The Third Day
They’re the final shots of The Third Day’s final episode, and I like them as much as any shots from the entire miniseries. As much as pagan rituals, acid trips, grief-stricken hallucinations, and all-too-real murders. As much as closeups on Jude Law’s face (and that’s saying something). Do these shots answer any questions, or serve as the final chapter in the saga of Osea, or offer closure for the tragedies experienced by Sam and Helen and their family? No, no, and no. They don’t even let us know if Helen survives the hypothermia, exposure, and exhaustion she incurred while swimming across the channel between Osea and the mainland, dragging her two daughters in a boat behind her.
What they show is simply this: the rising sun illuminating the hands and faces of Helen and her children, Ellie and Lu, as they sleep on the floor of the building they’ve broken into, huddled together for warmth. What happened to them the day before and what will happen to them the day after are, in this moment, irrelevant. Day has broken and found them alive and together, for the moment anyway. And in that moment, that’s enough.
It’s a bold way to end the series, as any open ending might be — but to be so openhearted in your open ending, aye, there’s the rub. That requires an understanding on the part of co-creator and writer Dennis Kelly and director Philippa Lowthorpe that what happened to Sam and Helen and their children at the hands of the residents of Osea Island is applicable to anyone, anywhere. We, too, live in a world that seems sick. We, too, are beset by impersonal forces that threaten to destroy us, if usually less dramatically than those at work in Osea. Against those forces, against that sickness, against the darkness that the Oseans were so afraid of, we have only each other to cling to. It’s only fitting that the series should end with clasped hands and a mother and children’s embrace.
Not that it was a foregone conclusion that the series would end that way. On the contrary, a final unification with, or destruction by, the pagan community of Osea seemed much more likely than an escape for the duration of the episode, which was largely concerned with Helen, Ellie, Lu, and Sam’s desperate attempts to stay one step ahead of the mob. Though this, too, came with a substantial emotional weight to bear. Both Lu and Ellie witness murders: Lu sees the execution of the mother and son who refused to let them stay at their Airbnb when they tried to escape the island themselves; Ellie witnesses the killing of Mrs. Martin for standing against Jess, the island’s new power behind the throne, and the brutal murder of Jason, Jess’s right-hand man, by her own father Sam, who vented a decade of explosive rage into the man’s body at the point of not one but two knives. (In his dingy, bloodstained white suit, he winds up looking like if Tom Wolfe was the final girl at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.)
The emotional violence is extreme, too. Minutes after being reunited with a husband who’s been missing for months, Helen must endure his insistence that their son Nathan is alive and well on the island. Going along with it, both deeply skeptical and filled with cruel hope, she’s let down when she discovers that the boy Sam has been calling Nathan is not their son at all — since their son had been dead for ten years, longer than this boy was even alive. (The implication seems to me to be that he was the child of the teenage Epona, conceived in rape, but it’s hard to be sure.) All of Helen’s fury at Sam for his years of “operatic grief” — which included psychotic breaks, xenophobic violence, and grasping at every conspiratorial straw — comes back at this moment; since we in the audience had had no reason to believe that the boy we’d seen from a distance wasn’t Sam and Helen’s kid, we get a taste of that shock of disappointment as well.
But things take one last turn for the weird when Sam takes Helen to the island’s abandoned church in order to retrieve the money he’d stolen — the money which was, in fact, Helen’s purpose for coming to the island in the first place. Inside the church, he murders lead goon Larry and one of his henchmen, in front of the false son. Sam chooses to stay behind on the island and presumably deal with the consequences from the dictatorial Jess; he can’t leave the island behind any more than he can let go of the grief that has psychologically destroyed him.
But as Helen leaves, “Nathan,” the boy, says something strange. He tells Helen not to worry about what she said to him before he disappeared: “I know you always wanted me,” he says, revealing that he somehow knows she’d told him she wished he’d never been born before he was killed.
Sam had claimed the island was special, had insisted the boy was theirs despite all appearances to the contrary; was he right all along? Or is Helen right, and this is all in his head, a product of the guilt he feels for being on the phone with his mistress when Nathan disappeared? (That answers the question of what his “intense call” was on that day; other mysteries, like the identity of Jess’s husband and the story behind the Cowboy who played a prominent role in the final half of the season, go unresolved.)
If the boy isn’t Nathan, then who is he? And if the boy somehow is Nathan, what else about the island’s allegedly special characteristics might turn out to be true? What if it is the heart of the world? What if the schism between Sam’s followers and those of Jess and her infant daughter really does have the fate of the Earth hanging in the balance?
We’ll never know, and that’s the beauty of the thing. The Third Day is a show about the mysteries of faith that lets them remain mysterious. The point — aside from being scary, which the show frequently was — is to probe at our own feelings of exclusion and belonging, whether in a community or a family or both. What are we willing to sacrifice for that sense of belonging, and is it worth the sacrifice? The Third Day doesn’t answer that for us because it can’t. Only we know, and it’s up to us to tell our secrets; or to keep them until the day the world forces our hand.