Review: The Strain – “Last Rites” S01,E12

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To say that “Last Rites” is the best episode since “The Disappeared” isn’t really high praise considering the last two episodes ranged anywhere from supbpar to downright awful. Still, I went in expecting the same decline in quality and was mildly surprised I enjoyed parts of the latest installment of The Strain.

Unfortunately, the best parts of “Last Rites” come toward the end of the episode. During the first half or so, I found myself irritated with several recurring problematic issues The Strain can’t seem to shake.

First of all, there’s really only so much exposition and/or spoon feeding of information I can take. I’m well aware that characters vanish for episodes on end only to resurface later, but Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) was only absent for “The Third Rail” yet we still have to be reminded of what her part was in the grand scheme of things (Eph: “You broke the internet.”). In addition, Dutch, Eph (Corey Stoll) and Fet (Kevin Durand) feel the need to explain how the Emergency Broadcast System works when they plan to hack it, allowing Eph to broadcast a warning to New York and, hopefully, the world.

Secondly, aside from “For Services Rendered“, the flashbacks rarely feel like compelling storytelling. “Last Rites” again details a younger Abraham (Jim Watson, wearing a not very convincing beard and bushy eyebrows) attempting to kill the Master in 1967 Albania* where he lives with his wife, Miriam. Abraham’s back story is meant to parallel Nora’s current day dilemma of having to kill her mother (Anne Betancourt) after she’s infected by Bolivar (welcome back Jack Kesy), another character we haven’t seen for weeks.

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*Sorry, but whenever I see or hear Albania, it instantly reminds me of this classic scene.

Shortly before Nora (Mia Maestro, who was great here) is forced to decapitate her mother, she discovered that Abraham kept an infected vampire heart in the basement of his pawn shop. I’m not certain if it was specifically mentioned earlier that the heart belonged to his wife, but I’d always assumed it was given the conversation between Setrakian (David Bradley) and Eichorst (Richard Sammel) shortly after the former was arrested early on this season. I’m not sure exactly why we needed this made abundantly clear (or why Nora failed to inform everyone about Abraham’s souvenir), but, hey, this is The Strain we’re dealt.

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Anyway, what’s best about “Last Rites” revolves around a few of the action scenes.

Quinlan (Stephen McHattie) is back, albeit briefly, when he rescues Gus (Miguel Gomez) from the horde of vampires Gus and Creem (Jamie Hector) accidentally unleash from storage containers near the docks. It’s unclear why he specifically chooses to spirit Gus away instead of both men, though it might be a bit more interesting had we been allowed to get to know either Gus or Quinlan at greater length prior to this moment.

The Strain is always at its finest when it revolves around the Eichorst/Setrakian dynamic and the suspense created by the vampire onslaught at the pawn shop is the true highlight of the episode. Yes, the scene is undercut by the fact we can be positively certain that no major character will be offed, but it’s great to see Eichorst (the menacing Richard Sammel) flex his muscles against his old adversary.

Setrakian looks pretty badass himself.

Setrakian looks pretty badass himself.

Overall, “Last Rites” is an okay episode, though it could have been a lot more powerful. Perhaps next week’s “The Master”, the first season finale, will be inspiring enough to warrant me watching a second season, but as of right now, I’m not sure The Strain will continue to worm its way into my regular viewing next year.

The Strain – “Last Rites” grade: C+

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Review: The Strain – “The Third Rail” S01,E11

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“We’re going to have to go with what we end up with. Hope for the best.” –Vasiliy Fet

“Mr. Fet, you’ve just described my method of operations for the past six decades.” –Abraham Setrakian

The sad thing about that interaction is that it perfectly sums up the type of plotting, character interaction, and storytelling The Strain has exhibited through most of its first season proving that superior episodes like “For Services Rendered” and “Occultation” were the exception and not the rule.

Coincidence and contrivance are what this show thrives upon and the two are fully on display in “The Third Rail”, an episode that derives its title from a very minor plot point–the supposedly abandoned subway’s rail Fet (Kevin Durand) warns the others to stay away from in case it’s still live (but, as he adds, “at six hundred and twenty five volts, you don’t want to find out”).

Something tells me it's live.

Something tells me it’s live.

