‘The Strain’ Died As It Lived; Paying Way Too Much Damn Attention to Zach

     September 18, 2017

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Be aware there are spoilers for The Strain, through the series finale episode ‘The Last Stand’.

R.I.P. The Strain. The wild, four-year ride through the Nazi-tinged vampire apocalypse came to a close with the finale, ‘The Last Stand’, an episode that showed off some of the best and worst qualities of the uneven series. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue against the statement that The Strain‘s fourth and final season has been its best. Based on the series of novels by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and shepherded to screen by showrunner Carlton Cuse, the FX series had a well-earned reputation as a slow-burn horror yarn. Pulpy with purple writing and sticky with first-rate prosthetic gore, The Strain was like a B-movie in weekly installments; a Technicolor-tinged apocalyptic soap opera that often frustrated as much as it delighted with a series of inconsequential arcs that always seemed to leave our heroes right back where they started.

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Image via FX

But Season 4 remedied a stunning amount of ills. Riding off the game-changing consequences of the Season 3 finale, which saw the resident little shit, Zach, unleash an atomic bomb in New York City, the fourth season was propelled by a time jump, advancing its characters and narrative beyond the cyclical squabbles and dalliances that dominated the second and third season. The Strain finally changed the game for real, and unleashed the vampire apocalypse series fans waited to see since that infected, ill-fated plane first touched down all those episodes ago in the Season 1 premiere.

The payoff was abundant. The humanist allegory that was long present in the Holocaust flashbacks and Nazi parallelism moved to the forefront as our heroes wore identifying armbands, guarded by machine-gun toting Strigoi in the streets, or worse, were shipped off to experimentation camps while the Strigoi put their death farms into practice. At last, the show’s thesis felt full and present.

The Strain was not only infused with new energy and urgency, characters were allowed to shake loose from the shackles that kept them roaming in tiresome narrative circles from the beginning. Eph finally saw through his delusions of grandeur and righteousness, learned humility and what it meant to be the hero rather than just grandstanding as one. Fet left behind the emotional drama of his prickly emotional relationships with Dutch and Setrakian and teamed up with Quinlan to become the unleashed, Strigoi-hunting badass we always wanted to see. Dutch was freed of the reductive, regressive bisexual tropes and allowed to become the hero of her own story free of romantic entanglements. With Jonathan Hyde in the role, the Master was the most charismatic and frightening he’s ever been. And Setrakian’s long war with Eichhorst ended in spectacular fashion with a heartbreaking but gratifying final showdown that took them both out. When the team finally reunited, they felt like whole characters again. It was satisfying and it teed up an exciting final battle.

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Image via FX

That, of course, is what makes it so frustrating that the series ultimately biffed the landing in ‘The Last Stand’ when it hands the biggest moment of heroism to its most hated, despicable character; the little murderous mophead and eternal pain in the ass, Zach. Let’s back up a moment. After being chased out of their hideaway (by Zach’s treachery), Eph and the gang concoct a last-ditch effort to bring down The Master for good and save New York at the same time. Quinlan, counting on his father’s need to defeat him in combat, planned to trap the Master underground, where Fet would be waiting, ready to lay down his life, and trigger the nuclear bomb that would save the day. “Before I detonate the warhead, I’ll probably say something clever and cool like Bruce Willis would say,” he quips when Dutch and Eph try to dissuade him from the suicide mission.

No such persuasion was necessary, however. In the chaos of battle, Zach ends up underground and in the blast range, and Eph takes Fet’s place at the last minute, plummeting down the elevator shaft for one last standoff against the Master and Zach. After a very superhero-esque battle between Quinlan and the Master, Quinlan is defeated, but not before he rips a giant wormy mass out of the Master’s throat, gloating “I’ve won.” The Master stomps the hero’s head in as a response, but it’s good death for a fan-favorite. Now, it’s all on Eph to trigger the bomb, but Zach hears him make his move and fires a warning shot before steadying his gun on his father. The Master tells Zach to finish the job, but he can’t pull the trigger. “He’s still my father,” he says in his first moment of unearned redemption, firing on the Master instead.

