“The Battle For Red Hook” doesn’t solve all of the problems bogging down this season of The Strain, but it does take a step in the right direction. Where the last few episodes have suffered from a lack of narrative momentum, and the few plot twists and advances have been as contrived as can be, tonight’s episode creates tension and intrigue by narrowing its focus. It’s still immensely frustrating that the show tends to spread out its storylines, refusing to check in on characters that are supposed to be integral to the overall story (sorry Gus, The Silver Angel, and Quinlan!), but at least “The Battle For Red Hook” uses the absence of other characters to create a more streamlined and compelling hour of television.

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One of the reasons this episode works much better than the few before it is the presence of Eichhorst. I continue to be fascinated with his character and storyline, not because his search for the Lumen, and his strigoi training with Kelly, is particularly interesting, but rather Richard Sammel (Eichorst) and Natalie Brown (Kelly) truly understand what kind of show they’re on. Last week’s scene that saw Eichorst dressing up Kelly and teaching her how to be more “human” was one of the best of the season, a creepy, twisted bit of camp performance in an otherwise horrendously dull episode. This week, they’re given even more to do. Kelly is struggling to understand while she still feels pain, having come so close to getting Zach back. Eichorst assures her that becoming a more powerful strigoi takes time, and sends her to find Zach at the Electric Substation that the vampires are waging an attack on.

Again, it’s not the most exciting storyline–it still feels like the show stalling, biding its time before getting to something bigger–but Sammel and Brown play each scene with such unreserved verve that they practically force it to be interesting. They’re two performers who see the delightful, ridiculous camp built into the show (Kevin Durand’s Fet does too), who never hold back and find life in the show’s dialogue. Too many of the show’s performances are straight-faced and sincere, failing to see that The Strain is, both deep down and on the surface, a ridiculous show. The Strain should be fun in a campy kind of way, but too often it settles for needless melodrama.

That’s true of tonight’s otherwise strong episode as well, as the continuing rift between Fet and Dutch dips into the seriously melodramatic. To be fair, it makes sense that Dutch would be reluctant to immediately head back to home base. She thought she lost Nikki, but it turns out she’s alive, and now feelings that were once resolved, or at least numbed, are back in full force. What The Strain does though is take that premise and hit every predictable narrative beat on the way to Dutch and Fet making up, and Fet seeing Nikki as an ally. There’s the angry sex, the cliché “you’re bad for me but I can’t leave you” storytelling, and the final moment of salvation, where Nikki proves herself as a capable vampire fighter. It’s all so predictable, but at least there’s a chance that it signals The Strain is moving away from the trite love triangle angle.

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What really makes “The Battle For Red Hook” stand out though is the actual battle between the strigoi and the humans. Feraldo believes that she’s cleared out Red Hook, but the appearance of Kelly suggests otherwise. When Eph, Zach, and Setrakian go to warn her about a potential breach, the strigoi, ferried into Red Hook by a fisherman paid by Eichorst, shut off the power at the Electric Substation and attack Feraldo’s base camp. Without the UV lights Feraldo has to enlist the citizens of Red Hook, telling them that if this city is to be saved they’re going to have to do it because nobody is coming for them. The ensuing battle is thrilling, and while the chaotic direction leaves something to be desired, the battle injects this season with a sense of urgency and violence that’s sorely needed. For too long The Strain has been simmering, the strigoi merely a threat to individuals; the larger implications and potential violence has been frustratingly ignored.

The battle isn’t just a fun set piece though. It’s also representative of the more complex political themes that The Strain explores from time to time. When the narrative isn’t spread thin across multiple storylines, trying to cram in backstory and mythology along with current day relationship drama, it’s able to craft a precise and insightful thematic undercurrent that elevates the episode. Similar to “Quick And Painless,” “The Battle For Red Hook” focuses on the failure of government institutions when it comes to times of crises. Where guys like Palmer and everyone else in the upper echelon of the Stoneheart Group can safely watch buildings burn from the comfort of their homes and offices, the people of Red Hook are left to either fight the strigoi or give up their neighborhood. Feraldo is there, and she’s got a solid SWAT team with her, but Red Hook isn’t exactly flooded with resources. That kind of thematic work, which is admittedly small in this episode, adds weight to an already entertaining episode. “The Battle For Red Hook” has its problems, but it’s a significant step up from the previous episodes, and signals a shift in momentum that’s necessary as The Strain approaches the end of its second season.

Stray observations

  • Just so we’re clear, Eph went through a lot of work to get that sniper rifle, only to miss numerous shots when Setrakian lures Eichorst into the open. He manages to pop off that pistol just fine though; headshots every single time.
  • Did everyone else get the new credit sequence that came with my screener? Thoughts? I think it’s a pretty great balance of stupid, goofy and fun.
  • When Fet essentially suggests that their bunker is safe now if no one opens the door, Zach yells, “I get it!” No you don’t, Zach! You keep trying to save your dead mom! You are very far from “getting it.”
  • There’s a nice conversation between Eph and Setrakian tucked away in this episode, where the old man, who has “experience living with monsters,” muses about how important it is to keep your humanity during times like this.
  • I love that Setrakian doesn’t have any time for bureaucracy. He just jumps right into babbling about The Master when warning Feraldo about the strigoi in Red Hook.
  • The Mayor wants Feraldo to head to Manhattan next, mostly to save all his rich friends.
  • Finally, Nora gets her time to shine (sorry) by turning the UV lights back on.
  • Kelly almost had Zach there for a second. Some day soon, commenters, he will become a strigoi and we’ll all celebrate.

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