“The Third Rail” is infuriating because it contradicts itself repeatedly. Eph (Corey Stoll) starts out the episode self assured, telling Nora (Mia Maestro) that he “has to believe” if you kill the Master, the other vamps will die. It seems as if he’s bought into the whole supernatural thing and is ready to do whatever’s necessary to put an end to the evil.

And then he goes and does something stupid inside the Master’s lair when he hears Kelly’s voice calling out to him, putting everyone in jeopardy (which is another issue because the whole Eph-Kelly relationship was too weakly established from the beginning to result in any emotional resonance though The Strain still tries hard to make us care).

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Eph also won’t be nominated for any parent of the year award because he leaves Zach (Ben Hyland) alone with Nora’s mother, Mariela (Anne Betancourt), who is in the middle of full blown dementia. And because we can’t possibly focus on one main story in The Strain, Zach needs a reason to be put in jeopardy* so he has to go and retrieve Morley¬†cigarettes for her in the hopes that she’ll calm down.

Morley's, TV's favorite brand of fictional cigarettes

Morley’s, TV’s favorite brand of fictional cigarettes

*I think the sole purpose of getting Zach out of the pawn shop was to have him bump into Gus (Miguel Gomez) in a desperate attempt to repair the link between two disconnected storylines .

In yet another random happenstance, Nora mentions early on in “The Third Rail” that she doesn’t like Setrakian (David Bradley) because he has a “dark soul”, something the latter agrees with. Later, while in the Master’s lair, Setrakian is held back from attacking the head vampire after being given some sort of command accompanied by a ringing sound (I think anyway, because the whole thing wasn’t really clear) so maybe there’s more to their relationship than has been revealed thus far. If so, that’s fine, but, like many things about this series, it seems as if it’s been inserted when it needs to be. Why not have Nora say that when she first meets him as it would have created a little more suspense overall? Then again, with so much going on with a million different characters, the writers may not be confident that audiences would remember such a detail.*

*In my opinion, if well written, we would.

Anyway, Eph, Nora, Vasiliy, and Abraham enter the subway to find the Master and his coffin and what should be a very suspenseful set piece falls a little flat in the long run. Eph and Vasiliy, who had been at odds and joking earlier, are once again confrontational–a tiresome, manufactured argument that comes almost out of nowhere just because the situation called for something to happen.

They spot a vampire and Abraham tells them that they shouldn’t be seen because it would tip the Master off to their presence. Then they’re seen. Thankfully, the vampire wasn’t in on the third rail conversation, because it immediately steps on it.

Turns out it WAS live after all.

Turns out it WAS live after all.

More vamps show up, seemingly herding the group into a trap. Or not. Again, that’s not really clear thanks to clumsy storytelling. Vasiliy nearly gets stuck in a tunnel but Nora pulls him out just in time.

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The Master’s plan to lure Eph into his clutches is momentarily successful, though why destroying Eph is so important to him is unclear and has been since we saw Kelly inexplicably drawn to the Master at the end of “Loved Ones”.

Oh, and, to add to all of the pointless plots chugging along in this episode, we finally see Gus again, returning home to find his brother and mother turned into vampires (both of which are bathed in light coming from the outside window at different points which should burn them up, but, hey, why bother being consistent?). This is yet another moment which should create sympathy with the viewer, but since we haven’t seen many of these characters for weeks at a time, each scene has no impact whatsoever.

It doesn’t appear to me that the creative forces behind The Strain have a clear vision of this story’s progression. You would think that if they were working under the assumption there would only be one season (it has since been renewed for a second) they would pull out all the stops. Instead, a lot of this season has meandered between characters who were not well established and with far too little screen time.

At least the Master looks cool, so there's that.

At least the Master looks cool, so there’s that.

The Strain – “The Third Rail” grade: D+

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Review: The Strain – “Loved Ones” S01,E10

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“You must be prepared for what you might find” — Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley)

A wiser quote could not be more applicable to The Strain because, at this point, the season has been so uneven that I try to prepare myself for something great (“Occultation“, “For Services Rendered“) to way below average (“Runaways“).

So where does “Loved Ones” fall along the spectrum?

