Ruda Gedmintas, Corey Stoll

Where has this version of The Strain been all season long? Far removed from the dull and contrived episodes that have defined the back half of the show’s second season, “The Assassin” is a legitimately thrilling hour of television, with barely a missed beat along the way. There are still some problems within the episode, the same problems that the show hasn’t been able to shake ever since its premiere, including horribly trite dialogue, but they’re not as noticeable when the pace is ramped up the way it is in tonight’s episode.

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What really makes “The Assassin” stand out is that it has a streamlined narrative. Much of this season has struggled to build significant momentum because of the sprawl of characters and storylines. The Strain has had to not only move along the story of Eph and his Merry Band of Vampire Hunters, but also introduce a handful of new characters that, at least according to the books, will be integral to the story as the narrative moves forward. That means the show has often stretched itself thin. “The Assassin” doesn’t have that problem. Rather, the focus on Eph’s attempted assassination of Palmer, alongside Feraldo’s evolving plan to help battle the strigoi, adds clarity and momentum to a season that sorely needs it.

There are other storylines bouncing around the main narrative that threaten to bog down the episode, but they’re largely relegated to the sidelines. For instance, the search for the Lumen continues to produce lackluster results, largely because each episode relies on the same narrative beats. In this episode, Setrakian, Fet, and Nora find four people with the same name the dead priest gave them, the young boy from Setrakian’s past who grew up to own the Lumen. Once they find out the addresses they spend the entirety of the episode going from apartment to apartment looking for the Lumen. It’s as uneventful as it sounds, a storyline devoid of tension and intrigue that’s mostly a build to an admittedly great cliffhanger. When Setrakian finds the Lumen underneath some floorboards in the last apartment he searches (because of course!), and is attacked from behind by an unknown assailant, it’s a great bit of mystery, but shows that there was no need to drag out the build across multiple episodes. Think back on what Setrakian has done this season and it’s easy to see just how stagnant his storylines have been. He’s done two things this season: 1. Bled from the eyes and, 2. looked for an old book. That’s not how you continue to build up a character whose whole life has been dedicated to fighting the strigoi, the central villains of the story.

The rest of “The Assassin” avoids such narrative pitfalls and finally injects this season with some stakes. The centerpiece of the action is Eph’s failed assassination attempt. The entire contained storyline, from scouting out the rooftop to his time in jail after he misses Palmer and hits Coco, is some of the best stuff The Strain has produced across its first two seasons. There’s emotional resonance before the assassination attempt, as Eph and Dutch bond over issues of love and not really liking being around other people. Dutch musing on monogamy is the only bit of stilted dialogue in their time together. Considering that The Strain‘s identity is “stilted dialogue,” only one instance of it is a relief. More than that, the failed assassination attempt creates conflict in a mostly conflict-less season. Not only does Eph now have to reckon with shooting an innocent person in Coco, but he’s also tipped off Palmer to his larger plans.

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The ensuing scene where Palmer confronts Eph in jail is perfectly executed. It’s a bit campy, but also contains an urgency that the show could use more of. Palmer walks in with pure swagger, completely in control of the situation, while Eph has fire behind his eyes. He wants Palmer dead so badly, and his hatred and desperation comes across beautifully thanks to Stoll’s performance. It’s the type of scene that feels important and momentous, and more than that, feels like the writers letting loose and having some fun with their characters. Palmer is finally allowed to be more than just a whiny disciple of the Master who’s also in love with his secretary, and Eph is allowed to seem like a man with a purpose. The scene is wonderfully paced and boasts evocative storytelling beats, immediately making “The Assassin” the best episode of the season by far.

More than just being an entertaining hour though, “The Assassin” builds upon last week’s solid episode by swiftly moving towards the season’s end game without tipping its narrative hand. That means that The Strain feels fresh and consequential with only three episodes left in the season. There’s a balance between mystery and revelation that creates intrigue for those final few episodes. By having Palmer get the upper hand, with a newly transitioned Coco by his side, the show has streamlined Eph’s arc, while retaining a sense of mystery via the cliffhanger involving Setrakian. “The Assassin” isn’t perfect by any means, but coupled with last week’s strong episode, it’s more proof that The Strain may just pull out of its nosedive by season’s end.

Stray observations

  • I couldn’t find a way to work it in above, but how about the episode’s pseudo-tag where Dutch is chained and screaming in a padded room while Eichorst stares menacingly at her? Such a disturbing, perfect image to close out the episode.
  • Fet delivers the one-liner of the night when one of the strigoi-infested apartments they search still has music blasting and strobe lights pumping: “Gotta respect a guy who keeps the party going no matter what.”
  • Feraldo has been forced to move to Manhattan by the Mayor, but she’s got a plan: if the rich folk want her help, they’ll have to donate 1% of their property value to the cause, therefore helping out the poorer areas.
  • Here’s hoping that with Coco becoming a vampire her character and storyline will significantly improve.
  • This episode is more exciting than anything else this season, but not to be ignored is the fact that it’s also much funnier. Fast and loose suits The Strain.
  • Maybe I’m nitcpicking or missing something, but how did that random cop on the street know Eph was the shooter? There’s no way they caught a glimpse of him at any point, right?

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