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The Strain, season finale: We talk to showrunner Carlton Cuse about the finale and season

Gus (Miguel Gomez) is taken captive by a strange new friend (Stephen McHattie).
Gus (Miguel Gomez) is taken captive by a strange new friend (Stephen McHattie).
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

After the surprisingly grim season finale of The Strain, I got a chance to talk with showrunner Carlton Cuse and ask him about turning the novel of the same name into a TV show. Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity's sake, follows.

Todd VanDerWerff: You follow the book closely, but also expand on it quite a bit. How did you decide where to expand?

Carlton Cuse: I felt like the narrative spine of the book was really great. I was attracted to take on the project because I really loved what Guillermo and Chuck did in the whole trilogy of books, so I wanted to keep to the essential spine of the story. But just as a practical matter, the pilot was the first 150 pages of the first novel, and then the 12 episodes of the series are the remaining 250 pages. So by necessity, that required a lot of expansion, embellishment, elaboration.

I love the idea of starting this story as an epidemiological crisis, so that it really begins not as a fear of vampires, but as a fear of disease, which I think is something that's very primal that people can really relate to. It seemed like it would be quite wonderful to take these two empirical CDC scientists and their level of skepticism would match that of the audience as they slowly begin to accept that vampires might actually exist, and that the story sort of moves from the empirical to the mystical a little bit, and that they begin to accept this idea that these vampires not only exist as biological entities, but that there is a mythology to them that might also be real.

As we were sitting in the writers' room and starting to figure this out, it seemed like a good place to expand the story was the idea of Eldritch Palmer's cover-up. He is one of the richest guys in the world that's made a deal with the Master to help not only bring him to New York, but also, he is very actively involved in doing a bunch of things that are impeding people from being able to stop the spread of this strain of vampirism.

There's some definite parallels in our storytelling to the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the '30s. People say, "Well, how did the Nazis come to power? How is that possible?" Part of what we wanted to explore was that idea that people are self-interested in their own selfishness. They tend to not consider society's problems as their problems. You can have a lot of circumstances in which, based on self-interest, people don't do things for the greater good.

In some ways the narrative goal of the show was to both be serious and fun at the same time, and to recognize that there was an inherent, crazy absurdity to a show about vampires that shoot six-foot stingers out of their mouths, and drink you dry like a Capri Sun, and there are former Nazis, and there's a crazy old guy with a sword beheading people. There's this larger than life quality to the storytelling, which I just love. But at the same time, we committed dramatically to the scenes and the situation that we were in.

Todd VanDerWerff: The book takes place over a few days, and this takes place over a slightly longer span of time.

Carlton Cuse: Eight days, I think.

Todd VanDerWerff: That led to a very slow build in the first half of the season that tipped over around the midpoint. How did you keep things going early on?

Carlton Cuse: It was a very conscious choice to let the development of this spread out slowly. In a certain way, it was the antithesis of a movie like World War Z, where there literally are, I think, three scenes in the movie before zombies are running headlong at Brad Pitt [chuckles]. I think we wanted to allow the characters to develop before we committed to full vampire mayhem, and some people found it a little slow or were kind of waiting for the action to kick into higher gear, but we felt it was essential to set up who these people were. And then if we were going to have Eph and Nora buy into this, we had to pay enough time and attention to the process that it would seem reasonably credible.

Todd VanDerWerff: The apocalypse is very gradual in this show. What was it like to have the end of the world play out very slowly in the background?

Carlton Cuse: It does feel like we see the other version of that all the time where stories already start with the condition intact whether it's The Walking Dead or Stephen King's The Stand. The actual evolution of the conditions felt like that was really interesting storytelling, and it's something that we actually intend to continue next season, because New York City is upended but it's not fully destroyed, and it seems like there's some really interesting stuff to be done in season two as this progresses even further and creates even a greater state of crisis.

Todd VanDerWerff: Have you talked at all about what the outside world knows about the situation in New York?

Carlton Cuse: That's something that we also are going to explore in the second season. We will contextualize what's going on in New York. Again, it feels like this story is sort of concentric circles of knowledge and mythology, and part of the challenge as a storyteller is figuring how quickly to dole that out. You want to dole out that information, but you don't want to make it didactic, and you want to try to get as much narrative value as you can out of that. I think that's sort of a building mystery with: what's going on every place else? What's going on in the rest of the world? That's a question that really is an important season two question.

Todd VanDerWerff: These are different vampires from the ones we're used to. Was it a challenge to introduce this new spin on an old myth to viewers?

Carlton Cuse: The idea that these were not sparkling, romantic, handsome dudes with fangs and girl problems was one of the main things that interested me about taking on the project. I loved that core idea in Guillermo and Chuck novels. Guillermo and I spent a lot of time talking about the vampire biology as we were developing the show. He had thought a lot about the vampire mythology and biology in the creation of these creatures. It felt like it was both natural and an important part of the storytelling to show that.

The autopsy scene [in episode four] was really designed to tell the audience, "Hey, we've thought about this. These creatures are not just attractions." We've actually considered them right down to how fast food goes in one end and waste comes out the other [chuckles]. It felt like it was important to establish their biological credibility as a first-step narratively, and then from that, we could go on and build upon that.

