The Bloody, Beautiful End; Castlevania’s Final Season

Castlevania Season Four.

Holy. Shit.

I won’t lie. I mean, I wouldn’t be a good critic if I ever did lie, but especially in this instance, I can’t pretend that I wasn’t worried. Season three took some bold leaps to make a story much bigger than just Dracula. For the most part, it paid off. But the finale was mixed. It could feel jarring, and not every story was particularly captivating.

Then came the official trailer for season four, along with the big reveal: this would be the last season. How in god’s name were they going to bring together all of the separate stories together into one 10-episode season? After watching it, it begs questioning why I ever doubted them.

It was a fucking home run.

Check out my review of Castlevania Seasons 1-3 while you’re at it, or watch my video review below!

Should I start with the weakest link in the story? I mean, I have so many good things to say I may as well talk about the bad first, right? Funnily enough, the story that grabbed me the least was Trevor and Sypha’s. It’s like the polar opposite of season 3, where their story was the coolest and Alucard’s was the weakest.

I should clarify: I’m only talking about the middle of their story together. The beginning and ending are peak Castlevania. It’s just that, they are the main characters. Their story this time sees them in Targoviste, the city where Dracula’s wife was killed in season one.

Just like in season three, much of their time on screen is them walking around the city, looking for a lead, while Trevor is contemplating his mission and his relationship with Sypha. I’m not averse to a slow burn, but with all the time spent bringing every other story to a satisfying conclusion, I don’t think they even lit the candle.

It’s not even terrible. The third season’s darker ending left everyone but Isaac feeling pretty down. Up to that point. Trevor and Sypha were optimistic monster hunters and Trevor was only so happy because he was so in love with Sypha that he believed they could do anything. Between her optimism being challenged and his cynicism being validated, there’s something there to explore.

And it doesn’t quite lead to a divide between them or a long path to recovery. Rather, Sypha sees an opportunity to do good by inspiring the people of Targoviste to recover. Meanwhile, Trevor has himself a video-gamey treasure hunt collecting weapons and items that have been hoarded in the city, all of which are nods to the games.

Sypha fights for her ideals while Trevor reconnects with his family’s past and the skills of which he was so out of practice at the beginning. In retrospect it’s really not that bad, it’s just weird to see the two main leads have such a milquetoast story for the duration of the season.

The actual worst part is the subplot involving Targoviste’s underground court. It’s sorta designed to be disappointing and underwhelming, but Zamfir, who represents this underground court, is hands down the worst character in the entire series. And again, she’s probably meant to be unlikable and sorta crazy but that doesn’t make her any less annoying.

In the beginning, I made a point that only the middle of Trevor and Sypha’s story left me wanting more. The start is great. We see a montage of the six weeks between the end of season three and the start of four. It’s a great start that introduces key plot points, develops the world, and shows the strain the mission has put on the characters.

It makes me wonder if I would have preferred each section of that intro to be spread throughout the season or if it works better this way. Probably the latter. That way, it’s immediately clear that each story is picking up six weeks after the last season. So I suppose it’s a sacrifice worth making.

Sacrifice isn’t something that burdens this season’s plot, least of all Isaac and certainly not the drama at Carmilla’s castle in Styria. After getting tricked by Lenore, Hector’s fate isn’t as grim as the third season’s end would have suggested.

He’s being forced to create night creatures for Carmilla and he seems committed to doing so. Plus, despite the circumstances, his relationship with Lenore is much the same as it was last season. They tease each other and Hector seems, if anything, far more comfortable cracking jokes at her expense.

It’s clear he isn’t in love with his situation, nor has he developed some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, but he’s cooperating. And Lenore’s persistence in opening up to him proves that it wasn’t all a tactic to trick him last time. A part of her likes him. And a part of Hector likes her, though he’s not about to fall into another trap. It’s clear that he’s scheming.

Carmilla’s whole crew is way more interesting this time and the places their stories take them are unexpected, to say the least. In season three, Lenore and Carmilla were the only ones that I was interested in. To be fair, Carmilla was still coasting on the good faith from her large debut in season two. She didn’t do a whole lot in the third season. This time though, all four of them steal the show.

Striga and Morana are phenomenal. In season three, the only thing I could say for certain about who they were was that they were lesbian vampires who were a power couple. “Cool,” I thought. But this time, their thoughts on Carmilla’s plan, their philosophies, and their priorities are all explored.

