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The Strain, episode 3: detachable penises and vampire terrorists

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Nora (Mia Maestro) and Setrakian (David Bradley) talk over the vampire scourge.
Nora (Mia Maestro) and Setrakian (David Bradley) talk over the vampire scourge.
FX

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by one of Vox's many experts in subjects other than television to discuss the new vampire series The Strain. These articles are for those who have already seen that week's episode. If you are looking for a more general overview, here is our pre-air review. This week, Todd is joined by international reporter Zack Beauchamp to discuss how this show's vampires are kind of like terrorists, just a little bit.

Todd: Okay, what?

I am honestly, honestly surprised by the fact that FX let us see a full-frontal shot of a naked guy, even if that guy's penis had just fallen off into the toilet because he was becoming a vampire. He even seems sort of pleased at the loss of his genitalia, probably because his vampire brain is taking over.

And yet I don't know if this episode would have worked without it. Yeah, it probably could have been suggested by clever editing or something, but that wouldn't have been nearly as satisfying. We really need to see the whole thing – or not see it, as the case may be. It's the kind of moment I've been waiting for since the show began, when the series lets go of the shrug-worthy self-seriousness it carries itself with and just does something goofy and nuts. And there are few things goofier or nuttier than a rock star turning to camera to reveal he's minus his member. (I even like how he stands there posing, as if becoming a vampire somehow made him aware of the film crew catching his every move.)

"Gone Smooth" is, I think, a stronger episode than last week's, with some fun moments to recommend it. It ends with our heroes being visibly confronted with the fact that weird probiscis vampires are on the loose, delves more deeply into the duplicity of Jim Kent, and ramps up the impending doom. It's not a great episode, but it's closer to what I guess the ideal version of The Strain that I carry in my heart might look like.

But I didn't ask you here to talk about that, Zack. I asked you here because these vampires have evidently invaded the U.S. from Germany. And that sounds like an international incident to me. How about you?

Zack: Oh, it's worse than that. These vampires are basically Nazi al-Qaeda with a nuclear bomb on the Hudson. A lot like what a lot of paranoid people think actual al-Qaeda is like.

Seriously, though, The Strain's vampires really are a lot like terrorists. They hide their presence from the government, use shadowy financial networks and criminals to do their business, and spend years planning a spectacular mass casualty attack on a major city. The big difference is that they're way more powerful: they've got seemingly unlimited resources housed at Stoneheart, and an actual weapon of mass destruction. Which raises a lot of interesting questions about what the US government actually should be doing to fight them.

In fact, if we run with that idea, The Strain's almost comically incompetent bureaucracies make the whole thing feel like a kind of a clumsy metaphor for the run-up to 9/11. If so, wouldn't Nazi Terrorist Vampires be a much, much better title?

But back to what really matters: that penis.

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It's definitely a hard moment to forget. And the goofiness is welcome. But I wonder if the need for that kind of visual showmanship betrays the show's severe lack of actual characters. Of the four people who "survived" the plane flight, the faux-goth rockstar was easily the most interesting (a credit to Jack Kesey's performance, who's doing a lot with pretty thin material). But it felt like, as he and the other vampires started to recognize their true natures, they all became basically the same thing. The "we're changing" scenes felt more like repetition than mounting horror.

Ditto with the humans. Abraham, the only really great character we've got, gets relegated to what feels like half as much screen time as the interminable divorce case. It feels like they're setting up for him to go hunting with the CDC next week, which should be great. But for a show with a ticking clock, it feels like it's taking an awful long time to get to the good stuff. Am I being unfair?

Todd: Yes and no. The series clearly needs more Setrakian, post-haste, and after praising the transformation scenes last week, there's already starting to be a sameness to them this week (though, again, a disappearing penis will make up for a lot). But I have to confess to a certain fondness for "generic suburban dad who becomes a vampire," because I know that if I am any character in this show, I am almost certainly him.

Generic suburban dad also underlines something the series is trying to do with fitful success: be a show about fatherhood. There's something to the idea of making a series about monsters that are constantly creating other versions of themselves all about what it means to be a parent to a child, but The Strain is almost hilariously preoccupied with fatherhood. We have Eph and his son. We have suburban dad and his kids. We have the Master and all of his vampire offspring. The only really strong matriarchal relationship we have is that of Gus and his mother, and it's all told through his point-of-view.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with The Strain being a very male-heavy show (outside of the general, problematic lean of television toward male-heavy programs), but the show's weird lack of female characters strikes me as just a bit odd. Yes, vampires are apparently without gender characteristics, but the series' contingent of female characters leans almost entirely on women who've slept with Eph, which is not exactly the most exciting thing to deal with.

