Real World Trauma Acerbates the flaws in The Strain Seasons Two and Three
by Kristin Battestella
After an unraveling end to the First Season of The Strain, it took me a long, long while to return to the thirteen-episode 2015 Second Season. Childhood flashbacks recounting fairy tales of nobles with gigantism and quests for the curing blood of a gray wolf start the year off well. Horrific blood exchanges lead to village children vanishing in the shadow of the creepy castle before we return to the present for secret deals with The Master, alliances with the Ancient Ones, and blind telepathic feeler vampires canvassing the city. Scientists Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) contemplate vampire vaccines while former antique dealer Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) pursues a rare strigoi text and rat catcher Fet (Kevin Durand) prepares their explosive defensive. Government officials like Justine Feraldo (Samantha Mathis) fight back against the zombie like masses despite shootouts in infested laboratories, double-crosses, and sentient, disguised as human foot soldiers. Old fashioned black and white Mexican horror reels add personality and history to our reluctant heroes while more superb action and flashbacks standout late in the season with “The Assassin” and “Dead End.” Unfortunately, early on in Year Two, my main dilemma with the First Season of The Strain returned– you can read all of this, but it is much too much onscreen. Unnecessary timestamps and location notations clutter reintroduced characters, new problems, old problems, and unintroduced newcomers. There are too many separated characters with unbalanced screen time who must repeatedly explain who they are. Enemy’s enemy is my friend mixed motivations create confusion – multiple people hunting The Master individually making promises to his fellow ancient vampires with little background on who these chained monsters chilling beneath Brooklyn are. Cryptic double talk and real estate transactions may be filler or meandering developments, but it’s a toss up on which one will drag on or disappear. The past stories are often more tantalizing because our team isn’t much of a team. It took so long in the First Year to get everyone together, yet each is still toiling over what to do in this vampire zombie apocalypse. After previous fears over any tiny contagion, one and all shoot, blast, slice, and splatter at will. They hand out fliers with the monster details and warn the community, yet unaware police are shocked to find vampires in a dark alley.
Maybe The Strain is meant to mirror how no one is on the same page in a crisis – we are now witnessing that chaotic misinformation mistake first hand indeed – but the plot is all over the place, too. It’s been a few weeks onscreen since The Strain began, however, life is upside down for some while others seem totally unbothered. Again, this is a foreboding parallel to our real life pandemic with the poor working man much more deeply impacted than the wealthy ease of access, but here there’s no sense of the storytelling scope despite opportunistic orchestrations and tough women securing the five boroughs. Slick villains talk of great visions and master plans, but tangents diverge into a dozen different threads and multiple dead ends. Is The Strain about a doctor experimenting on the infected to test scientific theories or weird do nothing telepathic vampires and slow strigoi chases? Are we to enjoy the precious moments between our little people struggling on the ground or awe at the zombie outbreak turned vampire mythology? New people and places are constantly on the move, jumbled by an aimless, plodding pace as too little too late politicians talk about quarantines when The Strain is past containment. Confusing, pointless storylines take away from important intrigues and significant elements tread tires amid random threats and dropped crises. The conflicts on cruel science for the greater good grow hollow thanks to constant interruptions and changed emotions. Provocative diluted worm extracts taken for illness or ailments are used as control by the strigoi or when necessary for our heroes, but the scientific analysis of such a tonic or hybrid cases is never considered. Infecting the infected experiments and vampire free island security only take a few episodes, yet viewers today who can’t pay the rent are expected to believe it takes weeks for a market free fall and runs on banks? “The Born” starts off great, but often there’s no going back to what happens next regarding cures and Roman history as contrived messy or blasé action pads episodes. Rather than driving away in a cop car, dumbed down characters run into a church for a lagging, maze-like battle that kills an interesting minority character. When the community comes together for “The Battle for Red Hook,” unnecessary family pursuits ruin the sense of immediacy while the hop, skip, and jump to Washington D.C. for two episodes of scientific effort gets ditched for glossed over vampire factions and historic relics. Both the lore and science are interesting, but these mashed together entities compete for time as if we’re changing the channels and watching two shows at once. Instead of the rich detail we crave, The Strain continually returns to its weakest plot with shit actions and stupid players causing absurd consequences.
