The Strain can be an incredibly frustrating show. It has so many elements that could make for great horror television — a charismatic cast, a striking visual palette, creative creature designs and expertly rendered effects, not to mention the support of genre genius Guillermo del Toro, and a home on one of television’s most creatively ambitious networks — and yet the series so rarely aligns those elements in a way that fulfills its potential. While The Strain has always suffered a wearying slow burn, savoring the gradual spread of The Master’s vampire apocalypse for a bit too long at every turn, the first three episodes of Season 3 make it painfully clear that the lackadaisical narrative pace is crippling the show and sucking the life out of its hard-earned moments of victory.
When we last saw our ragtag band of unlikely heroes in the Season 2 finale, they were finally poised for a major narrative shift – an overdue payoff for Eph and the gang, who spent much of the season in a stagnant search for the text of powerful vampire knowledge, the Occido Lumen. When Setrakian and Fet finally secured the Lumen, defeating Herr Eichhorst, and uniting in a tentative alliance with Gus, Angel and Quinlan in an attempt to lure The Master out of hiding and destroy him once and for all. Elsewhere, Zack finally got his wish to go home to Mommy, leaving poor Nora to die alone on the dingy tracks of the underground subway. But Nora was a champion and a badass to the very end, and despite Eph’s pleas that they could find a solution to her strigoi infection, she took matters into her own hands and ended her life before The Master could overtake her. As Eph stumbled out of that subway station, stunned with grief, and as Setrakian & Co. sailed out to sea on a stolen boat, Lumen in hand, it felt like the closing of a major chapter that set the stage for what comes next.
How disappointing it is then that what comes next is more of what came before. Thanks to a small time jump, we don’t pick up with our heroes on the run, but right back in Brooklyn under the protection of Councilwoman Feraldo. Fet is using his encyclopedic knowledge of New York’s underground tunnels to help the military hunt down The Master, Setrakian is hard but slow at work translating the Lumen, and Eph is, as ever, drunk and kind of the worst, devasted by losing his son to The Master. He’s ostensibly upset about the whole Nora thing too, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by the way he only brings her up once, and essentially only as a cover story. As for Zack, he’s obviously still the living worst, and now that he’s finally reunited with his mother, he spends most of his time whining about how much he misses his dad. I swear, this fucking kid… Ultimately, instead of finding our characters at the start of a new chapter, we find them somehow regressed back to what is essentially same old, same old and the first three episodes are spent catching up instead of moving forward.
The rest of the gang is diverted by cumbersome subplots, the most egregious of which finds Dutch, still tormented by her time in Eichhorst’s torture chamber, teaming up with a team of her old hacking pals, who are too feeble and instantly detestable to amount to anything more than Strigoi food. It’s an utter waste of time, even if Dutch gets to play the ultimate battle-hardened badass. Meanwhile, Gus is bleeding himself half-to-death to feed his infected mother. They both get their fair share of thrilling action sequences, but it all feels like stalling. And that’s the larger problem with how Season 3 begins. New York is an all-out war zone, but there’s no sense of urgency. Despite near constant action for every character, including a drastic uptick in machine guns and the ever-increasing strigoi scourge, almost none of it feels of consequence. The series is always moving, but it’s never going anywhere.
This is not a problem a series like The Strain should have. From day one, the show has operated on relatively tight seasons (13 episodes for the first two seasons and an even tighter 10 for Season 3), and both Guillermo del Toro and showrunner Carlton Cuse have said they envision the series with a five-season limit. And yet, The Strain so often feels like it’s treading water in a way reminiscent of the 22-episode heyday of network programming. No doubt this is due, in part, to its commitment to unfolding the apocalypse slowly. As Setrakian’s intro voice-over reminds us, only 23 days have passed since that ill-fated, vampire-infested plane touched down in New York, unleashing The Master’s armageddon. But in order for the slow downfall of society to mean anything, there have to be actual changes and consequences that can be felt and tracked. Those ever-burning fires in the background just aren’t getting the trick done anymore. Without that world-building, the fall of New York just doesn’t connect and the world always just feels semi-apocalyptic, no matter how many ominous voiceovers portend doom.
That said, the end of the third episode presents another opportunity for a significant shift and forward motion, so there’s hope yet for the season. And there’s really nothing else on TV like The Strain — from its Giallo technicolor palette to its anatomically thought-out creature creations and cheeky, pulp sensibilities, it’s a welcome change of pace from the standard dramedies and crime procedurals. The series is also smartly investing in two of its most compelling characters, putting Fet and Quinlan front and center. Fet continues to be indomitably charming and Quinlan gets a few flashbacks, offering insight into the hybrid warrior’s origin and humanity. And Eichhorst is still gleefully zipping around, causing trouble for all (and being a massive thorn in the side for the grieving and ailing Palmer) The narrative may be suffering, but The Strain knows how to play up its best characters. There are also plenty of promising threads laid out: Eph’s bioweapon is decreasing in efficacy, the government is writing off New York as a lost cause, and the launch of Eicchorst’s human-harvesting factories looms on the horizon. But they need to tie together, and quickly, because The Strain simply can’t afford to stand still for much longer.
★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated