It’s probably not the best sign if an episode title immediately makes you think about the Third Reich, but given The Strain’s reliance on Holocaust flashbacks and parallels in the present day, it’s difficult not to jump to such a conclusion with an episode titled “The Third Rail.” The episode actually subverts those expectations, but it does so by going back to the 9/11 well in its place.
The second worst sign, however, is a show having previouslies filled with a character that is so far removed from every other main character and plot that it remains to be seen what his or her purpose is, even 11 episodes in, other than on a shallow level.
I’m obviously talking about Gus on that second one.
This week, Gus returns home to find both his brother Crispin and his mother as vampires. As I mentioned last week with the Kelly storyline, The Strain is going for emotions that aren’t really earned, given how poorly these plots and characters have developed throughout the season. Gus’ brother Crispin, in all of his scenes, has only been shown as a screw-up, so Gus killing him doesn’t strike a chord outside of how disgustingly cool it looks. Then, the big emotional beat for Gus—him finding his mother and having to face that fact—is undercut by the next Gus scene being him packing and then ultimately not going through with killing her.
Yet the audience is supposed to cheer him killing the vampire landlord, whose only indiscretion as a human was demanding that a tenant pay the rent on time.
There’s really not that much to say about the Gus storyline, because that’s all it is—him killing two vampires but leaving one behind that could easily go on to turn others. When he shows up one final time in the episode, it’s simply to remind the audience that he’s a part of the greater story.
But being part of the greater story doesn’t necessarily mean great, as the Zack/Mariela (Nora’s mother) plot so deeply reminds each and every one of us. With Dutch out of the picture for now, there’s really no adult who can stay behind on the mission to kill The Master, so The Fet and Set CDC Connection (that’s the new name for this combination—when Dutch is around, it’s The Set and Fet CDC Hacker Girl Connection) basically leaves two children (one in body and one in mind) alone with dozens of dangerous weapons.
And so begins The Young Boy’s Quest For Cigarettes.
While the Gus plot asks for an emotional reaction that at least makes sense, given the connection the audience should have with these characters, the Zack/Mariela plot is thrown in simply to fill up time. Again, these two characters are the biggest liabilities in our heroes’ camp, and watching both of them continue to be useless—as well as see one of them get two random looters killed thanks to nothing but his own ineptitude—speaks to the type of tone deaf nature that comes from the show, especially by way of co-creator and showrunner, Chuck Hogan.
This is all time that could be spent on rock star Gabriel Bolivar (remember him?), or Palmer and Eichorst, or Neeva with Joan’s kids, or Jim’s wife seeing the news of how her husband (who she doesn’t even know is dead) was right, or even the Blade-like vampires introduced back in “For Services Rendered.” It appears that, as soon as the Poland flashbacks ended, The Strain forgot just how to fill up screen time outside of the primary leads.
And having Gus and Zack cross paths for a second doesn’t make it all “worth it.”
However, one third of “The Third Rail” is a good episode of The Strain. It is, of course, the part of the episode that has the fantastically tense tunnel sequence; Fet being chased by a vampire in the tunnel is one of the more tense moments of the series so far, even if doesn’t completely make sense that the vampire wouldn’t just bust out the stinger.
It would be an insult to everyone involved with The Set and Fet CDC Connection, to say that their scenes were at the same level as the B and C plots of the episode. These characters are and should be the show, warts and all. That doesn’t mean their attempt to kill The Master is any less foolish. As nice as it is for them all to be so gung-ho about getting this done, they’re nowhere near as cohesive as a unit as they’d need to be to defeat anyone who calls him or herself “The Master.”
Eph: “First do no harm.”
Nora: “Things have changed.”
Eph: “Have they?”
First of all, yes, Eph. They very much have changed.
