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The Strain: “The Master”

Ben Hyland (left), Corey Stoll
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There is almost nothing more The Strain than the first season of The Strain ending with a mission statement voiceover, just when enough time has passed to forget that it employed the art of the voice over 12 episodes ago, in the pilot. Out of sight, out of mind: That is the way of The Strain.

”What will it be one week from now? One month from now? Nothing is written that cannot be changed. It is a small world after all. We made it that way.”

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But the most The Strain thing about this voice over is that it is one that may have actually worked better at the very beginning of the series. While the original voiceover from “Night Zero” was all about hunger metaphors, this voiceover—along with the shots in the bread truck and the fire in the city—could have possibly worked as a great in media res beginning for the series. It would be the type of thing that could give the audience a reason to be excited for what’s to come, especially in a show that did everything it possibly could to remove excitement from the equation. Just think: If the final moments of this season had been the opening moments of the season, no one would know just how much idiocy had to take place for everyone to get to that level. Optimism would reign supreme. Unfortunately, The Strain spits on that optimism at every turn, because that is what makes The Strain… well, The Strain.

Going into “The Master,” the series is building up to a “final” battle, even though there is zero chance of a firm conclusion to that chapter anytime soon, unless the show wants to switch to a “life after vampires” narrative so quickly. Considering how much no one is putting the pieces of the puzzle together (though, surprisingly, Gus is able to and says the “v” word almost immediately here), there wouldn’t be a lot going on in that world, so that would probably be out of the running. But there’s never any way The Master is going to be taken down by the end of this episode. That’s the problem when you have a Big Bad that is the only one for the entire series. They’re not going down for a long while, and the audience has to live with that, even at its most absurd. In that way, The Strain is a lot like a majority of The Mentalist, and The Master is a lot like Red John.

In case you couldn’t tell, all of this is a stalling tactic to avoid the fact that this episode of The Strain is a whole lot of terrible zoom-ins and nothing of substance.

One of the earliest scenes of the episode is Zach dreaming about that day he got his bike that he’ll probably never ever use again because there are no bikes in the vampire apocalypse, only to be jerked back to the reality that he is in a vampire apocalypse. Actually, he would be living in that reality, if he weren’t stuck in a dream world where his mother is still alive and not a bloodsucking fiend.

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There’s an unwritten rule that calling out child actors for not being good at their jobs is in bad form, but it would be borderline offensive to call out Corey Stoll’s uncharacteristically embarrassing performance in this show and not also mention just how awful Ben Hyland is. Back in “Loved Ones,” I praised the young actor for his understated reaction to the fact that his mother is clearly dead and she’s not coming back. Unfortunately, each episode after that has proven that he was not reacting to such a realization, and the one good piece of acting to come from the child was not, in fact, a good piece of acting. It was far from it.

“When can we go home,” Zach asks, apparently not realizing everything that’s been happening in these past couple of days, even after his journey for cigarettes. While Eph’s ego and pride and wig prevent him from acting intelligently or rationally, Zach—a kid who is supposed to be smart for his age, but is clearly just another case of terrible “precocious” writing for a child character on television—has the figurative attention span of a goldfish. It is this stupidity that makes him fake an asthma attack and cause the gang to go back to his house for inhalers… just so he can get a family photo album. In his sole defense, it is Eph’s stupidity that causes them to stay at the house longer than they “need” to. Vampire Kelly returns, and after being made a special member of The Master’s crew, she manages to be just as necessary as she has been the entire series, doing nothing but make Zach cry and Eph drink. Credit where credit’s due—she’s clearly smarter than both her son and ex-husband, since she knew they’d come back to one of the last places they should have come back to.

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Maybe I’m the soulless one. After all, I don’t have a child and don’t have that emotional connection. Yet, I have a mother, and I didn’t have the intended reaction to the death of Nora’s mother’s. Nor did I have the intended reaction to the reveal of Kelly as a vampire in this episode. I’ve been close to people with drinking problems, and yet I didn’t feel anything but laughter bubble up inside of me as Eph dramatically took that swig of booze.

The Strain hits air ball after air ball when it comes to those emotional moments, because its characters are anthropomorphic paper dolls who behave in a way that is foreign to me, as a human being.

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Hey, what’s Gus up to this whole time?

“What? You scared to look a Mexican in his eye, you coward?”

Oh.

“You planning on eating Mexican, tonight?”

Oh no.

“Wassup? You brought your homeboys?”

Yikes. But at least he’s going to fight in this war because he has a personal stak—

“…payback and a rich pay day.”

“I’m listening.”

Let’s move on to literally anything else. Sorry Gus is going to drag you and your mysterious vampire gang down, Quinlan.

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As previously mentioned, the “final” battle between the gang and The Master was always going to come to the same conclusion: They could never beat The Master. But the problem in all of this is just how glaringly obvious that fight choreography, as well as action direction, is not the show’s strength. The show doesn’t exactly have a strength, but making the fight scenes look good is simply not a task the show is up to. Director Phil Abraham appears to be of the opinion that an action scene looks better with perpetual zoom-ins, despite every piece of evidence to the contrary (the action scenes themselves).

