Back in 2017, I invited one of my college friends over to my place for the weekend in the summer. He lives in upstate New York and is pretty removed geographically from our friend group who all live in Jersey. I always make it a point to invite him down to hang whenever possible. Because he has a three hour drive to get to my place, I always let him spend the night just so we can catch up on our lives. Over that weekend we went through House of the Dead: Overkill on Wii, and on a whim, decided to watch Castlevania. Netflix had just dropped the first season, it was only a little over an hour-long, and it was violent shlock. In other words, everything that we both love. We were in.
Four years later, Castlevania has grown to become one of Netflix’s biggest sleeper hits. Well, at least I think so. With the glut of original content coming out on Netlfix and most of it being forgettable it’s hard to gauge what really is a hit anymore. Still, you don’t go four seasons with a network that is all too eager to cancel a show if it’s not meeting their lofty metrics with being somewhat good. I’ve been there from the very beginning, covering most of the show for this site in one form or another. And now I’m reading article after article about how the show is one of the best video game adaptations of all time. And I’m inclined to agree.
Is Castlevania the best video game adaptation ever made? Well, considering its contemporaries all range from being poor to half-hearted guilty pleasures, that’s not a hard statement to make. I can easily say it’s probably the best video game adaptation, definitely the best video game TV series, in recent memory. But separate from that, is Castlevania a great animated series in general? Ehhhhhhh… not really?
Okay so look, I’m approaching this series with a variety of different hats on. I’m approaching this as a film critic, one who usually has to be reserved about throwing lavish praise onto a movie or show unless I want to have egg on my face a few years later. I’m also wearing the hat of an animation buff, as those are usually the type of films that I’m most interested in. The horror snob also plays a role here for the rich Gothic aesthetic present in every episode. Plus there’s no overlooking the fact that I just love Castlevania in general and have always since I played Symphony of the Night in high school (also as a side note, Order of Ecclesia is a super underrated yet excellent Castlevania game). So keep all of that in mind as I try to parse out just why I’m not in love with the series despite my brain telling me that, logically, it should be everything I love in a series. Full spoilers within.
If there’s one thing that I can point to right off the back at being something that I unequivocally love about the series, it would be its tone. Castlevania has such a weird balance of humor and seriousness that it’s almost impossible to peg just what’s going to happen next. One scene can feature a group of monks discussing the failures of their religion and how they view Dracula as their true messiah, only to spin immediately into a scene where a magician talks about toilet paper. The main trio of Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard gradually coalesce into a team as the series goes on, but not without some crass humor that always comes at you like a freight train. And I love that.
This is a show that’s clearly aimed at adults and doesn’t pull any pretenses about it. Blood will flow, curses will be uttered, organs with be strewn about the place, and violence is present everywhere you look. It’s a dark fantasy in every stretch of the word but in a noticeably bleak world. Even in moments of levity, the characters almost seem to be forcing themselves to crack jokes to stay sane in a world where Dracula wishes to eradicate the human population. Some don’t stay sane and give in to the madness. It’s not hard to see how Castlevania draws from other dark fantasy series like Berserk, sometimes in stylistic references and other times with blatant homages. Both are excellent series that thrives on their world, though sadly Castlevania looks to be the only one that will have a complete run as the author of Berserk, Kentaro Miura, recently passed away.
But the two series have more in common than just being a dark fantasy. They each have a richly complex central antagonist, albeit in different ways. Berserk’s antagonist Griffith is a man who becomes a monster, while Castlevania’s Dracula is a monster who becomes a man. Both are reprehensible villains at the end of the day, but this is, without a doubt, the most emotionally complex take on the Lord of Darkness that I’ve seen… well, ever.
Dracula is played masterfully by Graham McTavish in all of his glory, channeling a man who just comes across as tired. He’s tired of all of the violence and chaos, but can only lash out at the world after the death of his wife Lisa. He has no more purpose and will to go on except to watch the world burn. This isn’t a new take for a villain, anarchy is a popular trait in villains nowadays, but Dracula’s conflict feels almost Shakespearean. He’s lost the only thing that matters to him and now he just wants everything to end.
Carmilla, who quickly becomes the central antagonist after his death, calls it a drawn-out suicide and she’s not wrong. There’s almost a sense of self-loathing you feel after realizing that he gained his humanity, only to return to a state of undead immortality without any meaning. It’s poetic, especially when he fights to the death with his son Alucard, tragically realizing that he’s about to murder his own son, the last reminder of his dearly beloved. He’s so far removed that he no longer recognizes that the greatest gift that he received from his wife wasn’t his humanity, but his son, as he cries realizing he was so close to murdering him. It’s excellent writing and makes you feel for someone who for over a century has rarely been depicted as anything other than a malicious villain.
But therein lies the problem with Castlevania. All of that brilliant development, excellent tone, and great characterization is all in the first two seasons. By the time we reach the season two finale, you almost have to wonder just what’s going to happen next given that Dracula is dead, Trevor and Sypha ride off into the sunset, Alucard tries to reconcile his patricide, and our antagonists are split and divided across the world. And it’s everything that comes after season two that polarizes me.
You know the meme where we see a gorgeously drawn horse and watch it degrade over time to indicate the quality of a show slowly declining? I’ve seen plenty of people share the completed, gorgeously rendered image of that horse on social media for a little over a week to show that Castlevania finished on a strong note, but honestly the final two seasons are so mixed for me that I can’t truthfully say that is was flawless. There was just too many odd design choices that didn’t pay off. The image shouldn’t be of a completed horse, but of a horse where half is just a jumbled mess of body parts.
