The Strain, Season 1, Episode 5, “Runaways”
Written by Gennifer Hutchison
Directed by Peter Weller
Airs Sundays at 10pm EST on FX
As Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.” The Strain is difficult to categorize. The cynical part of me thinks it was born mediocre and I’ve just been expecting too much from it. Perhaps this was always where we would end up, with Holocaust flashbacks and a sense that this isn’t what we signed up for.
Another, small part still sees the potential. The closest parallel we can think of is American Horror Story, a show that practically defies anyone to actually review it on a weekly basis and be able to make heads or tails of what just happened. Was it bad, was it good, does it even matter? The Strain is not on that show’s level in almost any way, but that same feeling of inscrutable madness is here (AHS also dealt with the Holocaust in its best season).
It’s hard to parse whether the Holocaust scenes, set at a concentration camp, are tasteless or not. When a vampire show travels back there puts its fictional monster in that environment, it just immediately feels tasteless. That said, the late-night scenes of the monster preying on the poor prisoners asleep in their beds are seriously creepy, and do establish why Setrakian is so passionate about this (it’s personal – the monster killed his brother). A full episode would have treated this material better, but it could have been worse. The Master (“Is that a proper name?”) is in fact terrifying and creepy as hell (not to mention absurdly disgusting), and it ends up fitting in with the world of a concentration camp, especially in service of showing how he preys on those who are doomed.
The Nora storyline fell more flat. Ejected from the main plot, she pays a visit to her mother in a retirement home of some sort, who essentially exists to tell her that she’s strong enough to do what needs to be done. Which feels like a pointless and roundabout way of getting that across to her, but then there’s a vampire in the building so it all ties together. This is a little puzzling, because apparently they’re just making themselves known and attacking random people now? It’s also interesting, because it seems like the CDC and everyone else is slow to realize what’s going on or do anything about it (besides Setrakian and Eph, of course), which seems like what would happen if vampires started attacking New York City. It’s all starting to fall apart (to say nothing of what Fet finds down in the sewers).
It was admittedly pretty fun when Setrakian and Eph started talking about vampire lore, which is revealed to exist in the world of the show. “Take away the cape, the fangs, the accent,” Setrakian says, and yet Eph is surprised about using a mirror to see whether a possible vampire has her reflection shown. This makes sense, though, considering these monsters aren’t actually vampires, they have a disease that makes them act like vampires. It’s a clever acknowledgement of where the show comes from and how it stands apart.
I also must stand corrected about the four survivors, whose transformation into vampires has been very slow but has turned out to consistently be the best part of The Strain. Ann-Marie has tragically hung herself (very few images creep me out more than a hung person, with creaking rope), and Setrakian takes care of Ansel. More impressive are the scenes with Joan, who hasn’t had a chance to shine yet. The nanny is trying to get Joan’s kids out of the house, because she seemingly has more sense than Eph’s higher-ups at the CDC: something is very wrong here. Joan stops them, and there is nothing less creepy and weird than a mother smelling her kids. It’s a great scene full of real tension, because I would not have put it past this show to have this mother devour her children’s blood.
The Strain continues to be a show with moments of creepy brilliance such as that one interspersed in each episode, but surrounded by a lot of nonsense and genuinely bad dialogue (the attempts at buddy humour between Eph and Setrakian are particularly painful – “So you’re a romantic AND impractical. Wonderful.”). A lot of stuff doesn’t make sense (the CDC’s non-interest in a video of one of the monsters, Setrakian doing the dishes of the man he just murdered – actually that was pretty great), and many of the storytelling choices are obscure if I’m being generous (Nora running away from the action instead of helping, how little there is to care about the Stoneheart Group scenes). I don’t know if The Strain was born mediocre, but it needs to reverse that course and take hold of all the potential it has going for it.