The Strain, Season 1, Episode 11, “The Third Rail”
Written by Justin Britt-Gibson & Chuck Hogan
Directed by Deran Sarafian
Airs Sundays at 10pm EST on FX
Let’s start this week by talking about Eph. No one particularly wants to, but he’s still our ostensible hero, and that has become The Strain‘s most consistent and scarring flaw. The first mistake the writers make this episode is to spend it pitting Eph against Fet in something that isn’t much more than a dick measuring contest, and one in which everyone is undoubtedly on Fet’s side. And it’s a colossal hindrance to the show that we can’t tell whose side we’re supposed to be on. We can’t tell if we’re supposed to see Eph as our great hero, or if this is some subtle takedown of the arrogant straight white male leader trope.
But even resolving this question would be unsatisfying, because we still have to deal with his insufferable persona. Let’s run through Eph’s highlights this episode. He suggests Nora stay behind instead of joining them on their suicide mission to kill the Master, though thankfully she calls him out on it. He continues to insist this isn’t who he and Nora are, that they aren’t assassins, and it’s rather boring by this point. He has a moment with his son that is supposedly meant to be emotional, but just reads as awkward. He runs off because he thinks he hears his ex-wife, even though it’s clearly a trick, and puts everyone else in danger. And he butts heads with Fet, to the point where he suggests that Fet has been waiting for a crisis like this: “Congratulations on the vampire apocalypse!” It’s ridiculous, yet still unclear if we’re supposed to read it as such.
But perhaps this is all best explained through this one exchange after the group first enters the tunnels and walk through a graveyard of the vampires’ old possessions:
Nora: It’s everything that defined these people.
Fet: Well, I hope I’m defined by more than my wallet and my wristwatch.
Nora: Everything you see here represents someone’s mother, father, son, daughter.
Eph: Don’t bother.
First of all, a giant unanimous groan for both of Nora’s lines. But it’s Eph’s dismissal of Fet, whom Eph defines as someone who is only a killing machine, devoid of emotion or humanity, that really rubs the wrong way. Eph’s sense of entitlement and righteousness is completely unearned and deeply irritating, but it’s made even worse because the characterization of Fet that he puts forward lacks any evidence. Yes, Fet killed Jim, but if that one (pretty reasonable) act is what has wrought this behaviour, that is poor writing, plain and simple. The audience’s view of Fet is of a practical, efficient and humanistic figure worth rooting for. Eph’s forced and misguided perception only serves to further distance us from him.
All that said, it makes the scene of Fet stuck in the tiny tunnel with a vampire on his tail (which calls to mind The Descent) all the more tense. His confrontations with Eph seems to invoke Fet’s vulnerability, flimsily attempting to characterize him as a loose cannon full of aggression that could totally be killed off right now. This direction seemed entirely possible, so the scene ends up really working as an edge-of-your-seat moment. In fact, other than everything Eph does, these tunnel scenes are some of the best of the series so far. It’s creepy and atmospheric, and Setrakian even gets some catharsis (after they lose the Master) by destroying the coffin he made so long ago.
Which makes the rest of the episode so disappointing. One of the other storylines follows Gus, and the other is the Zack and Nora’s Mom Show. Both are awful. Gus’ scenes appear to be the “payoff” we get for all the scenes earlier in the season establishing his family and his relationships with them, and the payoff is that they’re vampires now. He kills his brother, which is played as an emotional moment (capped off with a pan to a statue of Jesus, which, ugh), but falls flat. He then confronts his mother, by which we mean he backs away and leaves her to turn anyone who happens by. At least we get to watch him cut off his landlord’s head, which entertainingly falls down the stairs. He does something fun!
The Zack and Nora’s Mom Show, on the other hand, is lacking in any substance or enjoyment. Its reason for existence as a storyline is head-scratchingly obscure. The group, in a moment of characteristic genius, leaves a young boy alone to care for an Alzheimer’s-afflicted old woman. He then ventures out to get her cigarettes, indirectly gets two people killed, and runs into Gus, a meaningless occurrence that’s likely there only to remind us that Gus exists in the same world as the rest of the characters (though only raising the question of why we’re still paying attention to him, or why we ever did). It’s all a pointless distraction, a time-filler, and it’s excruciating this late in the game.
It hurts to be so negative, but after a string of strong episodes, there’s no reason for the show to return to so many of its worst tendencies. There’s only two episodes left, and it’s frustrating that the writers have yet to figure out so many of the problems that have existed since the pilot. We end with some excellent scenes of Setrakian’s delusional insistence that they have the Master cornered and within their grasp, showing great insight into what drives him, and adding a heartbreaking character moment that is entirely uncommon for the show. And the tunnel mission, however poorly planned, is genuinely scary and effective. But it’s not enough.