The Strain’s first season is coming to a close, and already, I’m interested to know what will happen in the second season. That’s probably the best thing about “Loved Ones”: It’s an episode that leads to so many possibilities that couldn’t possibly be fully explored by the end of the season, especially given the show’s pacing and timeline. But the fact that that’s the best part of the episode is also a sign that it’s not the best episode. It’s a breather, but does The Strain really need a breather right now?
It’s a bit of a strange choice to have The Master select Kelly Goodweather as one of his chosen few, assuming that is where the show is going. Kelly has been a peripheral character, her presence has only been to inform Eph’s decisions as a parent and a husband (well, ex-husband). Natalie Brown hasn’t really been given much to work with as the put upon ex-wife, but there’s a wealth of possibilities as a faithful servant of The Master.
Plus, all of this finally provides the vampire worm into the eye moment that the show’s promotional materials promised.
The major problem with “Loved Ones” is that The Strain honestly expects the audience to care about Kelly and to care about anything having to do with Eph’s family life. That last scene with Zach watching the birthday video brings home that fact—it is the closing moment of the episode after all. This is a storyline that needs an emotional connection to work, and that is completely absent, at least when it comes to the desired emotions.
As has been mentioned multiple times, no one comes into a show about a vampire epidemic hoping there will be a plot about a custody battle. No one comes into a show about a vampire epidemic hoping that the main character’s kid and ex-wife that he cheated on will become a part of the main plot.
Natalie Brown is a perfectly capable actor, and it’s great if she has the opportunity to finally have something to do on this show. But she’s in a cast of perfectly capable actors, and even they’re not miracle workers for a lot of the show’s problems. Plus, her character as it has existed in these episodes has been nothing but “Zach’s mom” or “Eph’s ex.” Her biggest defining characteristic is having terrible taste in men.
Also, The Master’s specific choice of Kelly mean mean that he considers Eph, of all people, to be a threat. That’s a slippery slope, because there’s a big difference between a character stepping up to the plate to be the big hero and being The One.
I have compared Eph to Lost’s Jack Shephard, both for his man of science nature and his de facto leader status based on his own superiority complex (not any actual group decision). There’s also the Carlton Cuse connection. Fet calls Eph out on it this week, and it’s actually amazing to see just how egotistical this character remains despite being constantly proven wrong. To Fet’s simple question, “Who put you in charge,” Eph matter-of-factly answers, “The director of the Centers For Disease Control,” without a drip of irony in his words. It’s as though the reset button is hit on his character with every week, and while other characters might learn something, he never does.
Eph believes he’s the leader of the group because of his CDC title (and hero hair, of course), but what exactly has his “leadership” brought? His clinical, scientific approach has done nothing. While Fet—as well as Nora, Eph’s partner—is shown in this episode formulating plans and deferring to Setrakian’s knowledge, Eph is off chasing a ghost. Not just because Kelly’s clearly dead but because whatever image Eph seems to have of her has never existed to the audience and probably never even existed to begin with.
Terrible things are happening to people around Eph—Jim, Matt, Kelly, even Diane and her son—but it’s not about them. It’s about how they make Eph feel. They are his loved ones (and Matt) and their deaths are all about how they affect Eph. Nora’s own mother’s only contribution to the episode is asking her if Eph is the man she loves. The show is exhibiting signs of Eph being the chosen one, but given how The Strain is supposedly grounded in reality, that should not be the case. There are no chosen ones in real life, unless the show wants to start comparing Eph to dictators.
Back in the pilot, I wrote about The Strain essentially being multiple shows, each with their own levels of success and quality. The Kelly flashbacks in this episode play again like a different show, this time one where Kelly is a character that has touched the audience’s hearts and minds. But the CDC show is basically over at this point in the series, with Jim dead and Eph and Nora being CDC outcasts. Despite this separation between the storylines essentially being gone, Eph (and to a lesser extent, Nora) continues to distance himself from the group. He spends the whole episode looking for his ex-wife, while Fet and Dutch are off to put an end to the technology outages (and Setrakian and Nora are at pawn HQ, formulating a plan), so concerned with one aspect of all of this while the rest of the people in his troop are fighting the good fight to save millions. That’s not the mark of a hero.
