Just in time for the end, The Strain is the best it’s ever been. After three seasons of build up and more than a little stalling, FX’s pulpy vampire drama has finally arrived at the promised post-apocalypse thanks to Zack’s (Max Charles) nuclear tantrum in the Season 3 finale. Lord knows Zack is the worst, but we should all be thanking the little monster-in-the-making because that tragic act of selfishness is exactly what the series needed to climb out of the narrative rut it’s been stuck in for the last two seasons and deliver exciting new locations, relationships, character development.
Season 4 picks up nine months after Zack pulled the trigger, unleashing a nuclear winter that allows the Strigoi to walk by day, finally fulfilling the series’ ongoing Holocaust parallels with the vision of a world reborn to serve the Master and his bloodsucking ilk. Humanity is forced into “The Partnership,” a one-sided union with the Strigoi in which the humans regularly donate blood in return for food and medical help, trudging terrified through the streets with identifying badges wrapped around their arms while armed Strigoi guards hiss and sneer from the sidewalk. Naturally, the food and medical aid are only enough to keep the walking Happy Meals pumping nourished blood, but the remnants of humanity are in no position to argue. The Justines of the world are gone, there is no Staten Island safe haven and no government support on the way, and the laws of nature have forsaken humanity without the sun to offer them respite from the Strigoi assault.
But there are those who fight. Another clever Season 4 shake up finds our remaining heroes — Setrakian, Fet, Dutch, and Eph — split up and working with new allies. Fet (Kevin Durand) and Setrakian (David Bradley) are in North Dakota, on the hunt for a nuclear bomb that can kill the Master once and for all, along with Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Fet’s new lady love. Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) has been captured by the Strigoi and shipped off to a (gulp) breeding center, where she and her fellow fertile women are being impregnated under mysterious circumstances in a sort of post-apocalyptic Handmaid’s Tale scenario where they are valued solely for the contents of their womb. It’s Dutch, so obviously she’s fighting back in her own ways.
As for Eph (Corey Stoll), where do you go after you watch your son nuke New York? Apparently, Philidelphia, where Dr. Goodweather has been leaning into his bitterness, trading his medical skills for booze, and just generally being the kind of curmudgeon we’ve all come to know and love. But after seasons of watching him be insufferable for no good reason, Eph’s bad attitude is thoroughly earned at this point — I mean, fuck it, he raised the kid who ended the world — and unlike his chaffing demeanor in previous seasons, it’s actually quite delightful to watch him grumble and smirk around in the post-apocalypse, utterly unphased but still a genius with a fighter’s spirit.
On the evil side of things, The Master looks the best he has since Season 1. Inhabiting the frail body of Eldritch Palmer, he has a whiff of Nosferatu about him and the wonderful design work from the prosthetics department is matched by the performance from Jonathan Hyde, who gives the Master more menace and range than we’ve seen from the character before. Though Eichorst has fairly little to do in the three episodes that were screened for critics, Richard Sammel continues to steal every scene he’s in with a wink and a smile.
Then there’s Zack. What a fine and infuriating villain he has become. There are villains you love to hate and then there is Zack, who you just hate. The collective rage the character invites could fuel a thousand suns, and it’s not easy to conjure that level of acrid distaste in an audience. This kid has reached Joffrey levels of loathsome, and he continues to be a self-serving little shit in Season 4, in which the Master is grooming the young man to become a proper villain. And Zack’s right around that age, so now he’s got an eye for the ladies, a development that grants the character a new kind level of despicable self-satisfaction.
This is what it’s like to see The Strain firing on all cylinders, finally. In the past, The Strain‘s action has often felt circuitous, a series of false beats that ultimately led back to the same place. The search for the Lumen, Eph’s fight for his family, repeat repeat repeat, without a narrative forward momentum that allowed the characters or the world to grow in interesting ways. After two seasons of hurry up and wait, the final episodes of Season 3 blasted out a path for progress, and Season 4 follows through on that promise. For the first time since the series’ strong start in 2014, The Strain delivers propulsive drama and world building. In the final season, the talented cast, the gorgeous effects, and the singular cinematographic aesthetic are matched bold narrative moves and satisfying character beats. The pieces have clicked together at last, and it’s bittersweet to finally watch the show live up to its potential, just before it comes to a close.
★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
The Strain‘s final season premieres Sunday, July 16th on FX.