Islands with inhabitants who have unorthodox religious practices get a pretty bad rap in pop culture. From The Wicker Man—the original film from 1973, not the Nic Cage version with the bees—to Netflix’s criminally underseen Apostle, good things rarely happen to outsiders, by which I mean they’re probably going to be used in some kind of arcane ritual sacrifice. (Even if the correlation between burning a virginal police officer and saving dying crops to satisfy pagan gods is, um, a little suspect.)
Naturally, then, the warning siren goes off from the very beginning of the new HBO miniseries The Third Day. A grief-stricken man named Sam (played by HBO’s former Young Pope, Jude Law) is making his way through a forested area somewhere in the United Kingdom when he saves a mysterious girl from hanging herself. After she comes to and refuses to discuss what happened, Sam drives her back to her home: an island called Osea that is accessible for only a few hours a day on a narrow causeway when the tide is low. As these tales usually go, Sam must spend the night on Osea Island after failing to leave before the ocean swallows up the road. And he soon learns more about the people, the ways they intertwine Christianity with their worship of a Celtic war god(!!), and the strange feeling that he’s somehow connected to Osea.
As far as setups go, The Third Day is familiar territory for anyone who likes their Creepy Islands with a side of Potentially Dangerous Cultists. But the show makes an effort to outline its world in detail. The history of Osea Island as told on the series—that it was purchased in the early 1900s by a social reformer who wanted the place to become a working camp for recovering alcoholics and addicts, a man who was also suspected of being Jack the Ripper—is so ominous, you’ll be astonished to find out that it’s actually true. (Google Frederick Nicholas Charrington if you’d like to know more, or visit the real Osea Island website, which makes it seem like a much more enticing place to visit.)
Of course, the inhabitants’ Celtic paganism and how their traditions have carried on into the modern age are fabricated; in the show, they believe that Osea represents the soul of the Earth. “If the soul of the island is sick,” one local says, “then so is the world.” When Sam arrives on Osea, the island is going through a rough patch, experiencing a drought that’s affecting one of their major industries—oyster farming—and threatening the local economy. The islanders will do—and this is where things get rather concerning—anything to restore the land to what it once was. The extent to which those on Osea accept this line of thinking is perfectly expressed to Sam by an American academic (Katherine Waterston) who’s studying the island: “For them it’s not belief, it’s immutable fucking fact.”
While a lot about wayward cults can be terrifying—animals/people ritualistically butchered, strange local customs, locals wearing creepy masks for festivals, etc.—perhaps what’s scariest, at the moment, is when that unshaking conviction turns into something closer to dangerous denialism, like when the head of the cult in The Wicker Man convinced everyone that the island’s crops would heal once a human sacrifice was offered. Or, at least, that horror is heightened as it relates to our present predicament, when half of the United States is more concerned with political ideologies than public health in the face of a global pandemic. I never expected watching The Wicker Man or The Third Day to feel like looking into a funhouse mirror reflecting our pandemic-stricken reality, but here we are.
I would assume it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the people of Osea don’t have Sam’s best interests at heart, or that whatever they hope to accomplish in restoring the island’s “soul” isn’t particularly successful. The Third Day is a unique release in that its six episodes are split into two halves—the first three episodes following Sam over the summer, while the final three episodes take place over the winter with a new protagonist, Helen (Naomie Harris)—that are sandwiched around a live production called “Autumn” next month. (The live show sounds like a logistical nightmare, though it should have no bearing on your enjoyment and understanding of the series.) By the time that Helen visits the island with her two daughters for a wintry vacation from London, some locals are packing their belongings, half-completed real estate developments are in disarray, and almost nobody even bothers treating them with basic kindness. If Osea Island’s soul was wounded in the summer, by winter it’s all but decayed.
The show, which was filmed in the summer of 2019, seems rather prophetic. (On the whole, it does seem like Hollywood somehow anticipated the hellmouth that is 2020.) But strip away the sociopolitical resonance of its premise, and The Third Day remains an atmospheric treat with plenty of dazzling imagery—a surreal sequence in which Jude Law’s character takes LSD during a local festival and starts wandering in the forest will recall the trippy climax of Midsommar in the best (and most unsettling) possible way.
While the familiar Midsommar and Wicker Man vibes are what might draw viewers to the series—rest assured, there’s plenty of moments to scratch that freaky cult itch—cocreators Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly’s larger purpose is to use Osea Island to paint a portrait of grief. Sam, who’s scarred by the kidnapping and murder of his son many years ago, appears to be subliminally drawn to the island in spite of the obvious warning signs because it represents a fresh start. It should be no surprise that people can make questionable decisions in the midst of profound loss. (Helen is also grieving, but the details of her situation are best kept under wraps.) It’s an admirable, if not entirely original, conceit—one that might also satisfy zealots of an all-time great HBO series, The Leftovers.
Still, watching The Third Day, it’s hard not to linger on all the symbols—and not just the creepy markings etched onto the island’s caves or its pseudo-Christian-pagan church. Here’s a place where brutal, antiquated beliefs are pushed to their breaking point; stern conviction morphing into denialism and self-destruction. With all that happens heading into the end of the series—only five of the six episodes were made available in advance—it’s safe to label the inhabitants of Osea Island a death cult. That ideology ought to feel familiar as well: after all, we’re living with one.