I really want to say that I liked this episode. I also really want to say that I hated this episode. Since my feelings balance out nicely, I’ll throw it squarely in the middle and use the words of Seinfeld‘s George Costanza to illustrate my point: “Right in that meaty part of the curve…not showing off, not falling behind.”

How many times is The Strain going to remind us that, when turned, the vampires will go after their loved ones first? Well, with “Loved Ones”, you can add one more to that running total. I’m not sure if the creative forces behind the TV version (which includes authors Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan) realize that they’re constantly bombarding us with this singular piece of information, but it’s becoming tiresome.

What’s more interesting to me in regards to this theme is the scene where Eph (Corey Stoll) confronts the homeless person about where she obtained Kelly’s (Natalie Brown) cell phone. I wondered how she managed to survive all those nights on the streets with the Strigoi starting to run rampant and it hit me…maybe there’s no one that loves her. That one particular idea might have been more interesting to explore rather than the flashbacks we got about Kelly’s whereabouts during the previous 32 hours. Again, it’s no reflection upon the acting which has pretty much been top notch throughout.

It’s the poor writing and thin characterization that stifles my sympathy because Kelly, her friend Diane, and Diane’s son weren’t fleshed out enough for me to care about their untimely demises.

Bye Diane. We hardly knew ya.

Bye Diane. We hardly knew ya.

I can’t express enough how much the flashbacks in general have harmed the momentum of this series. Save for the ones that played well in “For Services Rendered”, they’ve added almost nothing to the enjoyment of the show. In “Loved Ones”, it would have been more suspenseful to leave Kelly’s fate a mystery until the very end of the episode thereby ending Eph’s speculation and enhancing his reaction to what happened to her (though Corey Stoll does a great job overall in expressing Eph’s grief).

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For everything that doesn’t work about “Loved Ones”, there are scenes that are really well done and, again, they are scenes that involve Fet (Kevin Durand), Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas), Abraham, and Zach (Ben Hyland).

Strain Loved 6There’s a great rapport between Fet and Dutch as they flirt en route to worm (pun intended) their way in to the Stoneheart building, making a great team whose plan is immediately thwarted (which was a shock to no one) in what was basically a wasted sequence. However, it was nice to see Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) and Fitzwilliams (Roger Cross) again even though it was all too brief an appearance.

Once again, with “Loved Ones”, The Strain is putting an emphasis on slowing things down instead of speeding up events as it lurches toward the final three episodes of the season. This installment felt little more than filler until we (hopefully) get to the good stuff (which, judging from the preview of next week’s “The Third Rail”, looks as if we’ll get more of a taut, action oriented episode).

Some other inconsistencies that are troublesome:

  • Why do communications work whenever it’s convenient? Zach is able to connect with the internet which is supposed to be completely dark. And phones? They seem to work whenever needed as well.
  • Fet said that a full on attack would be a bad idea but why would they think slipping into the Stoneheart stronghold was a better one? He and Dutch were saved only by a weird plot contrivance.
  • Matt (Drew Nelson) could have attacked Kelly while she was asleep but then inexplicably locked himself in the bathroom. Did he need that extra time to decide he really did love her?
  • Why did the Master call out Kelly specifically? I don’t recall an instance where he did that with anyone else. Is it because he sees Eph as a threat because that development would come out of left field.

Anyway, it’s difficult to dwell too long on the issues that plague this series because it will drive me nuts. So to close, here’s something that really worked:

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The quiet, reflective moment where (I think) Zach realizes that his mother is gone, played perfectly by Ben Hyland. Though the entire mini-flashback is a bit too drawn out, it worked better than the majority of “Loved Ones”.

The Strain – “Loved Ones” grade: C

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Review: The Strain – “The Disappeared” S01,E09

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“Why did you call him a vampire?” –Zach Goodweather (Ben Hyland)

“Because that’s what he turned into.” –Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley)

“My dad didn’t use that word.”–Zach

“He will. Trust me. There’s power in naming things.”–Abraham

Like nearly every episode of The Strain, there are a lot of good things I can name about “The Disappeared”. Moments of horror (Zach nearly being turned by Matt, Felix attacking everyone in the police van) are interspersed with levity (almost anything with Fet and, in a few instances, Eph cracking wise) and quiet reflection (scenes featuring both Zach and Dutch with Abraham)–all of which should add up to riveting television. But even in naming these little moments, it doesn’t bestow any power upon the show to elevate it to a higher level.