The Walking Dead is a terrific show, but their force of monster antagonism is these zombies, and they kind of do one thing. They shuffle after you, and if they catch you, they eat you. In The Strain, there's a very complicated and complex mythology and there are different vampires who can do different things. There's a hierarchy and there's a history and a whole back-story to these vampires that I thought was really great. Again, it was something that really attracted me to the novels and those multiple levels of antagonism really are great for storytelling.

Todd VanDerWerff: I think probably my favorite episode of the season was the convenience store standoff. What was the inception of that idea as almost a standalone episode in the middle of the season?

Carlton Cuse: It was funny because we were just talking about stories in the room, and Guillermo threw out the idea like, "Well, let's do a Siege episode," and then we took the ball and ran with it. I give a lot of credit on that episode to Chuck Hogan, who not only co-wrote the novels, but is really very actively involved in the writing of the series. He wrote that episode, and we just spent a lot of time thinking about that episode. We felt like this was the great opportunity to have our first real vampire assault. We also used that episode as our place to show that there's this kind of hive-mind quality to these vampires. So we're expanding the mythology. Of course, dramatically, we also thought this was the perfect place to play out the story of Jim Kent.

Also, just on a practical level, shooting in one location really gave us the ability to put a lot of our resources into vampire mayhem in that episode, and that was really fun, and it felt earned at that point of the show. We'd been pretty discrete about, and specific about our vampire stuff prior to that, and so, even as writers, it was a wonderful release, to really let loose a whole horde of vampires.

Todd VanDerWerff: You mentioned Guillermo del Toro bringing up an idea for this episode. How involved was he over the course of season one?

Carlton Cuse: Guillermo was extremely involved in the visual style and look of the show. He oversaw all the visual effects, color timing, was really involved in the design and execution of the creatures. We have some really complementary skill sets. I spent my time really focused on the storytelling, overseeing scripts, and editing. But we shared a lot of duties, and there was a lot of feedback back and forth. It was really a wonderful collaboration.

Todd VanDerWerff: You kept the Master, who's the main villain off-screen for a long portion of the season. What was behind the decision to keep him out until like the last three or four episodes?

Carlton Cuse: I'm probably not the only writer in Hollywood to have been massively influenced by Star Wars, and I like to think of the Eichorst/Master relationship as being a little bit like Darth Vader and the Emperor. Eichorst is also creation. He's a composite of two different characters in the books, and having read the first book, you know well that that character is not hugely significant in the book. But he certainly is in the series, and that, in no small measure, was because the actor was so good. We kept wanting to write for him.

The virtue became we were giving more to him, and that also just kept the Master more mysterious. I think that in this genre of mystery, underplaying things can be really effective. It felt like the Master would be more powerful when he finally did show up.

Todd VanDerWerff: In the finale, you really end on a moment of almost quiet defeat for main characters. That's obviously very close to the book, but it might be slightly grimmer, even. How did you decide to go that dark with this ending?

Carlton Cuse: I think it really just comes down to me loving the ending in the book. It's the tracking of this character [Setrakian] who was basically all along so convincingly telling us that he knows how to fight vampires, and he knows everything about them. He knows how to defeat them. We get to the very end of the story, and they actually succeed in doing what he says is going to work to kill the Master — drive him into the sun. And then it fails, and that just seemed like a really cool idea. It was a reversal and a turn that felt both earned and unexpected.

While it is a bit grim on one level, I do think that the final scene where they're driving in the bread truck, I think there's hope in that. There's hope in humanity. Despite the defeat, this group of people have all come together, and they all have a shared purpose and a conviction and a belief that they can still win this thing. I consider it really sort of a set back or a necessary end of the first act of this story, but the consequence of that is that we have a really compelling and cool group of characters that are together, and they're going to have to figure out another way to accomplish their goal.

Todd VanDerWerff: The show's been a pretty significant hit for FX, but it's also based on a series that there's only three books in. What are you looking at as season two, and how long do you think this can run?

Carlton Cuse: Guillermo and I have talked about this a lot. I think our plan is that the show will run for five seasons. The next season will be 13 episodes. The subsequent seasons may only be 10. The exact number is sort of TBD depending on how our storytelling unfolds, but that's the end of it. I don't think there's any scenario in which it goes longer than that. The novels do have a beginning, middle, and end, and that's the story we want to tell. I think the evolution of television right now is toward close-ended storytelling.

To me, my two favorite things on TV this year were Fargo and True Detective, both of which were close-ended stories. One was eight hours long, one was 10. I think of The Strain as a close-ended five season story, which is just perfect to tell this epic tale. As a writer, that's what you long to do, which is to tell all the letters of the alphabet, and know when you are going to be telling all the letters of the alphabet. So the first season is kicking things off, and it's really exciting to be able to know with some specificity how long the journey is going to last.

In terms of the second season of the show, we're basically going to split book two into two seasons, and then book three into two seasons. However, if you've read book two, you'll realize that that's going to require a lot of invention. Again, while season two will follow the general arc of the second book, there is significantly more in season two that isn't in the book at all, and that's really fun. I think that you'll have a significantly different experience watching season two.

Both Chuck and Guillermo are heavily involved in the construction of season two, and all three of us are very excited about going off-book, and developing a whole bunch of story ideas that weren't in the book, but that really have organically come out of what we feel like we've learned over making the first season of the show. So I'm real excited about season two. I have no doubt it's going to be better than season one, and it's really fun to be taking the show in some really exciting new directions.

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