It doesn’t even take that much time for them to sink their hooks into you. All it takes is good writing, solid performances, and direction that makes the characters feel human (or as human as they can be). In a single episode, they became my favorite characters from the season.

Even Carmilla, who was already a solid villain, explains her motives in an impassioned monologue and outburst that gives her so much more texture, right as the story nears a climactic turning point. And her allies feel more fleshed out as a result of their reactions to her schemes.

There is a recurring trend in Castlevania where villains are made tragic and fragile whereas any other story would have them be immersed in their power with little consequence. It happened first with Dracula. I mentioned in my series review that his war felt desperate and like he was bound for failure from the start. Similar seams start to appear within Carmilla and though their ends are very different, it shows you this show’s philosophy on armies and causes.

Even among the antagonists, people have desires and dreams, but more than that, their bonds with others. They have things they do because it’s what they have been conditioned to think is their nature and their calling. But once their leaders start talking about this stereotypically evil shit about ruling the world, they all seem to understand how unrealistic it is.

There is a sense of realism in how these larger-than-life characters see the scale of the world and how much of it they want to affect. Notice that it’s not about what they can affect. It’s all about what they desire to affect. Even among the bad guys, wanting to kill everything or rule everything isn’t something rational. It’s reckless.

This season’s command of pacing might be its greatest strength. I think often we are conditioned to think that the end of any major story should be relegated to the very end of the series, but episode six ties the knot on some major threads in a single, tightly-packed, well-oiled machine of an episode. And it never once felt rushed.

31 minutes in total. I have seldom seen an episode so satisfying. I had so many ideas in my head of how things would end and for it to surprise me with new twists and leave a smile on my face, I had to wonder what else was in store for the last four episodes.

Season three’s ending felt cramped. All four plotlines were concluding simultaneously the way it cut from intense fights to sex scenes was more jarring than anything else. In contrast, season four felt like everything was in its right place, with few sacrifices in-between.

Even if Striga and Morana were my favorites from this season, in particular, Isaac still reigns as my favorite character overall. He’s experienced such an odyssey since his first appearance. He’s become a completely different character and he could have very easily become a new villain, but his treatment within the story is more nuanced than that.

Isaac comes to think about himself, his purpose, and what he can and should do with his power. The contemplation and self-discovery, followed by epic battles would make Homer blush. He has seen the very best and the very worst of life and comes to find his place within it. It’s a joy to see and Adetokumboh M’Cormack’s performance grips like a vice.

This performance is aided in no short manner by the visuals. I’d usually wait until after discussing the story to comment on animation quality, but there’s too much to praise and the art direction and animation during Isaac’s story cuts to the core of what this show does so brilliantly.

This is the fourth season, so obviously there has been time for the animators to hone their craft. There’s also new talent. A whole slew of WebGen animators from all walks of life. With this being the fourth season, there is an expectation of raising the bar, even more so since it’s the final season. And yet, it’s not enough to have more fights that are consistently pretty. You have to innovate and be ballsy and try new things.

In episode three, I noticed the use of 3D during some conversations. It’s easy to spot when you look hard enough. There is a synergy of 2D and 3D. It comes down to the frame rate and how the characters’ heads move, but it immediately caught my eye. It wasn’t an eyesore at all. If anything, I was impressed at such a clever use of 3D. The shot of Isaac looked unlike any shot from the show I’d seen previously and retained the art quality the show has become renowned for.

In fact, throughout episode three, looking at Isaac’s face, the colors and shading reminded me of Attack on Titan‘s first season. The first season of that show is the stuff of legends. An impossibly good-looking production with character designs and artwork that feasibly wasn’t possible to keep consistent in future seasons. So to attain a level of quality even close to that is a big win. Castlevania has always had good artwork, but I found myself being reminded of that beauty more than ever right before the end.

Animation by Gareth Wong and Tam Lu.

This show has never been one to take the easy path. As it has gone on, it has taken further and further inspiration from the energy-derived soul of Japanese sakuga to create imagery that touches on emotions that only a devotion to unadulterated expression can elicit. There are cuts where the character models are rough, sketchy, and lack the refined outlines of conversational scenes, but it never feels like a restraint or sacrifice.

It’s a choice.

Great animation is always a product of choice. Even when there are limitations, the choice to take the limits and work with them in a way that still puts one’s heart forward is always a choice. Sam Deats understands this. He is a director who understands that hunger for emotional, energetic animation that leaves the jaw practically unhinged in awe. I can’t wait to see what he works on next and the animators working on this show are truly the future of this medium. Thank you all so much.

Finally, Alucard, and a bit about the ending of the series. Alucard’s story last time was marred by feeling forgettable. The ending felt like it came out of nowhere. Now, he’s continuing to grapple with his isolation, when suddenly a request for aid arrives at his front door, from the town of Danesti.

I should point out that one of the major characters in the Castlevania video games was a character named Grant Denasti. His absence from the series, to many, was probably not a huge deal, but several rather devoted fans of the games were quite peeved about him not being in this series. Well, fear no longer!

Greta is the headwoman of the village of Danesti, the one requesting aid from Alucard. She’s fiercely devoted to protecting her people, skilled with a sword and hammer, and is as sassy and independent as all of the best Castlevania ladies. Her being “Greta of Danesti” is as obvious a stand-in for Grant Denasti as could be. From her first spoken line, she feels right at home. Part of me wonders if she was meant to show up earlier. I think I would have liked it if she was introduced in season three.

Alucard’s story revolves around him aiding the villagers of Danesti and taking them to his castle to keep them safe, all while conversing with Greta, as well as returning character Saint-Germain, played again by Bill Nighy. A lot of his journey is battling monsters and getting comfortable being around people again.

It’s as Alucard describes it himself at one point. His life is being alone, fighting, and rescuing. The hardest part for him has been accepting it. He doesn’t even particularly hate that life. He hates loneliness more. The closest thing to a flaw is that once the characters get started on their new adventures this season, it feels like they’re already halfway towards resolving their problems. Alucard is already helping people again, Hector is already bantering with Lenore again, etc.

The problems aren’t just solved, and in some cases, I’m glad we didn’t get a full season of characters just anguishing, but the six-week time skip means we don’t see all of their changes. Once again, this isn’t a huge problem and I might only be mentioning it because I’m so used to adult drama spending a lot of time drawing out characters’ developments. So, seen another way, Castlevania‘s final season cuts to the point much more than its previous outing.

Animation by Tam Lu.

Almost every question is answered and everything gets wrapped up in a nice bow. The stuff that is left vague is done so intentionally for freedom of interpretation. There’s some stuff at the end that I wouldn’t have guessed would happen in a million years but it was a delight nonetheless. The last episode is entirely an epilogue, something I love in any show.

Was this meant to be the ending originally? Maybe? I’m not sure if the writers planned something more. They certainly could have made it longer, but I don’t think it was essential. There is something of a final boss whose appearance is built up to behind the scenes, but some might find it to be sudden so close to the conclusion. Personally, I was so blown away by the storytelling at the end that it was very hard for anything to spoil the ride.

When Castlevania ends, it doesn’t leave any loose ends. No one knew this would truly be the end until the first trailer dropped, so it was a wonder how it would all come to a close, but they just knew how to leave me with a smile on my face. It wraps up a story and goes the extra mile, to raise the stakes to new heights for the express purpose of making something kickass.

This has always been a story about underdogs in a world just ravaged by monsters. The Belmonts were the best defense and they all got wiped out. So seeing Trevor go from being the drunk in the bar to the man with the Morning Star whip, eradicating monsters like he isn’t a simple human, is the stuff heroic stories are made of.

Added to that, this show has a greater, yet more subtle understanding of video games than any other video game adaptation. Most adaptations struggle to turn game mechanics into story elements without creating painfully cliched references and callbacks. Every callback in Castlevania feels like there is a purpose. I mentioned earlier that Trevor was basically on a treasure hunt, reconnecting with his old teachings. That entire plot thread comes back full circle in the best way. You’ve gotta see it to believe it.

That about sums up my feelings at the end. Watch this show. It’s one of the best-animated series of the last several years, one of the best dramas you can find, and a colossal step forward for adult animation in America. If you haven’t watched it already, you owe it to yourself to get in on the sensation

Castlevania is available for legal streaming through Netflix.

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What did you think of the final season? Was it everything you hoped for? Did you want it to go on longer? Leave a comment below and tell me what other Netflix Originals I should consider reviewing.

Thank you for reading, and as always, I’ll see you next time!

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