The Strain, however, does look good, and the ten episode Third Season provides coffins, gore, goo, and nasty bloodsucking appendages. The vampire makeup, creepy eyes, monster sinews, and icky skin are well done. Occasionally, creatures scaling the wall and speedy, en masse action is noticeable CGI, but the worms, tentacles, and splatter upset the body sacred. Sickly green lighting invokes the zombie plague mood while choice red adds vampire touches alongside silver grenades, ultraviolet light, and ancient texts. Sadly, Season Three opens with an unrealistic announcement that it’s only been twenty-three days since the outbreak started. The uneven pace makes such time impossible to believe, and tricked out infrared military are just now arriving three weeks into the disaster. Mass manufacture of The Strain’s bio-weapon is also never mentioned again as the science is now nothing more than a home chemistry set. Instead, step by step time is taken to siphon gas in a dark, dangerous parking garage – which could be realistic except The Strain has never otherwise addressed food, supplies, precious toilet paper, or the magically unlimited amount of silver bullets. Once again, everyone who fought together goes on to separate allegiances on top of hear tell global spread, Nazi parallels, control centers, and messianic symbolism. It’s all too clunky thanks to people made stupid and contradictions between the onscreen myths, technology, and abilities. Too many convenient infections, Master transformations, tacked on worms, and excuses happen at once – cheapening Shakespearean touches and monster worm bombs with redundant failures. Montages wax on human history while voiceovers tell audiences about government collapse, glossing over arguably the most interesting part of the catastrophe for drawn-out experiments on microwaves. There’s no narrative flow as the episodes run out but suddenly everyone is sober enough to use the ancient guidebook to their advantage. After such insistence over sunlight and ultraviolet, those safeguards are inexplicably absent when needed. No one maximizes resources and opportunities in “Battle for Central Park,” and people only come together because they accidentally bump into each other. In “The Fall,” a carefully orchestrated trap and prison plan is finally put into action against The Master, but ridiculous contrivances stall the operation before easy outs and one little effing asshole moron ruining it all. Again.
The cast is not at fault for the uneven developments on The Strain, but if Ephraim Goodweather is only there to be a drunken bad parent failing at every turn, he should have been written off the show. If we’re sticking with Eph and his angst before science, then his pointless strigoi wife and terrible son Zach should have been tossed instead of hogging the screen. Cranky, obnoxious, budding sociopath Zach’s “Why? No! Don’t!” lack of comprehension is unrealistic for his age, and everything has to be dumbed downed to appease him. Onscreen The Strain is continually talking down to viewers like we are five and it gets old very fast. Previously compassionate characters are reset as cold marksmen, and Eph claims he no longer cares about the cause when he was once at its epicenter. He complains he has nothing to do, bemoaning the lack of a feasible vaccine before gaining government support in creating a strigoi bio-weapon only to ditch it for microwaves and vampire telepathy. Zach ruins each plan anyway, and by the end of Season Two, I was fast forwarding over the Goodweather family plots. Nora Martinez is also nonexistent as a doctor unless convenient, relegated instead to babysitting, and Samantha Mathis’ (Little Women) Justine Feraldo likewise starts off brassy before unnecessarily overplaying her hand and failing bitterly because of others. Initially The Strain had such a diverse ensemble, but by the end of the Third Season, all the worst things have happened to the women and minorities. Ruta Gedmintas’ Dutch wavers from the cause for a conflicted lesbian romance that disappears before she returns to the fold as Eph’s tantalizing research assistant when she’s not being captured and rescued. I won’t lie, I only hung on watching The Strain as long as I did for Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) as the thousand year old hybrid Quinlan. He uses his conflicted history with The Master to help Setrakian and sees through Ephraim while developing a distrustful shoulder to shoulder with Fet. Unfortunately, his vampire super powers come in handy unless he’s forgotten about when it’s time for the action to sour or let failures happen, and nobody tells officials about this almost invincible half-strigoi who could be useful in a fight. Setrakian, Quinlan, and Fet make for an ornery, begrudging trio, living in a luxury hotel while pursuing Abraham’s relics whether they agree with the plan or not – mostly because Fet accrues all manor of weapons and is happy to use them. Setrakian has some crusty wisdom for them, but his battle of wits with Jonathan Hyde as the at any price Palmer provides great one on one scene chewing. The double crosses and interchangeable threats feel empty, and Palmer also has an odd romantic side plot that wastes time, but Richard Sammel’s Nazi vampire Eicchorst remains a deliciously twisted minion. “Dead End” and “Do or Die” reveal more personal history as the mature players provide intriguing questions on immortality, humanity, and barbarism. Miguel Gomez’ Gus finally seems like he is going to join the team, but then he’s inexplicably back on his own rescuing families and refusing to accept his mother’s turn in more useless filler. He and Joaquin Cosio (Quantum of Solace) as the absolutely underutilized fifties superhero Angel are conscripted to fight vampires but once again, they remain wasted in isolated, contrived detours.
Streamlining Fet, Dutch, Quinlan, and Gus as vampire fighters testing methods from Setrakian’s texts and Eph’s science funded by Feraldo could have unified The Strain with straightforward heroes versus monsters action we can root for in an apocalypse. Watching on the eve of our own real world pandemic, was I in the right frame of mind to view The Strain unclouded? Thanks to creators Guillermo de Toro and Chuck Hogan and showrunner Carlton Cuse’s foretelling social breakdowns between the haves and the have nots, maybe not. That said, The Strain terribly executes two seasons worth of source material. An embarrassment of riches with a scientific premise, mystical flashbacks, assorted zombie and vampire crossover monsters, and intriguing characters fall prey to uneven pacing, crowded focus, and no balance or self-awareness onscreen. The Strain may have been better served as television movies or six episode elemental seasons – science in year one, vampire history the second, relic pursuits, and a final battle. Disastrous characters and worthless stories compromise the meaty sacrifices, crusty old alliances, and silver standoffs – stretching the horror quality thin even in a shorter ten episode season. Rather than a fulfilling mirror to nature parable, The Strain Seasons Two and Three are an exercise in frustration, and even without the real world horrors, it’s too disappointing to bother with the end of the world reset in Season Four.
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