THE STRAIN Episode 9: Deep Breaths and Last Gasps

After a run of solid, focused episodes, The Strain was back to its scattered and ungainly ways. In many ways, tonight’s episode seemed structured as a last, deep breath before the season’s real endgame kicks in. Characters are shuffled into final position for the big finale, big pieces of information and mythology are dropped for the audience and some of the more disposable side characters are dispatched to thin the herd.

A lot happens in the hour, so why does it feel so sluggish and stilted? The episode picks up immediately where the last one left off, with the characters frantically trying to get back to safety while vampires both roam freely AND focus intently on finding our heroes. And yet, no one seems especially stressed out about the situation or tense about running into more vamps. Zack gets attacked by a vamped-up Asshole Boyfriend (I still refuse to learn this guy’s name [it’s Matt and no one cares]), whom Eph promptly brutally dispatches (great gore gag of the severed head popping up and bouncing a little) and then everyone kind of stands around and does a whole mess load of fucking nothing.

Some of the blame unfortunately has to go to gearing a crucial aspect of the show around such a young character/actor. I want to be diplomatic about this because it’s clearly not the kid’s fault, and it’s not like he’s been a drain on the show the way that, say, the Sheriff’s kid on Walking Dead was back when I watched that show (I also refuse to remember that kid’s name). But when you are trying to establish dramatic and emotional stakes in the story, you need characters to respond to things in a believable way. And unfortunately the bulk of this episode’s pathos needed to revolve around Zack and what he sees and learns about the vampire epidemic and it is simply not there in either writing or performance. At best the kid seems mildly put-off by the fact that his Mom’s boyfriend sprouted a tentacle and tried to kill him, followed by watching his Dad brutally murder said boyfriend with a shovel (which, again, awesome). People say things to and about Zack, but it all feels disconnected and abstract, not like actual people going through a traumatic experience.

Or look at the scene where Dutch confesses to Setrakian about her role in breaking the Internet on behalf of Stoneheart. Setrakian had earlier delivered a speech about the sort of people who might help out The Master, and later she, with zero in-scene prompting, tells him about what she did. She looks sad, he looks mad, the show cuts to something else.

Same goes for Eph and Nora disposing of Asshole’s body, feeling sad about Jim being dead, and then having sex. Again, there’s a way in which that progression makes sense on the page, but there’s no urgency or heat to anything that happens. Eph is pondering emotions, meanwhile, HIS SON IS BEING TAKEN THROUGH A VAMPIRE INFESTED CITY AND THE PEOPLE CHARGED WITH PROTECTING HIM ARE PROVEN TO BE UNEMOTIONAL AND VIOLENTLY UNSTABLE AND ALSO, OH YEAH, THE VAMPIRES ARE SPECIFICALLY TRYING TO KILL ALL OF THEM. Maybe that demands some attention, you know? This should be a big deal. And yet no one’s pulse rises above normal throughout the entire episode.

Even the scare sequences feel out of whack. Gus being trapped in the back of a police-transport van with a rapidly-transforming vampire should be an all-timer of mounting tension (and maybe would have been in the hands of one of the show’s other directors) but instead it just sort of happens and then it stops happening and then the show cuts to something else. Noticing a trend?

It’s not like the episode was some kind of wasteland of quality. There was some nice dark humor evoked from the death of a character that no one liked or knew, and the show continues to be a visual feast and endless resource for amusing/horrifying sequences of gore and mayhem. And I thought the performances were strong across the board. Stoll and Maestro made sure that their grief over Jim registered, while both David Bradley and Kevin Durand did excellent work evoking the emotions that Setrakian and Fet submerge in order to survive, but feel all the same.

The big takeaway that a lot of people will have towards this episode, though, will most likely be this week’s Holocaust flashback. I’ve seen some negativity towards this side of the show online, as if such a story should be off limits for genre material, which strikes me as odd. Do people get offended when Godzilla movies contextualize Hiroshima or Nagasaki through a giant lizard stomping shit? The Strain is a show about the process of evil and the way it echoes through time, so linking vampires to Nazis is not a giant leap to make.

That said, the show has come up curiously empty when trying to flesh out this material. I though the last trip down memory lane did a nice job of thematically linking Setrakian’s cooperation with Eichorst on creating The Master’s coffin with what was happening in the present day. But this episode gives us our longest peek into the past but fails to make any of it relevant to the contemporary storyline.

(MINOR BOOK STUFF: I think this might be a byproduct of the show’s decision to withhold The Master’s backstory until the very end of the season. In the book, the nature of The Master is the very first thing we read, as told by Abraham’s grandmother to him when he was a boy. With that backstory withheld, there’s no sense of myth and memory becoming intertwined, which leaves the Holocaust story feeling so empty and possibly exploitative. I really don’t know what Carlton Cuse is going for by playing that information as a reveal, but he may have fatally crippled that aspect of the story).

So we learn that Abraham’s hands were shattered by The Master as punishment for Abraham’s attempt on his life. We learn that Eichorst left Setrakian to be executed after he saw the destroyed remains of his hands, and that Abraham then fled into the forest when an Allied bombing raid decimated the camp. And we finally see the moment of transformation for Eichorst, as he escapes to The Master’s crypt and weeps at being abandoned. The Master returns, unhoods himself, and then slits Eichorst’s wrist so he, The Master, can release a single worm into Eichorst’s bloodstream.

That final image, Eichorst kneeling in sublimation, The Master towering over him, candles flickering against the backdrop of the earthen tomb, is a powerful and searing visual but, like the rest, of the episode, it doesn’t fucking mean anything. There’s nothing emotional or thematic to tie that sequence to what is happening in modern day to Eichorst or to any other character on the show. It’s a bravura bit of visuals, but without any spark of deeper meaning. Good job on composing that visual, but good luck trying to get any meat out of it.

(It doesn’t help that the final design of The Master is pretty weak sauce. I assume that the showrunners deliberately intended his appearance to rhyme with that of unmasked Eichorst, but it resulted in a been-there, done-that response probably not intended for the scene where we meet the Big Bad.)

And that’s probably the biggest let-down: Guillermo del Toro’s films all work so damn hard to mean something. Listening to him speak about his films is one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as a film fan, precisely because the man does not let a single frame go to waste. Every image counts. So when a show comes along bearing his name and featuring his work and seems to relegate its stuff to just being… stuff, it stings a bit. I’m fine with The Strain being a black-hearted bit of pulp fun, but the show has already proven that is interested in, and capable of, being much more interesting than that.

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