I’ve never gotten over Channel 4 axing Dennis Kelly’s masterpiece Utopia. Raved about by critics and fans, the first series arrived to little fanfare in January of 2013. Bold, colourful and telling a story that was twisty and utterly unpredictable, I fell completely under its spell. Kelly, with director Marc Munden, had created something unlike anything else on television. At times it felt as if you were watching a live-action comic book, other times, it transformed itself into a dark and violent horror film, and seconds later you’d find yourself laughing. When Channel 4 aired the second series the following year, they made the odd decision to air it in the summer. Viewers weren’t there and to my horror, it was announced the series wouldn’t be returning for a third series! I, like the rest of its loyal and vocal fanbase, felt cheated. I vowed to follow Kelly’s career closely.
Jump to 2020, and Sky and HBO announce The Third Day – a new collaboration between Kelly and immersive theatre specialists Punchdrunk. The press release I received told me that the six-part series would be divided into three sections. The first three episodes, entitled Summer, would follow Sam (Jude Law) a London family man in crisis who rescues a troubled young girl in the woods and take her back to her home on Osea Island.
The second, Autumn, would be an immersive 12-hour festival, and the final three-episode section, Winter would see young mother Helen (Naomie Harris) bring her two daughters on holiday on the Island. I was intrigued, particularly as the first section Summer, would see Kelly reunited with Utopia director Marc Munden.
Though the first episode isn’t exactly pacey, it’s impossible not to be drawn into Law’s performance as the clearly troubled Sam. As we meet him he’s crying as he floats a little boy’s T-shirt down a pre-determined stretch of woodland river in an evidently commemorative act before saving the life of a mysterious, troubled young girl who tries to hang herself in a nearby clearing.
When he arrives on Osea he’s immediately uncomfortable. Uneasy with the causeway that isolates the island from the outside world when the tide is in and wary of everyone he meets. He’s desperate to make a phone call that could save his family business, and perhaps predictably, the island is suffering from a lack of phone signal. Kelly and Munden build suspense and a sense of unease quickly. All of Osea’s locals feel otherworldly and secretive. Think Wicker Man, Midsommar and even League of Gentlemen. He’s immediately distrustful of everyone. Local Inn owners The Martins (foul-mouthed Emily Watson and overly friendly Paddy Considine) offer him a bed for the night which he reluctantly accepts only to find he has to share with Jess, (Katherine Waterston) who has arrived for the island’s festival and appears to share Sam’s feelings about the locals.
I’ll admit I struggled with the first three episodes of The Third Day. It’s an intense and immersive experience that I should have been better prepared for. There’s a lot of mythology that surrounds Osea that was initially lost on me. Munden brings the colour palette that I loved in Utopia, but turns it up to ten, with Sam pursued by brightly coloured insects and having vivid dreams that often more like a piece of performance art rather than something really happening within a TV drama.
Beneath the layers of atmosphere and mythology, it soon became clear this is a story about a man unable to deal with his grief. He’d son had gone missing years before and Sam makes a yearly pilgrimage to the same stretch of water he had disappeared by. The story was big news at the time and even the socially isolated inhabitants of Osea recognise Sam as the distraught father from newspapers.
As desperate as he is to leave the island and return home to his wife and two daughters, Sam seems unable to leave. He worries for the girl he rescued, he’s intrigued by the news that his Great Grandfather had visited Osea and is still warmly remembered. He’s also, against his better judgement, grown closer to Jess. He has a kinship with this stranger he can’t quite understand. The pair take psychedelic drugs and end up in bed. When they wake the next morning neither is sure if anything has happened between them.
Though not entirely onboard I was finding myself, a bit like Sam, more and more drawn in and more interested in what was really going on beneath the surface.
Before I go on, I want to say, I ended up adoring this. The next section, Winter, completely sucked me in and despite my initial reactions to the first section, I now think of this series as one of the best things I’ve seen this year, and like Utopia before it, I’ve never seen anything quite seen anything like it and it refuses to be put into a traditional genre box. That being said, I am now going to talk in greater depth about the final three episodes, so if you don’t want those spoiled, I suggest you stop reading here, go and watch the series in full and come back for my thoughts on the rest.