In fact, I'm starting to wonder if the show wouldn't be better off if it was about the people trying to bring the vampires to America in the first place. Your mention of the vampires behaving like terrorists made me think of 24, and one of the things I always sort of hoped that show would do is give us a handful of episodes from the point of view of the people Jack Bauer was trying to stop. Now, I wouldn't want to hang out with the vampires all of the time here, because they're so boring, but I certainly wouldn't mind a little more time with all of the folks playing the vampires' supporting cast, learning just what motivates them and figuring out what their ultimate plan is.

Then again, every time I want the show to focus on something even more, I just get more bored by it. Maybe I need to stop making these recommendations.

Zack: No, I think it's a great suggestion! Take, as another parallel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Part of the reason that Buffy's vampires were so great, and so threatening, is that we got a real window into their inner lives. I'm thinking about the Spike/Drusilla/Angelus plot, mostly, but also minor vamps like Holden from "Conversations with Dead People."

Which gets to the heart of what vampires are — and why The Strain's approach to them feels a touch confused. Normally, zombies are the go-to monster when you want to tell a horror story about disease. They're unthinking, predatory beasts looking only to feed and (maybe?) reproduce. But vampires usually hold on to their minds, as do at least some of The Strain's vampires  — like Eichorst or The Master. But the newly turned vampires sometimes act more like zombies, à la the closing scene this week. This weird mish-mash makes it hard to figure out what the vampires are like, and what they want.

But there's also potential in that confusion, at least as it relates to the terrorism metaphor. Counterterrorism's not-so-hidden secret is that a lot of would-be terrorists are utterly incompetent. It's really hard to plan and execute a big-deal attack, and the recruiting pool for militant groups isn't often the top of the class. Many terrorist groups depend on big-deal charismatic leaders at the top.

That's not a vision of how terrorist groups work you often see in fiction. Usually, terrorists are all hyper-skilled, hyper-competent, and hyper-threatening. One man's sloppy world-building is another man's sly corrective to our cultural obsession with terrorist masterminds. Undermined, of course, by Stoneheart's seemingly limitless wealth and resources.

Oh, and you're absolutely right about fatherhood and male characters. It points to the problem with taking a "gender-blind" approach to a super-gendered subject. A big part of the relationship between fathers and children is the way the father and child interact, or don't, with his oft-female partner. The really limited roles The Strain allows for women also limits the stories it's trying to tell about men.

There I am being downer again, about a show I actually like. Have I mentioned that it's really fun yet?

Todd: It is getting pretty fun. For as much as I rag on this thing, there are a handful of scenes every week where I'm nodding along in pleasure at how the show is pulling off the horror beats.

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Really, The Strain almost works better as a collection of scenes than it does anything else. It's almost like a Guillermo Del Toro horror mix tape, in which the great director and his collaborators pull freely both from his filmography and others' works to make something that feels like a blend of every horror movie ever more than it does something unique and original to itself. That scene-by-scene approach doesn't really work when, say, we're following Gus around, but it can be good fun when we watch as Vasiliy investigates a rat bite or whenever a vampire shows up to feed.

What the show is reminding me of at this stage is, weirdly, Game of Thrones. Now, this show is nowhere near the level of that one, but I felt a similar distance from the early episodes of that show, a distance that took me a while to overcome because I had to adjust to how the series told stories. And, just like that show, Game of Thrones essentially tells all of its stories on a scene-by-scene basis. We check in on certain characters, then go check in with others, and we might never return to that first group again. This felt jarring in the beginning, at least to me, and it took some time to figure out what was going on.

What helped Game of Thrones along was that it had a huge number of great characters and great performances to carry it along to when the larger story really kicked into gear (which I would peg to roughly the fourth or fifth episode). The Strain doesn't yet have that. It essentially just has David Bradley (himself a Thrones vet) as Setrakian and then a confused mishmash of other characters. But there are hints here and there that the show is at least somewhat aware of this and is trying to figure out a better way forward. There are flashes of worthwhile character development for just about every character not named Eph tonight, and the story, at last, seems to be moving somewhere.

I'm still not ready to proclaim this series a must-watch, but I think it's finding a popcorn groove that could make for some fun stuff going forward. And if it doesn't, hey, there's always that detachable penis. (Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Zack. It should be The Strain's new theme song.)