The second season of The Strain has been defined by wild swings in quality and narrative consistency. Week in and week out, the show oscillates from one of the only competent and fun horror shows on television to a cheesy, contrived mess that revels in its worst soap opera qualities. Last week’s episode provided some much needed momentum in an otherwise stagnating season, and it seemed likely that The Strain would keep that pace up; after all, there are only two more episodes in the season after tonight’s. The Strain has never really earned that kind of faith though, and that’s on me for seeing a way forward in last week’s thrilling, balanced episode, because “Dead End,” like its name suggests, refuses to go anywhere interesting.

One huge problem–there’s an even bigger one we’ll get to later–with “Dead End” is the shoehorned inclusion of Gus, The Silver Angel, and the Guptas. Their storylines, peppered throughout the season with seemingly no interest in properly building the characters, have been a drain on this season. Whenever they appear on screen it’s as filler. Immediately after Gus decided he was going to fight for the Strigoi Swat, and then later cut a deal with Quinlan, his story was written into a corner, and The Silver Angel and his employers followed suit. There’s been no drama to their interconnected story, a romance between Aanya and Gus forced in to create some sort of emotional beat but falling flat in this episode when Gus has to leave the Guptas to continue his fight. The Silver Angel has been done a similar disservice in terms of characterization. When he decides to team up with Gus after helping get the Guptas to safety, it’s played like an important moment, an “Avengers Assemble” type of allegiance. With no significant or meaningful build or backstory though it’s hard to muster up any enthusiasm about the new vampire-fighting duo (or trio, if Quinlan ever shows up again).

As has been the case with much of the second season, “Dead End” does find some inspiration when diving into a character’s backstory. Flashing back to 1931, The Strain portrays Eichhorst as a weak man, a radio salesman who can hardly make his way in the world and is becoming disillusioned with the economic and political direction of his country. A coworker named Helga takes interest in him, but it’s too little too late. The world has already left him jaded and prone to any cause that may offer a way forward for a man of his demeaned stature. So when the Nazi party begins to take control, Eichorst is a natural candidate for inclusion.

What works about this storyline is that it never really tries too hard to make Eichorst a sympathetic character. To do so, after all he’s done (and does in this episode) would be a mistake, a trite way to “complicate” a character. Instead, the setting and historical context establishes Eichorst as a man who’s perhaps always been prone to evil. Even when he somewhat reluctantly turns on Helga and essentially sentences her to death, it’s a narrative move that doesn’t garner sympathy. Rather, it’s indicative of the type of man Eichorst is, which is a man who will do anything he can to stay alive. He’s hardly selfless, and even his service to The Master is just a way of elevating his own position within the ranks of the strigoi.

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With the backstory filled in, “Dead End” finds the best and worst material of this episode within Eph, Nora, and Fet’s attempt to save Dutch from Eichorst’s padded room. There’s a lot to love about the way this story plays out, especially how closely it comes to being a straight-up horror film. There’s Dutch chained and desperate, Eichorst the looming threat, and the unknown variable of the building they’re in. It’s a typical but engaging captivity story, where the protagonist is stuck in a single space with seemingly no way out while the villain remains in full control of the situation. If this was a typical rescue and escape story, it would work well, and for awhile it does. That is until The Strain decides to dive stinger first into an attempted rape scene.

Now, an episodic review of The Strain isn’t the place to have a lengthy debate about using rape scenes as a narrative device, but the scene in “Dead End” where Eichorst tells Dutch to “spread her legs” and “bend over” is one of the more infuriating examples of rape being used as titillation in recent memory. Dutch is already a prisoner, and the threat of Eichorst has already been established. To have him essentially try to violate her sexually is a step too far, not because it’s attempted rape, but because the threat of sexual violence is deployed so carelessly. This is an obvious example of putting a female character through a traumatic experience in order to bolster the cause of the male protagonists. Storylines that include sexual violence can work, and it can be a legitimate narrative choice; what “Dead End” fails to do though is consider Dutch’s trauma. Her experience, which will undoubtedly scar her for life, is filtered through her past decisions involving male characters. It’s as if she’s being punished for straying from Fet and back to Nikki, the final shot of her cowering in Fet’s arms evidence that her experience is to be understood in relation to Fet rather than as something affecting and traumatizing her. Considering the fact that rape and the violation of the body is already present in the subtext of vampire fiction–the stinger growing and then penetrating the body is a pretty obvious (and often potent) bit of imagery–it’s hard not to read the explicit threat of sexual violence towards Dutch as anything but exploitative. It’s a narrative decision that taints an episode that otherwise smartly embraces and amplifies the show’s inherent horror elements.

Stray observations

  • Outside of the attempted rape, the chase scene through the house is wonderful. Beautifully shot, from the contrast between the greens and reds of the hallways and staircases to the tension created by the cuts from Dutch to Nora, Fet, and Eph.
  • So the Lumen is now in the hands of Alonso Creem. Setrakian really can’t catch a break.
  • “Yes, I will eat the pineapple.” Ugh, this show.
  • It’s been two or three episodes since we’ve seen Gus and Aanya, but we’re supposed to care about their inevitable separation? The Strain is just plain lazy sometimes.

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