This week’s episode of The Strain isn’t much better than the previous two in terms of dialogue (it’s still filled with clunkers) or characterization (there’s still plenty of poorly-drawn cliches). Even with successes in other aspects (there’s a lot less throwing things at the wall this week) of the show, the mediocre still outweighs the downright good.
However, the episode is immediately placed above the C+ material the show has previously provided, for the simple fact that it is an episode of television titled “Gone Smooth” as a result of a main character losing his penis. The character’s reaction to said penile removal being so blasé only sweetens the deal.
In an ideal world, it’s a moment that would represent the show’s status quo. It’s the type of insanity that the audience will react appropriately to, while the characters living it will simply shrug it off. It’s an embrace of the bizarre, and the more bizarre, the more resignation the characters will show. Even the more action-packed final scene of the episode falls under this umbrella—the over-the-top life event followed by the quiet confusion (but also acceptance).
But The Strain has not reached that ideal world status yet. The good in this episode—even with those moments of now expected Strain clunkiness—is notably better than a lot of the begrudging good in the first two episodes. Eichorst’s opening transformation from the monster he truly is to his nearly as terrifying public face is an instant reminder that vampires in this mythology are not sexy in any way (even if they are expert make-up artists). This is also the first episode where Eph and company finally look like they’ll put their heads together on this vampire situation. Outside of phallic forfeiture and the teaser, the best scenes of the episode involve members of the team getting closer to the truth, and the final scene is much needed action that ends on the type of “What now?” note that makes an audience want to tune-in next week in a good way.
With “Gone Smooth,” Mia Maestro’s Nora surprisingly becomes the best protagonist simply because she’s the first to attempt to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this entire situation. While she was sidelined in “The Box,” this week follows the path led by the Nora of the pilot, the one who immediately felt compelled to listen to Setrakian’s old man rantings. Eph spends most of his time making sure his “hair” is perfectly symmetrical in order to keep his family together, and Jim has blackmail and a cancer-riddled wife to deal with, but Nora remains the consummate professional, which cannot be appreciated enough on this show.
Where this fails, however, are the roadblocks preventing her (and the plot) from moving forward.
Part of what makes zombie stories so successful is the fact that the causes for a zombie outbreak tend to have a scientific reason behind them, man-made or not. Outside of horror, the Terminator franchise as a whole is predicated on the fact that technology becomes advanced to the point of sentience. Human error causing these tragedies gives the audience something to connect to and fear in the back of their minds. But right now, The Strain is non-stop human error. There’s not one mistake with a ripple effect; it’s mistake after mistake until contrived happenstance kicks in. Most of the time, the characters appear to be dumb.
There’s also the downside of creating a monster that exists in a real world setting and not having characters react how a real person would probably act in such a situation. As solid as the brief Nora/Setrakian scene is in the beginning, it’s quickly derailed by Setrakian’s riddle-speak. Going into any genre program, the more fantastic and supernatural elements can be accepted easily enough, but those aspects that reflect our reality are the ones that are heavily scrutinized. We can believe a girl has superhuman strength and can save the world (a lot), but her graduating high school despite constantly skipping class and not exactly being a genius is the problematic part.
Here, in a world with vampire worms, Setrakian not simply telling the first interested party he comes into contact with—because she’s not “ready”—is that failed suspension of disbelief moment.
Lines like “This is pointless. You’re not ready.” and the rather rough “Being good means nothing unless you are willing to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.” from Setrakian to an increasingly frustrated Nora are the flimsiest of reasons to continue to keep characters in the dark, and it’s almost as though The Strain would rather take a one step forward, two steps back approach in the story its telling. The big takeaway from this scene shouldn’t be thinking (or even vocalizing) “Just tell her!” as it continues, but that’s what happens the longer it goes. It makes even less sense when you factor in Setrakian’s obsession with protecting the world, because how is not telling anyone who will possibly believe the truth the safe thing to do?
While the beginning of rocker Gabriel’s (who’s starting to look like Count Orlok) blood lust was one of the highlights of last week’s episode, this week’s transformation in the case of another “survivor,”Ansel (Nikolai Witschl, King & Maxwell), is the epitome of how ridiculous it is that no one is crying vampire yet. Imagine someone you love experiencing similar symptoms to Ansel: bloody eyes, suddenly jagged teeth, sensitivity to sunlight, and an even paler complexion than before. Even if you go with the logical instinct of taking that loved one to the hospital—instead of staking him or her immediately—the vampire assumption would still be in the back of your mind. If not a belief in vampires, it would at least be a belief in some sort of vampire-like illness.
But, if this loved one drinks blood like it’s V-8, and that’s when you stake him or her in the heart.
If The Strain’s goal is to bring a B-movie horror program to FX, then “Gone Smooth” is a bigger step in the right direction that the first two episodes were. In fact, of the three episodes so far, “Gone Smooth” has committed the most to such a goal. For the first time, The Strain comes across as almost a fully-formed show. Still, the slow-moving padding that plagues the show remains, even if it is to a lesser extent here. The rest of the season could probably coast at this level, but hopefully it only continues to improve from here. If nothing else, hopefully the dialogue gets better.
- Billy Zane Hair Update (spoiler-free edition): After the custody hearing, Eph has the hair of a man who can’t believe his son just sold him out. Note the tendrils all over the place and frizz. Someone’s going to be washing his hair with beer sooner rather than later.
- If this episode’s exterminator plot were the character’s introduction, I would not have been as hard as I was on him last week (with the exception of a couple of nitpicks regarding the stock broker’s lines). Also: Holy rat race, Batman!
- The only reasonable explanation for none of these characters immediately assuming vampires are among them is the fact that they all—even the children—only watch the news. Nothing else, just the news.
- So not only is Holocaust backstory a part of the show, but now 9/11 is being mentioned in discussions. The pest control secretary being afraid to fly post-dead plane is downright subtle in contrast to Ansel’s wife comparing it to that horrific day: “Like the Trade Center? Remember?”
- Over halfway through the episode, I realized Gus’ absence. I cannot say he was missed.
- “Your downloads are up tenfold. And the YouTube video has over two million views.” Regina King deserves so much more than this.
- Billy Zane Hair Update (spoiler edition): Supposedly, the hair will be gone by season’s end. If this ends up being a lie, it’ll be a bigger offense than the first season finale of The Killing.