Simply put, it’s the disjointed storytelling of The Strain that keeps it on the edge of being a really great series.

To be honest, until it was mentioned, I couldn’t remember the name of Eph’s son and that’s a shame because Ben Hyland has done a fantastic job with the character, particularly in this episode (though his scenes with David Bradley’s Abraham resonated more with me than with Corey Stoll’s Eph). The fact that characters vanish for episodes at a time also undercuts the fact that we’re supposed to care about them (remember Joan Luss’ sporadic appearances?).

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Though it’s clear that Eph (Corey Stoll) and Nora (Mia Maestro) were designed to drive the narrative, the most compelling characters are Abraham (David Bradley) and Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) and their chemistry together is phenomenal. In fact, at this point, I’d rather watch a series with these two as vampire hunters along with Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas), Zach, and even Gus (Miguel Gomez).

To be clear, my preference for the characters above in no way reflect the performances of Stoll and Maestro, who are both fine in their roles. It’s just that we’re meant to believe Eph and Nora have a torrid past (indicated here by the tryst in Eph’s old house) but there’s not much of a dynamic between the two. In regard to Eph, the writers have basically relegated him to the role of reluctant, generic hero with little more to do than act conflicted when he should be farther ahead of the game than he is. What might have helped at this stage is to devote some semblance of back story for either of the two. Instead, we’re just supposed to root for them with little emotional involvement.

As for delving into the past of a character, The Strain has done a very good job with both Fet (hinting at a life that never was with additional family conflict) and Abraham (through flashbacks to him facing evils both ancient in the form of the Master and current in Richard Sammel’s Eichorst). Maybe the writers’ willingness to expand upon these characters is the reason they seem more fully developed than the other heroes.

When people ask if I would recommend The Strain, my response without hesitation is “Absolutely”. It’s a fun show that perhaps doesn’t aspire to be more than what it is. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But the fact that it could be so much better had the creators taken more time to tighten up the various plots is the one thing reining it in instead of just allowing it to go balls out crazy.

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On a final note, we did get to meet The Master, which was nice. I kind of expected him to be a little more terrifying than Eichorst was in his vampiric form (though this is him back in 1944 so he might have evolved a bit more), but I’m glad he was fully revealed and I’m looking forward to seeing how he’ll play into the story in the future.

The Strain – “The Disappeared” grade: B-

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Review: The Strain – “Creatures of the Night” S01,E08

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“By wounding him, we have sent the Master a message. I do not think we will have to wait long for his reply.” -Abraham (David Bradley)

“I really, really don’t like the sound of that.” – Jim (Sean Astin)

Though it might seem as if there’s a lot going on in “Creatures of the Night”, the episode is relatively stagnant in terms of forward momentum. However, after the superb back to back episodes “Occultation” and “For Services Rendered“, The Strain has probably earned a breather.

Eph (Corey Stoller) and his band of merry vampire hunters finally cross paths with Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) and they discover that separately, they’ve arrived at the same conclusion–ultraviolet light can be used as a weapon against the creatures. After looting a local supply store for the UV lights, they decide to stock up on other things like food and water. A vampire attack forces them to take refuge within a convenience store and Jim, whose valiant effort in warding off one of the undead with the UV resulted in him getting injured, discovers that the wound is much more than just a scratch.

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Eph and Nora spot a worm wriggling underneath Jim’s skin and excise it before turning the light on it and setting it ablaze, thereby saving him from certain doom.

In the meantime, the rest of the gang (which now includes Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) the hacker responsible for putting the kibosh on all electronic communications) struggle to try and find a way out as the numbers outside grow. Abraham warns everyone that the vampires are waiting for reinforcements and time is running out.

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However, time has grown even shorter for one member of the group. Remember that whole “Jim being saved from certain doom” thing? It turns out that the worm inside Jim had ample time to replicate and he is completely infected, ready to transform into a vampire at some point in the near future. Eph and Nora are torn. They are advised to kill him–even by Jim himself–but insist that they can cure him. Vasiliy calmly pulls out a revolver and executes Jim with several bullets to the head. Eph is visibly upset but he, Vasiliy, and the rest of the group band together and escape.

