In its fourth and final season, the FX series The Strain has seen nine months pass since a global nuclear apocalypse was set off, allowing the strigoi to gain control and the Master to establish a totalitarian regime. The majority of humans are not working for the strigoi as part of The Partnership, where they must collaborate or die, and the heroes that we’ve been rooting for have disbanded and will have to overcome personal hardship and stay alive long enough to possibly make it back to each other and save humankind.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, showrunner Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel, Colony) talked about how the show was ready for a little bit of a re-invention, how they came to this conclusion for the story, the biggest challenge in having your main cast on separate journeys, whose journey will teach us the most about them, why the Master is feeling pretty good right now, and that humanity should never give up hope. He also talked about his next job as showrunner, on the Hulu series of Locke and Key that he’s currently developing with Joe Hill, and the main thing he learned from working on Lost.
Collider: It’s really cool how different the show feels this season, with everybody spread out in different places.
CARLTON CUSE: We thought it was really fun to both take a time jump and split our characters, and put them in these very different types of storylines and really change up the show. It was fun. The actors were very much like, “Wow, this feels really different this year!,” in a good way. It just felt like the show was ready for a little bit of a re-invention. The idea of putting our characters in nuclear winter seemed awesome. It was a lot of fun to write.
In the beginning, when you thought about how this show might end and how the story you’re telling might wrap up, did it look anything like this?
CUSE: The truth is – and I think it’s a necessary path when you’re adapting a book – you start with the book and story elements that you like, you start making episodes, and then the show takes on this organic quality of its own. Unlike a book, where you’re fully in control of all the creative elements and you are the one empirical god, creating and divining what happens in this world, in a television show, it’s a very collaborative endeavor. Me, in concert with Guillermo [del Toro] and Chuck Hogan, who wrote the books, all the writers on the show, and all the actors who act in the show, the show takes on a different life with the creative input of all those various people. One of the fun things, as a showrunner, is that you mine those veins of gold that you discover, along the way. As relationships unfolded and character dynamics were established, we followed those. People pitched ideas and, if we had additional ideas, we followed those. Ultimately, the two forms divert from each other, pretty dramatically. The book always existed to provide landmarks, but we always saw the television show as being very much its own thing with its own sense of direction. Originally, we had planned to do three years of the show, but then we found, as we got into it, that the second book felt like it could accommodate two seasons. So, the third season became the fourth season. It felt like it was just the right amount of time. Within the context of our world and our interpretation of the story, we started talking about what the right ending might be, and we felt like 10 more episodes was the right amount of time to tell that story. It’s really fun to do that. It’s really great to have the opportunity to bring the story to a conclusion, to show the audience the ultimate fate of these characters.
What are the biggest challenges in having your main cast on separate journeys this season, and also weaving in new characters and getting viewers to care about them, knowing that this is the last season?
CUSE: Well, the new characters are all in support of our existing characters, so that’s fair and doable. These new characters are a way to reflect dimensions of our existing characters to the audience. Having the characters separated just was cool. It gave us a chance to tell a bunch of different storylines. We hope our audience is fully invested in our characters and wants to see what happens to them, and ultimately hopes that they’re going to get back together. I think it would be unsatisfying, if they didn’t connect, in some form or another. That also created a good dynamic for the show. You’re sitting there wanting, waiting and hoping to see these characters reconnect.
So then, when you decided that everybody would be on these separate journeys, did you know, at the same time, how you would have them eventually cross paths?
CUSE: Oh, yeah. When we sit down, at the very beginning of the season, we start by discussing the entire architecture of the season and how all of the pieces go together. There was always a mosaic storytelling quality to The Strain. At the very beginning of the series, we were following a bunch of different characters and weren’t quite sure how they would intersect. In fact, characters like Gus and Eph have really never intersected, until they ultimately do this season. There’s a lot of fun in that.
Whose journey this season would you say will teach us the most about that character, or would maybe the most surprising?
CUSE: That’s a really good question. Wow, that’s a hard one! Personally, I love Fet’s journey this season. Right from the very get-go, he’s out hunting around in the northern Mid-West, trying to find a nuke. He’s taken up with this other woman, named Charlotte, and he has Dutch in his past. He’s got this incredible dilemma that he faces, in that he could hang out there with this woman and probably have as good a life as possible in nuclear winter, but he also has a sense of duty and obligation to finish this mission. His arc and what he chooses to do and how his story unfolds is really great. But I think the same is true for Eph, too. He’s really in a bad place. There’s not much worse that can happen to you, as a dad, than to have your son detonate a nuclear bomb. When you’re the father of one of the evilest child characters in the history of television, there’s not a lot of fun. His journey, and the ultimate fate of his character and his relationship with his son and how all of that is going to play out, is also really great. And Dutch is in this really creepy story. I don’t know. I love them all. I really feel like the stakes are big and the dynamics are really cool. It was a lot of fun to write. I think The Strain is meant to be this graphic novel popcorn thriller, and it’s a really fun ride this year.
At this point, is the Master pretty secure in feeling like he’s won?
CUSE: I think the Master is feeling pretty good right now, yeah. Obviously, he was in a very perilous situation until that nuclear device went off, at the end of Season 3. We think that humans are always meant to stay on the top of the food chain, but that turns out not to be the case. This little epidemiological crisis that started with Eph and Nora, as CDC agents, investigation a mystery on board an airplane has turned into a calamitous remaking of the world where humans are not atop the food chain any longer. Instead, this parasitic creature is. That’s a big deal.