Not much else really happens in this episode, because the majority of it really is dedicated to Kelly. (The first flashback is about 10 straight minutes of Kelly Goodweather.)
Finally, there’s acknowledgment that New York is becoming a national concern, as the news in the background constantly talks about “the nation’s teetering financial system” and how things are really just going to the pits. Apparently, there were 23 bank failures just the previous day, and the President is declaring a bank holiday.
Nora pretty much sits this episode out, presumably spending her time explaining to her mother why she can’t just go around asking people “Is this the man you love?” in Spanish. When she’s around (and even because she’s barely around), this episode really shows how far Nora has fallen in such a short amount of time. Any backbone that Nora has been depicted as having has been forcibly removed from the character, because her function now remains the other woman. She solely exists now to help Setrakian offscreen and tells Eph that he’s a good man.
Taking a break from The Set and Fet Connection—in fact, Setrakian is also mostly sidelined in this episode—Dutch and Fet go on a mission to the Stoneheart Group, in hopes of reversing what she and her anonymous hacker buddies did. This is easily the best part of the episode, mostly because Ruda Gedmintas and Kevin Durand already have great chemistry together. Plus, strangely, watching Kevin Durand flirt with random women is extremely enthralling and an unexpected delight. The way things are playing out, it looks like Dutch and Fet will have at least a fling but they’ve already created such a quick friend chemistry that one might hope that it just remains like that. They bounce off each other well, which is especially rare in a show where characters often have trouble interacting like human beings.
Of course, since Eph pretty much made her leave pawn HQ, she could end up dead in the next episode.
The Dutch/Fet team-up also leads to the revelation that Palmer’s jack-of-all-trades, Fitzwilliams (Roger Cross), could possibly be an ally in the future. Fitzwilliams has basically been in Palmer’s employ for most of his life, and from everything we’ve seen before this episode, Fitzwilliams’ major problem with Palmer’s involvement with Eichorst has always come from a skeptic stance. Here, there’s the acknowledgment from him that it’s also a moral disagreement, but for whatever reason, he (and his men) won’t take a stand against Palmer. If this were any other episode, the words “just following orders” would probably be uttered, especially if Setrakian were around
After all of the talk of how much the vampire corruption means going after your loved ones, it’s upsetting that “Loved Ones” is such an misstep. Honestly, the episode should mean so much more. This should be a heartbreaking episode. Maybe when season two rolls around, there will be a reason to care more about these characters so something like this can actually work.
- Billy Zane Hair Update: “The hair looks like a crab.” That’s a direct quote from my notes, and I think it says it all.
- It was interesting to see how vampires see humans. Glowing red with the heart as a big honking target.
- What do you think Regina King’s character is up to?
- Dutch points out the instant connection between Setrakian and Fet, assuming that they had already known each other prior to the convenience store horror show. He assures her they also just met, but clearly he’s thinking, “I want him to be my new dad.”
- The vampire stinger will forever be one of the most grotesque looking and sounding parts of this show. When Kelly was going after Diane and her son, the worst thing was the sound of her killing.
- Why did Matt go to the bathroom instead of immediately going after Kelly? Other than suspense, that is?
- Oh, Zach. Ben Hyland’s acting leave quite a bit to be desired, but I can at least appreciate Zach’s understanding that his mother is most likely dead, even though Eph wouldn’t stop pussyfooting around it.
- A nice Eph moment: when he’s about to break the news to Zach and Setrakian tries to stall by saying that he and Nora have a new plan they want to share. The fact that Eph doesn’t take the easy road is one of the few good moments from the character.
- Fet: “It’s all about confidence.” (security shows up) Dutch: “Confidence or competence?”
- Palmer: “If hacking is about exploring the limits of what is possible, then I am on the verge of achieving what you would consider the ultimate hack: cheating death.” In this show’s universe, Palmer is absolutely aware of how over-the-top he is, isn’t he? That’s commendable.
- Eph: “Do I look like a cop? I’m a doctor.” Of course. If he were a cop, he would look like this:
- SPOILERS FROM THE BOOKS:
I rarely look into book spoilers, but I did read up on this after the episode: Apparently Kelly does become one of The Master’s henchmen, and she’s hellbent on killing Eph. I can’t hate her for that mission. I also read that The Master has Zach kidnapped, and that cannot happen soon enough.