“Creatures of the Night” is solid but standard fare, offering up more information about the Strigoi (they are all connected to the Master and act as his eyes; severing the brain stem kills them) as well as some comedic moments peppered throughout.

However, “Creatures of the Night” is a little cliched (I mean, come on, the hacker girl just happens to be in the same convenience store?) and the whole idea of making a stand against a siege of the undead has, if you’ll pardon the pun, been done to death.

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Still, I’m glad the main characters are finally starting to come together and I’m looking forward to the ultimate revelation of the hooded creature’s identity from the previous episode (who might be one of the vampires the Master bestowed certain powers upon like he did with Eichorst, according to what Abraham told Eph).

With five episodes remaining this season, things should really start to pick up now.

The Strain – “Creatures of the Night” grade: B-

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Review: The Strain – “For Services Rendered” S01,E07

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“I give you another day of life, Jew…for services rendered.” – Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel)

One of the things that really elevates “For Services Rendered” is the dynamic between the former Nazi/current vampire Eichorst and Holocaust survivor/vampire hunter, Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley/Jim Watson).

Though the relationship was hinted at back in “The Box” and expanded upon in flashbacks in “The Runaways“, “For Services Rendered” crafts an excellent tale regarding the two adversaries. Thanks to the juxtaposition between flashbacks in the concentration camp and the modern day pursuit of Eichorst by the ever expanding team of heroes (which now includes Sean Astin’s Jim), we’re treated to just how deeply connected the two are.

Strain FSR 2 Back in “The Runaways”, I complained about how ineffective the flashbacks were. While they revealed information, they were more intrusive to the overall story than they should have been and seemed out of place. In “For Services Rendered”, however, writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle have deftly interwoven them into the present day tale, helping to move the action and plot forward even though the events happened 70 years ago. Adding to the great dialogue is the chemistry between the actors. Sammel, who is always fantastic, portrays two different types of monsters here with equal success. He’s no less threatening as a Nazi commander taunting the young Abraham (a similarly superb Jim Watson) as he is a powerful vampire nearly killing the elder Abraham (David Bradley, excellent as always) later in the episode. It’s great to see the writing rising to the level of the acting talent involved with The Strain. Strain FSR 3If the story between the two foes were the sole focus of “For Services Rendered”, it would still have been successful, but there’s oh so much more going on.

When the episode begins, the as yet unseen husband of Joan Luss (Leslie Hope) arrives home, only to be greeted by vampires lurking about outside. He narrowly escapes, but is attacked by his wife, unrecognizable after turning completely to a vampire while he was away. After the nanny and her daughter return with the Luss children (Chloe O’Malley and Jayden Greig), Joan and a few other vampires drive them into the wine cellar and she’s about to attack, but is killed by a spike to the head. Her assailant?

This mystery "man".

This mystery “man”.

Meanwhile, Jim’s wife is off to her cancer treatment and Gus (Miguel Gomez) is tossed in jail along with the infected Felix (Pedro Miguel Arce) but both storylines are wisely kept to a minimum of screen time to allow the other action to unfold.

If there’s one minor quibble I still have with The Strain, it’s that there are still too many characters, though the current forward momentum is starting to eliminate a lot of the unnecessary baggage. While I’ve enjoyed all of the actors in their roles, some of the characters stayed on long after needed, but that appears to be what I would assume is the fault of the writers failing to trim fat from the book adaptation. Perhaps they’ve realized that as much as you’d like to be faithful to the source material, it makes for better television to change as much as you can to avoid getting bogged down.

Finally, kudos have to be given to director Charlotte Sieling who helmed a very successful episode, not only maintaining a perfect pace, but for focusing on the strong performances of all actors involved. It’s worth noting that there’s one very impressive scene in the train station where Eichorst threatens Jim and the background noise drops out to a near silence before seamlessly introduced once again when Eichorst backs off. I was so impressed, I had to rewind it.

I’m hoping to continually be impressed as the season rolls toward the finale. If this high quality is maintained throughout, I might even find myself looking forward to next summer for reasons other than a respite from the harsh winter months! Congratulations to everyone involved with The Strain on the renewal to season 2.