The Strain’s direction has a habit of making the show look visually appealing, until it actually has to put in the work of a show where action should be present. Abraham’s directing resume is actually interesting to think about when it comes to his work here, because this is a man who has worked on Mad Men and Masters Of Sex—he mostly does shows that aren’t exactly full of action scenes—but has lone episodes of this, The Walking Dead, and the upcoming Daredevil pilot under his belt. Just by eyeballing his career, it looks like he’s more comfortable with the former, which is why it’s strange that this episode, which should be action-heavy, would be his introduction into the world of The Strain.

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Also, The Set and Fet CDC Hacker Girl Connection (feat. Kid Blank Stare) isn’t comprised of trained warriors, so in that sense, of course the fight scenes themselves aren’t going to be impressive. However, that sort of flies out the window when you have these untrained warriors getting head shots with ease and chopping up vampires like they do it every Sunday after brunch. Even Dutch is an expert shot, and Dutch is a drunk computer nerd who throws the remote control at a television when it doesn’t work.

Even with the poor direction and the stretching of the imagination that The Strain constantly asks of its audience in order to believe that all of these people can hit those head shots with the greatest of ease, there’s at least a small amount of fun in watching all of this. Eph (and Zach) resorting to breaking glass to bring in the sun is a good enough example of the “SRS GUY” himself using his alleged brain over the brawn typically needed to fight the vampires. Of course, the rug (not the wig) is swept from underneath everyone when all the sun does to The Master is give him a sunburn and he retreats into the darkness. So now, we’re left with two facts:

  1. No one else in all of New York City sees any of that.
  2. Fet wasted his dynamite on minions when he could have used some on The Master.

The season finale of The Strain is an underwhelming mess. The Strain is an underwhelming mess. The characters in The Strain are still just characters from paper to screen, with flashes of “realness” on occasion. None of their actions are based on anything other than them doing what they’re “supposed” to do. They are, in such few words, underwhelming messes. Along the way, a revitalized (but not immortalized) Palmer does The Master’s bidding, Eph’s former CDC boss is finally on the vampire take, and Fitzwilliam grows a spine. While Palmer throwing the Secretary of Health off a balcony is a beautiful, campy sight to behold, it’s just a reminder that the show this character is actually on is an underwhelming mess.

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“Nothing is written that cannot be changed”? If The Strain can manage to change nearly everything about this first season, then maybe I’ll believe that.

Stray observations:

  • And so it ends. I say this with all seriousness: I really hope I can cover this series for its second season. We’re all in this together, after all. Despite popular belief—at least the popular belief early on in my coverage—I pitched for this show and was beyond excited to watch it going in. Corey Stoll, Guillermo Del Toro, eye worms, and vampires! What I got was an underwhelming mess (but a lot of good jokes from all of you in the comments). Who knows what the second season will bring. Hopefully a shot for shot remake of Hostages. Until then…
  • Billy Zane Hair Update: Weren’t we promised that the hair would go at the end of this season? Did I dream that?
  • I cannot say I was not warned about The Strain’s deeper mythology at least a little bit. The word “ancients” has crossed my path along the way, as has the way the books end. But that clearly hasn’t stopped my hopes that the show would exceed my expectations and get something good out of its source material. That has not been the case.
  • Eph (to Setrakian): ”Did you just agree with me?” Setrakian: “In this instance, yes.” Fet: “You two are falling in love. It’s a beautiful thing.”
  • Eph referring to anyone as a “douchebag” is also a beautiful thing.
  • Zach: “MOM! MOM! MOM!” Seriously, has he not been present for any of this?
  • I admit it: I said “PEEKABOO!” when The Master appeared for the first time in this episode. Then I got upset because he started talking like Charlie Brown’s teacher again. That was fitting, since Palmer is essentially Charlie Brown, with Eichorst and The Master pulling the football away from him every time.
  • Nora smoking her mother’s cigarettes and trying to compare Argentina’s disappeared to all of this again? Let’s not. Nora basically saying “so what, who cares?” to Eph and telling him to bring Zach to The Master’s lair? Let’s always.
  • What is it about vampires walking backwards that made these characters stop trying to kill them? That is, other than the typical Strain answer: “Because the script tells them to.”
  • The truth is, Dutch being a drunk computer nerd who throws the remote at the television when it doesn’t work is 100% me. I’ve done it multiple times. I’ll probably do it again.
  • Diane haiku number one: What would Diane do?/Diane would stay and throw down./Come back Diane. Please.
  • Diane haiku number two: Queens. Queens. Queens. Queens. Queens./Queens. Queens. Queens. Queens. Queens. Queens. Queens./Queens. Queens. Queens. Queens. Queens.
  • Diane haiku number three: Those first two really took a lot out of me. The wounds are still fresh. You guys can do the rest.
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