Season three and four split the focus to a bunch of smaller subplots. One plot has Trevor and Sypha wandering the countryside helping people defeat monsters. Alucard becomes a hermit and deals with whoever comes to his castle. Hector is forced to comply with Carmilla and her sisters, who in turn are planning on taking over Europe and turning it into a vampire feeding pen. Meanwhile, Isaac is plotting revenge against the people who wronged him and learns that maybe people aren’t all selfish and evil. Plus there’s a new character named Saint Germaine who is searching for his missing lover in an interdimensional portal. There’s a gargantuan amount of plot threads and most of them rarely intersect, kept at arm’s length until the very end of season four.
To make matters worse, the show just hops between these plot threads with no real rhyme or reason between them. There’s no thematic symbolism to watching Alucard train two Japanese vampire hunters only to then shift to Isaac having a conversation with a boat captain about his time in Dracula’s court. There’s no cohesion and instead feels like we’re watching a series out of order. And by the end of the third season, nothing really of value is gained by the end. Half of the plot threads aren’t even resolved by the end of the season and feels like we spent most of the runtime setting up conflicts for season four that, to their credit, mostly pay off. The other half of the plots do have an ending, but the characters are left in unfulfilled places, most notably Alucard.
Oh sweet Alucard, what did they do to you? When Alucard was introduced at the end of season one, there was a lot of potential with the character, potential that was quickly acted upon in season two. We see him murder his father and feels nothing but remorse for his actions despite knowing that it had to be done, even while Dracula is crying his eyes out. But after that, the character just… doesn’t really do anything. His entire arc in season three was just terrible, ultimately leading to the infamous threesome of betrayal, while season four just kind of forces him into a conflict without him really gaining any merit or development for it. It felt like the show realized that they told the story they wanted to tell with him but struggled to figure out how to include him in later seasons. His character reached a climax way at the halfway point of the show.
But there’s one glaring problem I have with the ending of Castlevania; when you break it down, season four just feels like a retread of season three. The general plot is the same. A faction of evil-doers are trying to revive Dracula. They even go about it in fairly similar ways, engineering a conflict to kill humans and use their souls to resurrect him. And that’s the main plot that the show wants to focus on. The major war that was built up in season three between Carmilla’s army and Isaac’s army is resolved halfway through the season and bears no real importance on the story. It concludes in an excellent episode almost entirely dedicated to action and carnage, but it leaves Hector, Isaac, and Carmilla’s story feeling rushed and pushed aside in favor of a plot that we’ve already seen before.
The show also introduces Death as a character at the very end of the series and while I love to see Malcolm McDowell just ham it up as a British and surly embodiment of evil, his presence feels unearned. Apparently he was always in Dracula’s court posing as a vampire, but we never heard of him until season 4 and he’s barely featured in it. He’s played off as a joke, falling upwards into success, until it’s revealed that he’s actually the expert manipulator of this whole conflict. It’s painfully telegraphed in the first episode of season 4 that Death will make some kind of appearance, but instead of feeling in awe of seeing the true mastermind be revealed, I was left just thinking “oh, there’s Death. Neat.” If he was present in earlier seasons and featured throughout I may have a different opinion on him, but as is Death just felt like a rushed out big bad to deliver a final showdown with.
Seasons three and four are the definition of mixed bags and are confusing in terms of payoff and delivery. Sometimes the conflicts and fights feel well earned. Sometimes they feel forced in to pad out a runtime. Season one and two took a total of 12 episodes to tell its story, and it did so masterfully, but then the later two seasons spend 20 episodes just stumbling around trying to make conflicts appear out of thin air. It’s not bad, but it’s really uneven. I can safely say that only 37.5% of the show is firing on all cylinders.
I did feel that by the time the credits rolled we reached a satisfactory ending for the characters. Sypha and Trevor finally do ride off into the sunset, Alucard is now free from the burden he has to carry, Hector and Isaac no longer have hatred for humanity, and even Dracula and Lisa manage to come back to life and go off on their own. It’s a satisfying conclusion to this chapter of the Castlevania series, but man it was a choppy journey to get there.
It does set up a potentially interesting status quo for the spin-off that Netflix wants to make about the series. I would personally love to see them try their hands at adapting the Aria duology, a feat that should be easily doable given that Alucard is alive and on good terms with the world, Dracula and Lisa could have another kid that could be an ancestor to Soma Cruz, and would mitigate the problem of not having Dracula in the series as those games were more interested in the malevolence that embodied Dracula more than anything else.
And yes, I am excited to see what comes next. At the end of the day, Castlevania was a satisfying ride. It wasn’t entirely fulfilling and complete, but still good. I’m glad that I saw it and that it got to exist as adult animation is still a rare niche. I can count on one hand the number of animated shows aimed at mature audiences that are actually worth your time. So I am glad that we got a solid example to add to that list, but does an absence of competition automatically spell excellence? No, it just means that there’s not a lot of shows to compare it to.
In terms of dark fantasy series, Berserk is still king in my eyes. As far as Netflix animated shows go, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power still stands as one of the best. The only category I’m willing to call Castlevania a great example of would be as a video game adaptation, but as we know by this point, that’s not exactly a hard title to claim. It’s a good show, one that I’m glad that I watched, but would I go out of my way to recommend it to people? At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be the first show I recommend to people, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.