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Image via FX

The Master moves to attack Zach, and Eph’s paternal instincts take over, charging on the Master to save his son (even though he knows he has to blow them all up — don’t ask.) That ends with Eph getting the ol’ mouth-full of worms from the Master, who transfers his consciousness once again, this time into the body of our weary anti-hero. Before the transfer is complete, as the worms work their way through him, Eph awakes and shares a bonding moment with his son. “We won, Zach,” Eph says. “Because of you.” Not really, but OK. “I wish I could spare you this,” he says as he arms the bomb, but before he can trigger it, the transition completes. The Master controls Eph now, gloating that he and Zach can finally rule together now. “Dad, are you still in there?” asks Zach, hugging the monster that was once his father. “Because if you are, I love you.” He presses the button, launching the bomb and saving the day.

I’m sorry, but what the shit? Look, I get it. I get the narrative symmetry. The boy who nuked New York out of rage at his father now saves humanity out of love for his father. On paper, it’s nice. There’s poetry in his redemption. In practice, however, it doesn’t work because it feels wholly unearned. The Strain has spent the last four years charting a path for Zach to villainy. He started as the woeful winy apocalypse kid, everybody’s least favorite character in the genre, but at a certain point, his path became distinctly darker. Tiresome and petulant, foolishly devoted to his mother even after she becomes a monster, even after he sees her kill, Zach was just consummately hateable and the writers found new ways to make him more evil and unlikeable with impressive regularity. Rarely has an audience been so united in their hatred for a character as The Strain viewers were in their unrelenting rage toward Zach. He went from an unlikable kid to a true monster, letting his mommy issues transform him into the worst kind of strigoi collaborator, and ultimately, um, committing a war crime. At a certain point, I stopped being annoyed at the character and started being impressed by what a contemptible antagonist the series had created.

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Image via FX

That said, there is no path so dark, no deed so dastardly that a fictional character can’t be redeemed from it. That is the magic of storytelling. A well-crafted fiction can wring sympathy for even the most despicable of characters, but in order for a redemptive arc to work, the journey has to be treated with as much integrity and honesty as their path to corruption. Zach’s redemption was not. I feared the story might veer this way when the penultimate episode honed in on Eph and Zach’s troubled relationship, but when Zach betrayed his father again, Eph was finally ready to let go and Zach was again affirmed as an ultimate traitor of humanity. Except for one line. “I’m trying to save your life!” Zach cried as his father locked him up and walked away, telling his son to live with his choices.

If he had time to live with his choices it might have worked. That encounter planted the seeds for a change of heart, compounded by Zach’s newfound horror when the Master started executing every human in New York, but Zach probably killed just as many innocents in his nuclear tantrum so the horror rang false, and those seeds needed at least a few episodes if not a full season to germinate. With only one episode to cement that change of heart, the transformation rings false and to be perfectly honest, watching Zach become the savior of the human race felt a bit like reaching the punchline of a four-year trolling. It’s a bit like if J.K. Rowling reached the end of the Harry Potter saga and decided last minute that Draco Malfoy should defeat Voldemort, or if Joffrey survived all of Game of Thrones and suddenly decided to stop murdering prostitutes and take down the Night King. It just didn’t work.

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Image via FX

The good news is that if Zach’s redemption felt like a cheat, The Strain‘s series finale ultimately got a lot right around that misstep. Above all, in an age where TV loves a good ambiguous ending, The Strain offered real closure. Months later, we catch up with our surviving heroes and Fet tells us in voiceover that the world is recovering. Without the Master, the Strigoi were easily defeated. Roman took all that gold after all and helped rebuild the city. Gus spends his days helping refugees return home, hoping to find the girl he loved and helped escape. Dutch puts her big brain to use bringing the internet back online, and Fet becomes a police officer, roaming the streets with a cheeky grin. “When the rats returned, I knew the city was going to be okay,” in a delightfully on-brand bit of closure for the character. As he walks through the city, he runs into Dutch and the two hug, smiling walking off into the distance as Fet reminds us that love saved the world. It’s a bit saccharine, but it feels earnest, and it’s a fine way to leave our heroes behind; literally walking into the sunset.

Looking at the macro picture, The Strain final season was a definitive high note. There are other grievances to be found — the Occido Lumen, for example, could have been clipped from the series and made almost no difference. But after two seasons of sloppy footing, the show finally found the propulsive, largely coherent narrative it needed and made the right strokes to wrap up its characters with integrity. Except, of course, for Zach. But on the other hand, isn’t it just like Zach to ruin everything at the last possible moment?

What did you think of The Strain‘s finale? Was the fourth season a proper send-off for the vampire apocalypse? Sound off in the comments with your thoughts.

Television