I’ve written before that Jude Law’s face is the real star of The Third Day. After tonight’s episode, it’s safe to say that Naomie Harris’s face shares top billing. Watch how director Philippa Lowthorpe’s camera holds a close-up as Harris’s character, Helen, learns that the baby she just delivered, for a woman she spent all night trying to locate and help, was fathered by her missing husband Sam — who’s still alive and well and living on the island of Osea, despite everything she’s heard to the contrary.
It’s subtle, but you can almost see the exact moment at which the tears of joy pooling in her eyes for the beauty of this mother-and-child tableau turn to tears of shock and sadness. You can just barely see her smile tighten, the love and happiness it connoted twisting around in her mind to betrayal and confusion and anger. But Helen has to keep it together, she has to maintain the serene and peaceful front. Even when Jess, the woman whose baby Helen helped bring into the world, tasks Helen with walking to the island’s “big house” and summoning Sam to see his new daughter, Helen doesn’t break. But you can see everything she’s holding back, written all over her face.
It’s extraordinary acting. And it’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed this episode less for the secrets, skullduggery, and sinister cult shenanigans — though they were all out there in force, and all handled quite well — than for the very human drama playing out with Helen and her children. That includes Nathan, the son she believes was murdered. During her stint searching for the suddenly missing, on-the-verge-of-childbirth Jess — whose disappearance roils the already bitterly divided islanders — Helen confides to her search-party partner, a mysterious and solicitous man with a mustache billed as “the Cowboy” (played by Paul Kaye, a.k.a. Game of Thrones’ red priest, Thoros of Myr), that Nathan was not the angel that well-wishers like the Cowboy labeled him. He was a difficult child, angry and violent. The last thing she said to him before he was abducted was that she wished he’d never been born. That’s an incredible amount of weight to carry around, and it makes Helen’s labored but mostly kind treatment of her surviving children something like a minor miracle.
So does that mean she’s being reckless when she repeatedly leaves her daughters, Ellie and Lu, to their own devices while she attempts to find and help Jess? It’s hard to say. I mean, you could even chalk that up to a hole in the writing of the show, if you were so inclined; would a mother who lost a child to a murderer leave her other children alone on an island filled to the brim with weird, hostile people who are often armed and who’ve lied to her more often still? Could it be that her determination to get to the bottom of her husband Sam’s disappearance, tied up as it is in the psychotic breaks he began having after Nathan’s “death,” simply overwhelms her other concerns?
Either way, it doesn’t work out well for the kids. The religion-curious older daughter, Ellie, is spirited away by Jess’s oldest kid, a frighteningly intense teenager named Kail (Freya Allan). She leads Ellie into a subterranean cave where persecuted islanders used to come to perform their religious rites, a blend of ancient Christianity and more-ancient paganism. She ties various atrocities committed on the island — or, in the case of Jack the Ripper, committed by an islander — to times of climactic upheaval all over the globe. Osea is the heart of everything, she insists, just as many of the adults on the island have said. For Ellie, a girl adrift with feelings of being left out and excluded and abandoned, suddenly discovering you’re at the center of the universe is a dangerously attractive prospect.
Lu’s situation, by contrast, is not attractive — just dangerous. Left alone with Jess, she bonds with the woman over Jess’s adorable newborn, delivered safely only because Helen detected and remedied her transverse lie before delivery. But when she mentions that she used to have a brother named Nathan, Jess realizes this is one of Sam’s children — and, it’s safe to assume, a threat to the line of succession that could see Jess’s new baby crowned as the island’s rightful leader. Jess pulls out a knife; Lu runs for her life. In these moments, the transformation in Jess is scary to behold, and actor Katherine Waterston performs the shift with frightening conviction.
Even as her daughters deal with all this, Helen nears the end of her journey. As she approaches the big house, walking along Osea’s pebble-strewn shore, a voice calls for her. She looks and sees a man in white, with scraggly long hair, standing at the edge of a dock. It’s Sam, looking thoroughly broken. We see his face. We see her face. Her quest is complete.
But at the same time, it’s only the beginning. Helen will need to learn the truth, the whole truth, about Nathan’s “murder” and Sam’s disappearance, and his intentions toward Jess and the island and everyone on it. (Even the Martins, who spend the episode doing their usual lie-and-then-admit-it two-step.) She’ll want to reunite the family, who’ve now scattered to the four winds. She’ll likely want to get the hell off of this island, a difficult prospect even in the best of times. In the meantime, she’ll need to survive the schism over who should stand as the island’s “father” (or “mother,” in Jess’s daughter’s case), which has torn the place apart ever since Sam’s arrival. These don’t seem like people who will let any of them go without a fight, that’s for sure.
That’s a lot of ground for the final episode of the show to cover. But there’s been such a steady hand on the tiller from the start, balancing grief and black humor, cult horror and family dynamics, old-time religion and modern foibles, grand visuals and riveting close-ups. Whatever the fate of Helen and Sam and Jess and their children and the island, I’m a believer that the show will deliver.