He just looks cool so why not one more pic? Who IS that cloaked man?

He just looks cool so why not one more pic? Who IS that cloaked man?

The Strain – “For Services Rendered” grade: A

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Review: The Strain – “Occultation” S01,E06

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¬†“What I find fascinating is how love is considered a gift, a blessing…with no acceptance to the fact that it also binds, chokes and strangles.” — Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel)

The only characters in The Strain that have been wholly accepting of a potential threat from the very beginning are those without strong personal relationships. Abraham (David Bradley) learned long ago (an incident only briefly touched upon thus far in dialogue between him and Eichorst) how loving someone can blind you to true horror and Vasiliy (Kevin Durand) has been more of a loner (at least until this episode) whose eyes noticed strange occurrences almost immediately.

As for the others, well, they were slow to come around because they were more focused on their loved ones and, therefore, short-sighted to trouble.

Thematically, “Occultation” really brings that to the forefront, especially with Eichorst’s above statement because, while our main characters savor their personal relationships, they almost always lead to their downfall (if even only temporarily).

The episode opens not on New York, but high above the earth, where a satellite allows us to listen in on random chatter from across the city revealing concerns over the impending eclipse. People view this occultation as a portent of doom and with good reason; with the sun blocked, the creatures are free to roam about the city, spreading the infection faster.

Thankfully, the eclipse, while slightly contrived, is a godsend to The Strain because it also speeds up the overall momentum of the series. Our main characters’ arcs are starting to intersect–and rather seamlessly, I might add. Gus (Miguel Gomez) is both blackmailed and strong-armed by Eichorst into disposing of a body and Jim (Sean Astin) acts as his driver. Eph (Corey Stoll) and Nora (Mia Maestro) reunite at Abraham’s pawn shop where Abraham reveals that he has a new plan of attack.

Even Vasiliy is moving closer to the main group. When he returns to work, he discovers that his coworkers have been infected and are starting to turn. Even though he cares about them, he doesn’t hesitate to destroy them by tearing down the blinds and scorching them with sunlight. Hopefully, it won’t be long before both he and Gus join forces with the others.

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Speaking of Vasiliy, I’m really impressed with the way the writers deftly wove his back story into the episode without beating us over the head with it. Through the conversation with his father, we discover that Vasiliy is highly intelligent (which was pretty much evident already) and, for some unknown reason, rejected a full scholarship at Cornell in architecture to become an exterminator.

Concise, descriptive exposition. You know, the blueprint for a successful scene.

Concise, descriptive exposition. You know, the blueprint for a successful scene.

Overall, “Occultation” is a complete 180 from the past two episodes, “Runaways” and “It’s Not For Everyone” in that it finally offers a great deal more progress story-wise than we’ve seen in weeks. If future episodes are as similarly structured and well written and directed (in this case, as in last week’s episode, by Robocop‘s Peter Weller), The Strain will conclude the second half of its freshman season in style.

The Strain – “Occultation” grade: A

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Review: The Strain – “Runaways” S01E05

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If “It’s Not For Everyone” seemed a little sluggish, then “Runaways” felt as if it moved at a snail’s pace or downright stopped.

By the fifth episode, we should see the action picking up, not slowing down, but the latest installment believes otherwise. Yes, we get to see the plot move forward a little, but “Runaways” is so scattershot in its approach, it’s barely noticeable.

Leslie Hope returns as Joan Luss (whose name I had to look up because it’s been so long since we’ve seen her that I’d forgotten the character’s name), still in the early stages where the vampires (or, as Abraham calls them, Strigoi) are kind of just sniffing people and thinking about sucking on their blood. I guess each victim’s metabolism plays a part in how rapid the vampiric (or Strigoic) changes take place. Or whatever. But, yeah, she’s still around threatening legal action against the airline and waiting to transform instead of maybe seeking medical attention.

Bolivar (Jack Kesy) is still in his lair and, thanks to his manager Ruby (Regina King) who serves up not one, but two meals, is doing okay for himself. Apparently, Ruby is totally fine with murdering a urologist and a clandestine “cleaner” who she enlists to cover up the crime. Other than Ruby, no one is the wiser to his issues. Eh, Eph (Corey Stoll) and Abraham (David Bradley) will get to him eventually but, until then, he’s still transforming and not seeking medical attention.

