled the planet.

So much of Camilla's conquest is logistic in nature. This might sound dull, but every decision plays out through wonderful dialogue, abetted by the simple fact that each sister has a unique personality and position: the genius, warrior, analyst, and diplomat. Two of them are even lovers. Still, they talk as family members do, knowing full well what games the others get up to (or don't). Their realness comes not from a checklist of outrageous traits, but how these play out realistically inside the fairy tale castle.


Smack dab in the middle is Hector, the gullible forgemaster. Once bitten, twice shy, he must be convinced to make for Camilla's army. No easy task. This falls to Lenore, the sexy diplomat. The fun lies in her attitude. She's not doing it because she's told; she's having fun, and plays her part superbly. The battle between her and Hector are generally fought with wit and words; they still hold their own against the scrappier melees had by Trevor and Sypha, or Isaac. The style of each makes it distinct, and adds to the show's overall variety.

When they first meet, Hector mistrusts Lenore, and rightly so; by comparison, Lenore is disarmingly soft—a fact she coldly reminds him of after beating him to a pulp. Her job is to make Hector (and us) forget what she is by being herself. She lies to Hector with bits of truth, giving him what he's always wanted. It speaks to her talents that she isn't wrong in this respect. Hector's second deception belies an underlying desire: to be told what to do. It's arguably why he served Dracula to begin with. Lenore simply uses it to her advantage.

This does involve a bit of sex. When Lenore uses her body to distract Hector, though, he's already bought into the scheme. But so has the audience—at least in the sense that they've been groomed for a narrative climax. Consider what's happening elsewhere: Trevor and Sypha storm the church; Isaac rides into Barad-dûr v2.0; and Alucard is molested by his new, horny friends, Taka and Tsumi. All comprise a collective build-up reaching its promised conclusion. Not all promises are kept, but herein lies a lateral pleasure, the chagrin of coitus interuptus offset by something comparably delicious to an orgasm: schadenfreude.


The action is grand and utterly saturated in sexual tension. So a temporary lowering of the guard by even the most skeptical can be pardoned—say nothing of those whose share the characters' needs and wants! I will admit, the sleight-of-hand is ambitious, but it pays off on all fronts. I found Alucard's betrayal to be the most sudden. Taka and Tsumi's transformation feels a bit rushed, but Alucard's devastation is all that matters. I understood his pain and why he might be fooled even if I wasn't—a dilemma promised by the show's opening scheme with the dolls. The guy is lonely as hell. Yet, he recovers from Taka and Tsumi's deception, reminding them viciously on how he isn't like his father—ironic considering what he does with the bodies, afterward.

It's this returning to older points that makes the show's numerous payoffs more effective. Hector's ring may have been an obvious ruse by itself; its part of a larger, complex plan is a marvel to behold. Equally satisfying is how Hector becomes part of that plan. As Lenore's pretty pet, his downfall evokes every conversation they had, every word made more embarrassing post-defeat.

This same concept applies to Trevor and Sypha. Early on, the couple wanders the war-torn countryside, playing custodians of nocturnal war. At town, they seek asylum and discretion regarding who they actually are, but also their surroundings. Ostensibly the town is something they can aid, and in ways that make sense. As the game plays out, this resolution melts into chaos. At the peak of the exchange, the town's tough, affable Judge is shown to be a serial killer.


Much like Summer of 84 (2018) misleads its audience with formulaic bliss, the Judge's startling unmasking changes the nature of everything that came to pass, for Trevor and Sypha; it kills their fun—tragic, considering how this enjoyment was all they had following the town's fiery demise. "We were living your life," Trevor grimly explains. "Now we're living mine." It's a fabulous twist, and throws subtle shade over future viewings. Next time, we'll be in on it; Trevor and Sypha won't, making their fun even more foolish. Their loss is our gain.

Straightaway Alucard is presented as lonesome; Trevor and Sypha, as thrill-seekers; Hector, as skeptical. These qualities inform their respective betrayals, becoming part of a larger story in the process. Perhaps the most straightforward player is Isaac, who I've barely mentioned. His story plays out in cold logic, a man of faith challenged by self-mastery following Dracula's death. He lacks the finer niceties of compunction, but still offers other people a chance: let him pass, and live. Thanks to their faith, they see monsters and attack him.

Isaac's story explores the nature of autonomy in a post-religious world. Many desperately cling to the delusion of faith. Isaac does not, questioning the meaning of existence with every step. While cruelty and servitude have made him into a human monster, he retains a fearsome intelligence. Like Hector, Isaac has the power to make demons; unlike Hector, he is free. Seeing what Isaac does with that freedom is utterly fascinating. His conversations wend and twist, leading up to the season's greatest surprise: the battle with Legion. The madwoman's explanation does little to prepare us for it, and I found myself picturing Blondie, stumbling onto the impossibly stealthy Union camp in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967).


Isaac's arc doesn't stop the show in its tracks; it seeks to address some of any philosophical components we may have missed elsewhere. However, even Hector learned there was more to vampire culture than the legends suggested. The same is true regarding Isaac and his own faith. In the absence of a stabilizing master, Isaac began to think for himself, criticizing Islam and spreading the truth offered by Dracula's mere presence on earth. This revelation was shared at least partially by Sala and his mad monks. The difference lies in their interpretation, a stance informed by what they were before this knowledge came to them.

It's remarkable how cohesive this drama is. Each perspective reinforces a common theme, while also giving the audience something unique. Isaac's battle with the magician is unlike Trevor and Sypha's scrap in the church basement, or Lenore's sultry diplomacy in Styria; all invest the viewer in a larger story: Isaac's victory and the heroes' ignominious defeat sit in the shadow of Dracula, who waits patiently in Hell for his return.

No such complexity existed in Castlevania 3 (1989) or Symphony of the Night (1997). These games told their stories through the player inside the gameworld, through a series of chambers, music and textual elements. Castlevania frames its characters in a narrative alien to the palimpsest, but one that feels at home within borrowed material. Trevor, Alucard and Sypha still seek to defeat Dracula. This time they aren't simply avatars for the player to control, though; they feel human through their own actions, not ours. Likewise, the plights of their enemies address elements beyond anything the older games could ever hope to explore.


I'm not saying videogames can't present complex stories. They absolutely can. This being said, the Castlevania videogames were fairly simple by design. Within a broad vault of Gothic pastiche, the Belmonts fight Dracula because they were good and he was bad ("You have been doomed ever since you lost the ability to love!"). The show offers a more nuanced interpretation, granting multiple sides to an older conflict packaged in a different format. It's less about the dance of the monsters from older stories, and more about dialing back the textual recursion to tell a particular story inside a parallel universe. It's hardly a replica, but for what it is it works incredibly well, and keeps the spirit of Castlevania alive. Dracula lives!

***


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