The latest season of 3%, Netflix’s bold and adventurous dystopian parable, opens with intertitles that announce just how radically the series has reinvented its premise. “The world was divided into two sides,” they begin, reminding viewers of the literal and figurative gap between the elite and the masses that drove the first two seasons. But then five more words appear: “Until a third was built.” It’s a statement of purpose, promising a brand-new state of affairs with the potential to transform the framework of the entire series. If the ensuing narrative can’t quite live up to such a provocative setup, it’s not for lack of trying. This show lives for heightened expectations, and even when it doesn’t meet them, it does one hell of an entertaining job trying to.
The rest of the world became big fans a while back—the first season of the Brazilian sci-fi thriller came in second place on Netflix’s list of its most-binged shows globally in 2017—but it still flies under the radar in the United States. That’s not exactly a shock, unfortunately: The series was Netflix’s first Portuguese-language original, and English-speaking America, on the whole, remains stubbornly resistant to subtitles. But that bias is decreasing, at least when it comes to television, where the accessibility of streaming services has helped to make foreign-language programming an ever-larger slice of our viewing proclivities. 3% helped lead the charge on Netflix, and now, in its third season, it’s just as breezy and pleasurable as ever.
Few shows are as efficiently designed to be binge-watched, though the tightly plotted nature of the story means anyone jumping into it in season three will likely be as lost as someone who tried to begin with season three of, well, Lost. The narrative unfolds in a bleak future society where environmental devastation and overpopulation have decimated the world and destroyed most of its energy sources. However, the promise of salvation exists: Every year, all 20-year-olds get the opportunity to participate in “the Process,” a days-long test designed to eliminate all but the most intelligent and worthy human candidates—the titular 3%. These victors get to travel to a remote island called the Offshore, where abundant supplies and energy make it a virtual paradise compared to the rest of the world (or “The Inland,” as it’s known)—a beacon of hope and a source of religious devotion for those who use it to justify the existing status quo.
As analogies for real-world inequalities go, it’s pretty on the nose (and not tremendously logical), but once you accept the premise, strong writing and a game cast prevent the implausibilities from piling up—or at least keep things moving so fast, the incongruities don’t have time to register. (Spoilers for the first two seasons follow.) The first batch of episodes followed a group of hopefuls as they moved through the Process, a sort of Hunger Games-esque tournament of tests pitting youth against youth. By the end, we were left with a few finalists: Michele (Bianca Comparato) and Rafael (Rodolfo Valente), both of whom not only successfully made the trip to the Offshore, but were revealed to be affiliated with the Cause, an underground group dedicated to destroying the Process and creating a more equitable society for all. In the second season, the curtain is pulled back on the Offshore, as the two double agents work to undermine its rulers and help bring down the Process with the aid of Inland allies, candidate-turned-radical Joana (Vaneza Oliveira, the series’ MVP) and former true-believer Fernando (Michel Gomes). However, in its final minutes, Michele betrays her fellow Causers, using a stolen trove of data essential for the Process to blackmail the Offshore for supplies to start a new utopian community back on the Inland.
The third season picks up roughly a year after the events of the previous one, with Michele hard at work running her new initiative, the Shell. After refusing to have anything to do with it, Joana begrudgingly visits and sees the results of Michele’s duplicity: an all-are-welcome commune, filled with happy, quasi-hippie workers, growing food and making a life far superior to the rest of the Inland. So naturally, it immediately gets blown to hell. Rapidly running out of food in the wake of a devastating sandstorm (Michele’s not so good at emergency prep, it seems), the Shell founder is forced to figure out a way of reducing the number of residents to a sustainable size until it can be rebuilt. Enter the ultimate irony: Everyone agrees to her proposal of a “Selection” (very different from a Process!) to retain only 10% of Shell denizens.
There’s a warped thrill to seeing someone who sacrificed everything to go against the Offshore pushed into devising the very tests she had railed against. This show has always gotten mileage out of exploring the ethical compromises its young protagonists make in the name of progress (whether for themselves or others is another question), and by turning over the running of an entire compound to the same people who were used to being the outgunned underdogs, 3% finds new life in the drama of collective self-management. There’s a whiff of Lord Of The Flies to this season; even though the Offshore continues to push hard against the existence of the Shell, the story is one of equals suddenly seeing stratification in their own midst, and panicking over how to handle it. Rafael sums up the season’s theme when describing Michele: “She forgets people are only good in theory.”
The show is professing a fairly dark view of human nature. Through episodic flashbacks, we revisit who these folks were prior to the evolution of the Shell, and while there are moments that suggest people have as much capacity to become better as they do worse—former one-note villain Marco (Rafael Lozano) returns here to a far more nuanced character and storyline than he was previously given—the overall impression is one of despair about the odds of our better angels prevailing. The darker tone fits the darker material; even the music has transformed into a more atonal and dissonant score than before.
Happily, these characters’ losses are the viewer’s gain. While the who-can-you-trust intricacies of season two are largely set aside for simpler stakes, the frenetic ticking-clock nature of the story builds momentum, creating a breathless pacing—these episodes fly by. And once again, it’s a good thing, because a number of weaknesses would stand out more, given room to breathe. Some characters flip beliefs and allegiances more to fit the demands of the scripting than from any core personality; and at times, basic considerations of the scene cry out for attention. (Seriously, how are these people not all sunburned within an inch of their lives?) But overall, these problems don’t lessen the easy pleasures of the narrative. By the time our anti-Offshore rebels make it to the final frame, the adrenaline is infectious: You’re ready for much more than another 3% of this story.