Editor's Note: This review contains major spoilers for seasons 1 and 2, as well as minor spoilers for season 3. Bring your holy water and crosses, if you dare.
How do you adapt a video game series like Castlevania? With a heavy focus on platforming, level design, atmosphere and (sometimes, for our sake) leveling up, the story and characters seem to come last in the queue for Konami's cult classic series. Yet Warren Ellis has managed to do the unthinkable, turning the beloved vampire-killing series into a character-driven show that's won the praise of fans and newcomers alike. Castlevania is a bloody, vulgar show that's full of heart; it's not afraid to poke fun at itself, and it relishes in developing its characters, all while treating the source material with the utmost care. But at the shocking, whip-cracking climax of season 2, we were left with lots of questions, including one very big one: just how will the show continue without Dracula?
As it turns out, the death of the big bad may have only been the beginning.
Season 3 picks up a month after this event and splits the narrative into four separate arcs, each tracking a character or group of characters as they struggle to cope or move on in a world without Dracula. In effect, the death of Dracula has done nothing: there are still vicious monsters, Europe is now gripped by a power struggle, and as it turns out, humans can be just as evil as vampires. Getting rid of Dracula was a bold move, but it's quite possibly the best thing the show could have done. It gives all of the characters the chance to breathe and develop outside of goals such as "protect Dracula," "serve Dracula," "kill Dracula," etcetera. Instead of trying to stop his father, Alucard is now dealing with crippling loneliness. And Trevor and Sypha are no longer hunting vampires but setting out on adventures together, saving people as they go along their own way.
Each of Castlevania's four arcs gets a fairly even amount of screentime, and because none of them are interlinked, it's easy to follow each one, even with tons of new characters being thrown into the mix. Of particular note, in Trevor and Sypha's story, is Saint Germain, a character fans of Curse of Darkness will be very familiar with. Voiced impeccably by Bill Nighy, Saint Germain is a scholar and alchemist researching the Infinite Corridor, an extra-dimensional portal that leads to many different places: past, present, future, and even hell. He is knowledgeable, self-assured and confident, and his light-footed personality is a breath of fresh air for the show.
Speaking of the vampire-hunting duo, their role in this season is to uncover the mysteries of a religious cult who are attempting to revive the dark lord. The pair are now a couple and easily the heart of the show. Richard Armitage and Alejandra Reynoso know what makes these two characters tick, and they bring oozes of personality to the couple. Their banter never gets old, and Sypha is still an utter delight, bossing Trevor around and enjoying her newfound freedom from her Speaker origins. She also kicks ass throughout the season. What may have otherwise been a dull investigation into a murderous cult is enhanced by these character interactions, as well as Saint Germain's presence, and it makes the horrors they begin to uncover towards the end of the season all the more gut-wrenching.
We also get a whole new group of "villains" this season in Hector's story. One of two devil forgemasters, Hector betrayed his master Dracula with the help of Carmilla, who was, in turn, manipulating him. Now Carmilla's prisoner, Hector is at the whim of the cunning vampire countess and her coven of sisters: Lenore, Striga and Morana. These sisters squabble and scheme with each other, but they all care for and love one another. Striga and Morana, who are lovers, spend nights together discussing their plans to rule over Europe, and they talk adoringly of each other. Lenore, the "nicest" of the four, is almost too sweet at times — the kind of nicey-nice that gets under your skin — but the more we see of her, the more we understand just how far that's gotten her, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. Hector becomes part of their story, rather than getting a chance to forge his own, but the show goes to great lengths to reinforce just how gullible and naive he really is. It's this innocence that makes me sympathise with him, even when I know he could've made better decisions.
Isaac, the second of the forgemasters, is the true star of the season. While he was already a deeply complex and intriguing character, season 3 allows him to flourish on his own terms. Adetokumboh M'Cormack does an absolutely outstanding job of portraying Isaac's compassion and anger, balancing both delicately. His performance makes Isaac a believable, relatable character, rather than the monstrous villain the show could've painted him as. The anger he feels towards humans and the pain he suffered as a result of years of torture has all been laid out throughout the show. So by the end of the season, when Isaac has an entire army and city at his disposal, I was both afraid and in awe. He is slowly becoming a conqueror, another tragic villain who will stop at nothing to reach his goal. There are two ways I can see his story unfolding, both related to the game series' characters, and I'm so excited to see how his journey plays out.
Perhaps the weakest of the four plot lines is Alucard's, but I really think this just serves as a stepping stone for something far darker, and far different than we could have imagined. Very early on, Alucard encounters two Japanese vampire hunters, Taka and Sumi, whom he takes under his wing and promises to train. Some of their training and bonding sequences are adorable, showing Alucard as he basks in the company of his newfound companions. But Taka and Sumi aren't interesting on their own, and more than the other plot lines, this one feels a little rushed. This may be why the events of episode 9 are particularly shocking. I was suspicious of these two hunters for a while, but their parallels with the real vampire-hunting duo, as well as their discussions with each other throughout, hinted that something was off. What goes down in this episode between these three characters is not what I, or anyone, expected. Ultimately, it leaves Alucard in an even worse position than he was at the beginning of the season: straying from his human side and dancing dangerously closer to his vampiric half.
While it's safe to say this show is easy for newcomers to get into, there are plenty of rewards for fans of the video games too. The series has strayed far from both Dracula's Curse and Curse of Darkness at this point, but there are so many little references throughout. Early on, some travellers discuss someone called "The Pirate of the Roads," and this is a clear reference to the missing member of the quartet from Dracula's Curse, Grant Danasty. Then there's Isaac's final battle — easily the best fight sequence in the series — where he's up against a city whose residents are controlled by a wizard. As Isaac approaches the tower where his adversary resides, the wizard creates a mass ball of bodies for Isaac to deal with, which resembles
Brushing aside the fanservice, setpieces and humour, it's the slow burn and gradual unravelling of all of the characters and plot lines that made me fall in love with Castlevania in the first place, and season 3 might just be the best in this regard. Giving the characters, old and new, their own stories that don't intermingle with any of the others is a risk that has paid off. It creates a delicious tension throughout the season that hooks you and makes you fall in love with all of these characters. The lines between good and evil are blurred, and every character does what they believe is right. The show also does a great job at tricking you into trusting certain characters, which makes you feel the same pain and discomfort as the heroes.
Even having said all this, what makes Castlevania's third season stick in my memory so vividly is just the intensely sombre note it ends on. It clashes with the triumphant end to the previous season: the "bad guys" are all on top of the world, while the rest of the characters have been subjected to the cruelest parts of human nature. Dracula was not the sole evil in the world, and each story has encountered this truth in different ways, and at different stages, throughout the season. Even when the show is at its weakest, it feels like it's laying the foundation for something bigger and more satisfying. Seasons 1 and 2 have already proven that the waiting game works, and the payoff is worth it. Season 3 has shown that there's life after Dracula, and it sets us up for an exciting (and inevitable) fourth season of what is easily one of the best video game adaptations around.