“The Third Day” takes a familiar story — a lost man, a mysterious island, an eccentric group of locals — and dresses it up to the nines. With starry leads Jude Law and Naomie Harris providing committed turns and an ambitious structure that breaks its story into three “seasons” — the first three episodes are “Summer,” starring Law; the last three are “Winter,” starring Harris; and in the middle is “Fall” — a live 12-hour online experience termed a “theatrical event.” HBO’s latest limited series fights to be formally experimental at every turn, but its core narrative is a tad too predictable for its pedigree. Fans of creepy mysteries, potent atmospherics, and anyone in this sterling cast should be satisfied, but few will be blown away by how it unfolds.
“Summer” opens on Sam (Jude Law), a husband and father who’s on a solo, sorrowful excursion in the boonies of Great Britain. Near the coast, he comes across a couple of kids playing in the woods — except they’re not playing. One nearly dies before Sam intervenes, and he drives the recovering teenager home, to her small community on the island of Osea. There, things start to get weird. Cell phone reception is spotty. Osea is only accessible via a causeway that floods at the most inconvenient moments. The young girl is whisked away by community members rather than welcomed into the arms of her worried parents.
Sam, meanwhile, is torn between concern for her safety and his own (vague) problems. There’s a call he has to make, but the island’s phones are down. He needs to get back to his family, but these strange circumstances cloud the urgency — as does a percolating desire to escape reality. The locals are helpful but opaque, led by innkeepers Mr. and Mrs. Martin. The wife is a giddy, cursing curmudgeon (Emily Watson), while her husband is all squinty, pants-hitching sweetness (Paddy Considine). He offers Sam assistance with an operating phone and a free night’s stay in the room above their bar.
The only problem: That room is spoken for, and soon Sam becomes acquainted with Jess (Katherine Waterston), a historian who’s come to Osea for the town’s fall festival. She starts filling Sam in on the island customs and folklore, which include everything from nightly songs around the bonfire to human sacrifices, all in the name of their own “totally normal” form of Christianity. Without getting into spoiler territory, there are more than enough red flags to send Sam skittering back to the mainland (and audiences screaming for him to GTFO), but writer Dennis Kelly provides reasonable explanations at key junctures, and, more importantly, designs a wild world demanding further exploration.
Oliver Upton / HBO
“The Third Day” offers a clear, cohesive narrative, but “Summer” director Marc Munden makes it enticing to question that reality. Fish-eye lenses, warped perspectives, and eerie images — Are they dreams? Are they hallucinations? Are they real? — give viewers just enough of a kick to reconsider Sam’s adventure outside each literal step. While you may guess where the story is going, especially the biggest “twists,” what the limited series has to say about religions preying upon the weak vs. comforting the grieving is a more provocative question to consider.
At one point, Sam says his troubled emotional state has taught him that “agony is bespoke” — a pain no one can share. “Yours is yours, theirs is theirs,” he said. “Mostly, grief is just… lonely.” That feeling also serves as the thesis for his clash with the islanders. Sam repudiates religion in all forms, especially as a source of solace to his grief. Meanwhile, the not-so-good people of Osea live their lives according to age-old principles founded in faith. Their pull is dangerous and familiar; how often have people turned to religion in a time of need, and how often has that choice significantly changed their lives? Will newfound faith give a lost man like Sam much-needed structure and direction, or will it fill a void with rituals and narcissism? Will it save his family, or tear it apart? And what will Sam be asked to go along with if he does accept “help” from this unique denomination?
Liam Daniel / HBO
How “Fall” will fit in to all this remains to be seen. Currently unscheduled (although September 30 is a fair estimate), it will entail live cameras wandering the island and through Osea’s fall festival for a single and uninterrupted 12-hour “experience.” (Pre-COVID, HBO hoped to create “Fall” as an in-person immersive experience that allowed 3,000 people to participate on the actual island.) It was not previewed for critics, not that it could be, but at this writing it’s also unconfirmed as to whether “Fall” will be available on computers, on HBO, on HBO Max, or some combination thereof. In any case, HBO reps say the limited series plays out effectively even if you don’t watch all 12 hours, which seems like a wise approach.
HBO did make the first two episodes of “Winter” available for critics, and Episode 4, “Monday – The Mother,” opens with Helen (Naomie Harris) taking her two daughters to Osea for her oldest’s birthday. Ellie (Nico Parker) isn’t exactly thrilled to be visiting a remote island with bad cell reception for her big day, but she’s old enough to know there may be other reasons why they’re there, and her younger sister, Tallulah (Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell), is just happy when she’s well fed and plopped in front of a screen. To say much more would venture into the spoiler zone, though it’s worth noting that a) Harris remains a precise yet natural performer who’s always worth watching, and b) director Philippa Lowthorpe crafts a stark, realistic “Winter” world that works in beautiful contrast to the “Summer” episodes. There’s a reason each “season” looks the way it does, and both directors make the most of the unique setting.
Without “Fall” or the finale, it’s hard to assess the success of this storytelling experiment. Episode 5 teases an ending loaded with drama, but “The Third Day” falls prey to nagging predictability just as it wows with evocative atmospherics and excellent turns from Law, Harris, Watson, and Considine. (Between “The Young Pope,” “The New Pope,” and now this, it’s no wonder Law keeps joining HBO + Sky productions — he’s stretching himself to enthralling extremes.) Think of it as a 500-piece puzzle: The pieces may click into place a bit too quickly, but the process is still gratifying. And who knows? Maybe you’ll think up more elaborate meanings along the way.
“The Third Day” premieres Monday, September 14 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.