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Speaking of Eph and Abraham, they finally arrive at Ansel’s house and find his wife hanging from the ceiling because she couldn’t live without Ansel (Nikolai Witschl) who is still in the shed feasting off the neighbor she tossed in there last episode. Eph and Abraham off them but Eph insists that he gets video proof so he can show it to the CDC (and presumably put it on YouTube where at least someone would believe him since the CDC doesn’t).

Eph and Abraham are slowed down, however, by unnecessary flashbacks to Abraham’s younger days in a concentration camp, a fact already established by the numbers on his arm. Did we really need to see Abraham’s first glimpse of a hooded creature feeding upon the others in the barracks to indicate Abraham has a past with what he dubs “the Master”? No, because the conversation between him and Eichorst (Richard Sammel) in prison was satisfactory as exposition.

As for Nora (Mia Maestro), who mysteriously abandoned Eph last episode…well she serves as this week’s Gus in a terrible storyline involving a visit to her mother. Her appearance in “Runaways” exists solely to underscore (with a bold marker, mind you) Abraham’s warning that the Master’s manipulations involve the already infected spreading the virus to the ones they love most.

We get it. We’ve gotten it for weeks now.

Unfortunately, the most promising of the 1700 storylines currently going on in The Strain is the one with Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) who goes into the sewers investigating the rat problem and beats a hasty retreat after discovering a horde of vampires lurking about. If we could have spent more time with him and the horror ready to burst forth upon the city, it might have made “Runaways” a great episode instead of one that languishes in too much idle chatter.

The Strain – “Runaways” grade: D

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Review: The Strain – “It’s Not For Everyone” S01E04

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Is it just me or is “It’s Not For Everyone” the first episode of The Strain that felt a little sluggish?

The hour started off promising, picking up exactly where “Gone Smooth” left off, with Eph (Corey Stoll), Nora (Mia Maestro), and Jim (Sean Astin) standing over the pilot’s corpse. The team decides to perform an autopsy on him and discover a lack of genitals, dried organs within the body cavity, and a new set of organs designed to better propel the “stinger” (i.e. the parasitic mechanism used to drink blood) forward. Eph concludes that the creature uses the mechanism to “reproduce and consume its host”.

Then Jim drops the bombshell that he allowed the box to pass through unchecked so it could leave the hospital safely in return for money to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment. Eph does the first logical thing he’s done thus far and punches him.

Meanwhile, Ansel’s wife, Ann-Marie (Alex Paxton-Beesley), who previously took their kids away from him at his request, returns to find their dog mutilated and strange thumps coming from the shed. She discovers Ansel (Nikolai Witschl) inside, dried blood around his mouth and neck chained to prevent him from attacking her. He tells her to get away for her own safety as he’s fully aware something terrible is happening to him.

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Ann-Marie at first seems like kind of an idiot, wandering around in a stupor instead of maybe alerting authorities to his condition. Then she runs into an arrogant neighbor who confronts her about the noises in the shed and she encourages him to go in and quiet what he believes is the dog. The best part about the scene was watching blood run out of the bottom of the shed and onto the white snow below.

Somewhere across town, Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) arranges for all cell and internet communication to be basically shut down so that contact within and out of the city is impossible. Not a bad move and a nice plot point to hamper our heroes. However, it didn’t really need to be mentioned more than once unless the woman he hired is going to return at some point.

For some reason, there was an inordinate amount of focus on Gus (Miguel Gomez) and his family which basically brought the episode to a standstill. I like the characters but seeing him and his friend Felix (Pedro Miguel Arce) just hanging out and committing crimes isn’t really adding to the momentum of the overall story. It’s almost as if they wandered in from a different show. If Gus is to become part of the team that confronts the evil, the writers need to come up with a way to get him there fast.