It transpires that Sam’s arrival wasn’t accidental but planned. The locals lured him there. His Great Grandfather was the founder of Osea and the locals believe they need his descendent to protect the island and keep it special. Over the course of the first three episodes, Sam’s attempts at escape are thwarted. In one instance he’s tied and gagged and in another, Emily Watson’s landlady holds him at gunpoint. As his mental health deteriorates further, Sam is told the son he thought he’d lost is actually living on Osea and waiting for him. If he agrees to stay and become the leader of the island the pair can be reunited. His final attempt to escape with Jess is also doomed to fail when she reveals she is one of the Islanders. Emotionally and physically exhausted, Sam relents and he’s reunited with the young boy in the big house on the island. It’s surprisingly moving to see father and son reunite.
Note: I didn’t watch the 12-hour left event which aired on Sky Arts and is still available to watch online. I was reliably informed that the event, which played out as a festival wasn’t essential to understanding what to come in the next three episodes.
Winter, directed by Philippa Lowthorpe introduces us to Helen (Naomie Harris) who has organised a surprise trip to Osea for daughter Ellie’s (Nico Parker) birthday. The pair are joined by Helen’s younger daughter Taluah or Lu (Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell) who is less enamoured with the idea of spending time on an island and more worried that it won’t have wifi for her tablet. Helen arrives at the Air Bnb she’s booked to find that she’s not welcome. She accuses the hostile mother and son who run the establishment of racism, but rather than return before the causeway closes, she persists, desperate to find somewhere for three of them to stay.
It’s clear from the start that the family have a lot on their plates even before they meet the strange inhabitants of Osea. Helen is struggling to pay the mortgage, Ellie has been in trouble at school after violently attacking a bully and is struggling to know where she fits in. While I struggled to acclimatise to the first three episodes of The Third Day, I completely relaxed into this new section. That’s entirely down to the three lead performances. Naomie Harris, Nico Parker and Charlotte Gairdner-Mihel are so believable as a tight family unit and I immediately relaxed with them on screen. Where Jude Law’s Sam had been a chaotic presence in an already intense show, the three women grounded the piece with measured and believable reactions to whatever hideous thing Osea threw at them.
While her daughters feel uncomfortable by the atmosphere of Osea and the hostility they’ve encountered, Helen is desperate to find them somewhere to stay. They end up at the Martins’ pub, and even though she’s told there are no rooms, she causes a scene and the threesome is given a room and burgers by a roaring fire.
As they clamber into the bed, Lu is still fixated with her tablet. When she finally puts it down we get a glimpse of the wallpaper on the home screen. It shows, to my complete surprise, a very happy family wrapped in each other’s arms. Helen, Ellie, Lu and SAM! Granted, I should have predicted this from the start. Sam mentioned he had two girls numerous times but I had been led to believe that the two sections that made up the series were unrelated. I was already engrossed in the story, but this ‘twist’ spurred me on further.
When the girls wake up the next morning, there’s a commotion downstairs. The Islanders are arguing and it’s clear a woman is in distress. Helen tells the girls to stay put as she reluctantly goes to investigate. The woman screaming in pain is Jess in labour. With no medical expertise at hand, Helen, who used to be vet, takes charge and helps Jess to deliver. Secretly watching, Ellie tells Lu if they’re seen it’s Ellie that will get the blame because Lu is her mum’s favourite. Spitefully, Lu tells Ellie that she’s like their dad because they’re both ‘psychos’.
I can’t stress how good Nico Parker is as Ellie. Her performance is so nuanced, gentle and calm that I found it impossible not to fall completely under her spell. She has clearly struggled to find her place in the world not only since her dad disappeared to Osea but she has lived in the shadow of a dead brother she has very little memory of. She is someone desperate to belong somewhere, which makes her ending up somewhere like Osea so dangerous. She’s also realised her mum is lying to her about why they’ve really made the trip.
She is befriended by fellow teen Kail, Jess’s daughter (Freya Allan) who takes her under her wing and tells her how unique and special the island is and how lucky she is to have arrived here.
When Jess goes missing, everyone splits up to find her. Helen is paired with ‘The Cowboy’ (Paul Kaye) another island eccentric who knows all about Sam and the grief the family has been dealing with. This is the first time Helen talks about her son. She says Nathan wasn’t an angel but a difficult child who she would scream at.
Fed up with having the run around by the islanders, Helen decides to leave Osea, but when the spot Jess walking into the sea they forced to abort the plan and Helen helps to bring the baby girl into the world.When Jess mentions to Helen that the father of her newborn baby is named Sam alarm bells start to ring. Helen shows a picture of her husband to Mr Martin who pretends he’s never met Sam and it starts to dawn on her that nothing here is as it seems and that the islanders are keeping Sam hidden from her.