Second of all, what’s strange about this scene—and the way in which Eph is framed the majority of the time in both this episode and the series as a whole—is that the first part of it looks like it is, yet again, Eph complaining about the “insanity” of all of this “vampire” talk. Yet a few moments later, it turns into him being the one who believes in Setrakian’s declarations about The Master. The way he’s written, it’s never really clear if the show wants Eph’s reluctant hero status (along with his abrasive nature) to be judged by the audience or if he really is supposed to be seen as the great leader of men he believes himself to be. Surprisingly, this episode is the most outwardly aware of the character’s flaws.
Yet the series still considers him a character worth rooting for.
Eph: “I’m sick of this Brooklyn pride shit. Save it for someone who cares.”
Fet: “Used to having the last word, huh, Doc? How does it feel to know that a pawnbroker and a rat killer know more than you do, huh?”
Eph: “You been waiting for this your whole life, haven’t you? Congratulations on the vampire apocalypse.”
Eph’s character is very much the type of person who gets upset about failing and then reacts with an “Hey, I didn’t even care!” In fact, his “vampire apocalypse” line is both hilarious for how ridiculous it and and a terrible reminder that he is the hero of this story. Eph falling right into The Master’s trap is supposed to be an understandable character weakness, but as is par for The Strain’s course, it’s more of a moment of idiocy (“Kelly” doesn’t exactly sound like she’s in danger when “she” calls for Eph) from a character who purports himself to be the smartest in the room.
But even with all of the character’s problems—intentional or not—just the very concept of this group of people working together in near unity makes it a highlight of the episode. As mentioned, the tunnel sequence is fantastic, and Fet and Nora working together while Setrakian and goes after Eph is hopefully the beginning of at least a less strained (sorry) relationship between those two characters. But watching Setrakian break down both in the tunnel as well as during and after the encounter with The Master really makes these scenes all worth it. His delusional claims of having The Master in his grasp when he is so far out of his league at this point are heartbreaking, and it’s proof that the show can make those emotional beats work.
It’s simply a shame that the other plots in this episode are middle-of-the road to downright bad.
With two episodes left in the season, it’s amazing that The Strain continues to only put real effort into a small portion of its story. If the next two episodes—especially the finale—follow this pattern of only having very little of the episode being good, while the rest is a mess, then that will be just another in a list of disappointing aspects about The Strain. Hopefully the show breaks that cycle.
- Billy Zane Hair Update: The hair is also sick of this Brooklyn pride shit.
- Watching the screeners for the episodes, I rarely ever get a chance to see FX’s upcoming episode promos live, but I did get the chance to see the promo for this episode. FX really sells this as the most exciting show in the world, don’t they?
- The combination of Fet saying “fail” and Zack chiming in “epic fail” was an early groan moment for me, even though it was a good scene otherwise.
- “I don’t like him,” Mariela says of Setrakian. “He has a dark soul.” Setrakian says she’s right, but if he really had a dark soul, he would have kicked her to the curb immediately.
- After a brief glimmer of Zack possibly being a smart kid at the end of last week’s episode, he throws all of that away throughout this episode. “What about mom?” She’s dead. “I understand but why can’t I come with you?” Because you’re a child. Also: see what happens when you go to get cigarettes.
- Eph expects Nora to stay behind, when in hindsight he should have been the one to stay behind. He again does the “I didn’t mean it like that” apology, only this time, Nora actually calls him out on it.
- Subtitles would be great for all of The Master’s lines. They would help… a lot.
- Setrakian remains a highlight of the show, but not every other line out his mouth needs to be exposition. At this point, some things can be inferred by the audience. Maybe not by the characters themselves, but the audience is definitely smart enough.
- In case you were wondering, the two looters were played by James Cade, best known for Blue Mountain State (but I mostly know as Kenzi’s ex-boyfriend, Tryst, from Lost Girl), and Camille Stopps, who will be on the second season of Reign.
- Remember Gus’ car stealing plot? That sure went places, right?
- Eph calls Fet a “kill happy exterminator” and Setrakian an “old man…consumed by an ancient grudge.” Eph should have a nickname of his own! I’ll let you guys come up with one.