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The episode ended on a somewhat positive note as Eph and Nora finally meet up with Abraham (David Bradley) when they investigate Emma’s house and find that she and her father are now vampires. While it’s nice that at least part of the team is coming together, Nora inexplicably declines to join the two even though she sought out Abraham’s help in the first place. Eph informs her that their job is to investigate and eliminate threats but she’s not really on board with any project that involves hunting and killing humans (though it’s been made pretty clear to her that these beings aren’t human anymore). It’s also stretching a bit of credibility that Eph is suddenly a complete believer in all things vampire but maybe he’ll have second thoughts next week.

Perhaps titling the episode “It’s Not For Everyone” was prophetic because, for the most part, it wasn’t for me. There were some strong elements in the hour, but too much valuable time was wasted on story arcs slowing down a show that was just starting to gain some traction. In the end, I could possibly look back and see that these scenes were necessary, but I’m betting they’re not at all important to the season.

The Strain – “It’s Not For Everyone” grade: C-

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Review: The Strain – “Gone Smooth” S01E03

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Adapting a book into a visual medium is rarely easy. First of all, you have to pick and choose elements of the source material that will translate well to the screen without losing important aspects of the story. Second, you have to satisfy fans of the book because they will nitpick every little thing that’s either missing or added for dramatic effect.

Take, for example, Stephen King’s Under the Dome, a 1,074 page novel (in its original hardcover format) which was, save for the terrible and predictable ending, a fascinating case study about what people will do when trapped as precious resources dwindle away to nothing. In transferring it to the small screen, the writers pretty much abandoned any suspense and coherent narrative it might have had, instead infusing the show with the most ridiculous twists possible and eschewing character development in favor of cardboard characters acting as little more than plot devices. I abandoned CBS’s version of Under the Dome immediately after the first season ended and, thanks to reviews I read, the second season seems like a complete waste of time.

Even missing part of a face, this guy's infinitely more interesting than anyone Under the Dome

Even missing part of a face, this guy’s infinitely more interesting than anyone Under the Dome

I’m not at all familiar with the novel version of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain, but I have to admit that the TV version seems as if it’s a relatively faithful adaptation of a novel–and that’s both good and bad.

The TV version of The Strain isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it does exhibit some problematic issues with the narrative.

  1. There are too many characters. We get the idea that something is wrong both with the four survivors as well as the dead passengers who have vanished from the hospital, but perhaps too much time is spent on them and, at times, it slows the show down as we bounce back and forth among all of them.
  2. Though there are wonderful performances by all involved, I dread the scenes involving Eph (Corey Stoll) and his semi-estranged family. They bring the momentum, and therefore the hour, to a grinding halt.
  3. The inclusion of Vasiliy Fet needed to be handled a little more deftly. I’m always excited to see Kevin Durand (Lost, Mystery, Alaska) in anything but his character’s introduction should have been better explained (though in all fairness, his role becomes a little clearer in “Gone Smooth”).

These are, of course, minor issues (other than the family scenes which I think should have been altered somehow) because many, if not all, of these plots will undoubtedly pay off down the line once they start to come together. It’s just that today’s TV viewers expect something not only suspenseful, but a little more fast paced.

“Gone Smooth” continues to not only build momentum but also starts to bring our heroes together.

Nora (Mia Maestro) approaches Abraham (David Bradley) inquiring about his knowledge of the passengers and the missing cargo but he ultimately declines to help her unless she fully commits to destroying the bodies of anyone on the plane and those with which they came into contact.

“What was in that coffin? – Nora

“A thing of enormous power and terrible will. The will to devour the world and swallow the light.” – Abraham

Vasiliy, who seems to possess innate knowledge about rodents, becomes even more suspicious of something strange going on when he notices an increase in infestation as well as hundreds of rats scurrying about near the river.

As for the survivors…well, big changes are afoot for the lot. Bolivar (Jack Kesy) is still hearing voices but his hair falls out–among other once vital parts of his anatomy–as he evolves further into a vampiric state. Barbour (Nikolai Witschl) has developed a taste for blood which he drinks with a forked tongue.

And the pilot, Captain Redfern (Jonathan Potts), has undergone a full transformation resulting in an attack against Eph, Nora, and Jim (Sean Astin).

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“Gone Smooth” is not without fault (the aforementioned family scenes really get in the way of the suspense), but it is one hell of a ride!

The Strain – “Gone Smooth” rating: B

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