Helen tells her girls to stay with Jess but not to tell her anything about themselves in a hope that she can find Sam. It is clear that Jess in this section of the story is a very different person. Sam’s short tenure as the leader hasn’t gone well and she’s convinced that her newborn daughter should be considered the new leader of Osea. When Lu tells Jess that she had a younger brother that died and that her dad disappeared Jess realises who Helen and her family are, she takes out a knife and tells Lu to sit down. The quick-thinking Lu is able to escape by squeezing through an opened window but it’s clear that Jess is unhinged and determined that her daughter will take her rightful place as leader of Osea.
As the penultimate episode draws to a close, Ellie is slowly falling under Osea’s spell as she’s told more and more stories by Kail, Lu is on the run and Helen spots Sam, now with godlike flowing hair, as he immerges from the big house.
The finale is as bonkers and exhilarating as you’d expect. Brutal violence erupts as supporters of Jess attack anyone who stands in her way to hunt down Sam. But the finale is also incredibly moving.
The reunion between husband and wife isn’t the lovefest you expect. Instead, Helen reveals she’s only on the island to collect the money Sam stole from the family when he disappeared. We also learn that the boy he is living with isn’t their son at all. He’s the wrong age and the wrong colour. Nathan would be sixteen now and the young and distant boy he’s been spending time with is six at the least.
As Chris Bennion put it in his review for The Telegraph, watching Sam’s face as Helen destroyed his saviour fantasy was heartbreaking as if we could see his brain catch up with the truth while desperately trying to mask it with the lie. We saw, in a flash, Sam’s moment of clarity. “You lost my son,” said Helen. “He went missing,” said Sam, like a child. But he had lost him and here was losing him all over again
When Sam learns his daughters are with Helen on Osea he realises they’re in danger. Meanwhile, Ellie is slowly becoming indoctrinated by Kail and feeling she wants to stay on the Osea as it’s the only place she feels she belongs. Her reunion with the father is equally fractious and confusing for her. It’s clear the family is fractured and perhaps have never been the happy family they appeared to be in the photo.
As the islanders advance on Sam, Helen and her girls race to the causeway. The desperate mother drags her daughters, Ellie clutching the plastic bag of cash that Sam had stolen, across the freezing waters in a last-ditch attempt to get them to safety.
Over the course of its six hours, The Third Day was an emotional rollercoaster. I began the show with a degree of indifference, confusion and worry that I perhaps wasn’t clever enough to understand the true meaning lurking beneath the layers of mythology and colourful imagery.
However, by the start of episode four, I was completely won over and utterly immersed in the weird world of Osea and completely captivated by the lead performances. I’ve never been on such a journey with a series, and I accept that if this was from a different team there’s a slight chance I wouldn’t have lasted the distance, but I’m so pleased I did. I believe The Third Day is a masterpiece equal to Utopia. It’s something completely different, with a story that is impossible to predict. It takes its time to get going but when it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s completely absorbing and a visceral viewing experience.
Jude Law’s performance is so intense and involving and it isn’t until his family arrives that you realise that Sam’s sense of paranoia, whilst amplified by being somewhere as unfamiliar as Osea, is actually how he is. He has always struggled with a fragile mental state. Naomi Harris is wonderful as a fierce mother who puts herself in danger for her daughters. Her grief has manifested itself in an entirely different way, with daughter Ellie saying it has made her cold as stone.
For me, it was Nico Parker as the beautiful and fragile Ellie who stole the show. She’s the heart of the piece. She feels she doesn’t have a place in the world. She doesn’t know a life where her murdered elder brother isn’t the focus. She attacks the bully after they say nasty things about the brother she barely remembers and she says she only realised she was holding a rock when she saw the girl’s blood trickling down her face. It’s no wonder she’s enthralled by Kail’s stories of how wonderful the island is because she’s desperate to be somewhere where she can feel special. Parker’s performance is utterly mesmerising. She’s timid, warm, loving and utterly lost and I felt for her every second she’s on-screen
The Third Day is an incredible piece of television that I’m already considering rewatching. It’s dense, immersive and meticulous. If I were a better critic my Twitter should’ve been abuzz about every episode until you were so sick of me waxing lyrical about this show that you’d watch it just to shut me up. Instead, I took the decision to wait for all six episodes to be available and watch them across a few days. It’s actually one of those rare shows that may work better as a binge. Please, please go and watch The Third Day so that we can talk about it together.
The Third Day is now available on Sky Boxsets and NOWTV.