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The Strain, episode 5: Does a vampire show really need Holocaust flashbacks?

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Armed with only a nail gun and a sword, Eph (Corey Stoll, left) and Setrakian (David Bradley) track down vampires.
Armed with only a nail gun and a sword, Eph (Corey Stoll, left) and Setrakian (David Bradley) track down vampires.
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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 economics reporter Danielle Kurtzenben to discuss whether a vampire show really needs flashbacks to the Holocaust.

Todd: As I've alluded to a couple of times in these reviews, I've read the book The Strain is based on, and one of the things I've been curious about since reading it is how the TV adaptation was going to handle the book's most potentially problematic element: a lengthy back-story set during the Holocaust.

To be honest, the idea of a vampire using those who are at death's door to satiate its need for blood is a pretty good explanation for why such a monster could move about undetected for so long. My question is more or less one of propriety: Did this story really need to have this particular bit of business set at a concentration camp? Couldn't it have just as easily been set at a fictional prison or something that we wouldn't have such real-life associations with? Now that the show is delving into Setrakian's time in a concentration camp, it feels all the more tasteless.

And what's really bizarre is that I found myself wishing the show had just gone all in. If it was going to tell this story, I wanted it to just sit down and tell it, instead of intersperse the flashbacks willy-nilly throughout the hour. Give us a full episode about Setrakian's first encounter with the Master in the concentration camp. Give us a real sense of what motivates him. What we have feels like a half-measure, and that only calls further attention to the presence of a very real, very awful horror cropping up in a story that's meant to be, at least on some level, a bit of escapism.

Danielle, you have no knowledge of the books. Am I making too much of this?

Danielle: Oof. My goodness, what a question.

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Watch out for vampires.

It's a little tasteless and pretty ham-handed. But then, the rest of the show isn't exactly subtle anyway. You have what Dara Lind (perfectly) pinned down last week as the typical heroic, reckless, rule-hating bureaucrat (even if he is played by the magnificent Corey Stoll). You have his sidekick, the stoic, older Setrakian who drops gems of world-weary old-man wisdom as he strides purposefully away from a vampire-ridden shed he's just doused in gasoline and set on fire. Oh, and he wears badass cutoff-finger gloves. A lot of it is almost campy.

The one thing I'd say for the vampire WWII plotline (a sentence I never thought would make it into my newswriting) is it made the terror of the camp even more immediate. The Holocaust and concentration camps in particular have in countless books and movies been depicted (understandably) as grey, unspeakably sad places where unspeakable horrors happen. But after 70 years and even some great art on the subject, it's easy to feel far-removed from it all. Putting these monsters into the situation was in a strange way effective, in my opinion: it made the fear more visceral and immediate. And it also hammered home that these people in the camp are all serving a death sentence, either way, whether it's by vampire or by Nazis.

But of course, feel free to tell me if I'm off base.

So as far as economics lessons go, I have to say the Strain isn't exactly rich with material. However, Setrakian's silver-nail gun got me thinking that this fictional alternate universe is about to have on its hands a real, honest-to-God non-political ammo shortage. Ammo makers are going to need to crank out silver-tipped bullets, and fast... and unlike with the recent shortage, they'll know that the demand is going to stick around for a while. And people are going to buy the things like hotcakes.

Which also means the prices will be sky-high. Will only the richest people be able to defend themselves from the vampires?

(Side question: how old is Setrakian supposed to be? Let's say he's in the camp in 1944 and he's 20 at the time, by the looks of it. Does that mean he's...what...90 now?)

Todd: Well, in the book, he said, pushing his glasses up on his nose, Setrakian exits the camps as a teenager, which would put him in his mid 80s. (I agree, though, that the actor looked closer to 20.) One wonders what the show would have done if it had taken too much longer to get made, thus making Setrakian too old to do much of anything. Even now, it's pushing it, but David Bradley sells both the character's struggles and his facility with a silver sword.

Speaking of silver swords, your economics question got me thinking about Eldritch, the old, rich man who's trying to bring about the vampire apocalypse to live forever (like you do). Since he's foreseen almost every possible thing that could happen here, why didn't he bother to buy up as much silver as he possibly could, thus driving the price prohibitively high, even for a pawn shop owner? I suppose even genius supervillains can't account for everything, but it will be interesting to see if the show plays around with the scarcity of silver as the vampire apocalypse gets worse.

And getting worse it is! If there's one thing I appreciated about this episode, it's the way that it makes it feel like the wheels are falling off the car. One of the struggles with a show like this is to depict the end of the world in such a way that it feels modulated. It can't fall apart too fast, or everything will grow repetitive. But it also can't fall apart too slowly, or we'll lose interest. For as much as I grouse about this show, I do think it's mostly handling the pacing of the end of the world accurately. When that vampire appeared in the assisted living center where Nora's mom lives or when Eph and Setrakian happened upon the body of Anne-Marie hanging from her ceiling, there is a definite sense that things are progressing too rapidly for anyone to keep them in check. That sense only grows in the scene where Vasiliy descends into the tunnels beneath Manhattan to find a horde of vampires rushing at him. It's all very creepy.

That's a smart thing to do, because in this episode, Eph and Setrakian cut apart vampires like it's nobody's business, suggesting that if they somehow convinced the government (or even the Cub Scouts) to help them out, this problem would be handled in no time flat. For as much as Eldritch has thought out the angles of how to keep the vampire train rolling, he's still fairly susceptible at this stage of things. So the show needs to create a tension between the possibility that Eph and Setrakian could wrap this up with the help of the fourth graders of Staten Island PS 22 and the fact that death and doom are inevitable. This episode, Holocaust flashbacks and all, handled that about as well as the show has.

That said, I'm just not buying that the CDC wouldn't even be slightly intrigued by the video evidence that Eph presents them. No matter who's getting paid off here, somebody would care more than they do, right? I mean, I'm as cynical about politics as anyone, but I like to imagine if the vampires came, everybody would band together to stake 'em. Am I nuts?

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Eph (Corey Stoll, left) tries to convince Everett Barnes (Daniel Kash) the vampire menace must be stopped.

Danielle: Absolutely not. The main purpose that whole thing serves, once again, seems to be to give Eph something to push back against as he continues his lonely quest to be the maverick who saved humanity from vampires and government bureaucrats who don't know a threat when they see it.

But even if it isn't believable in this case (and you're right — it isn't, really), I've been thinking about this ever since I saw a trailer recently for Madam Secretary, a new CBS show about a Secretary of State who is told at one point, if I remember right, "You don't only think outside the box; you don't even know there is a box." [facedesk] And then she saves a few teenagers who are kidnapped in Syria by Not Following Orders.

All of which is to say that there's an appetite for shows in which these maverick characters attack these big, stupid, slow-witted government structures that don't handle new catastrophes well. And when you think about major catastrophes, you can see why. Whether it's FEMA and Katrina or the VA scandal or even the uber-slow punishments that have come out of the financial crisis, we've seen instances where government is failing and common sense would dictate better and faster solutions.

So we can identify with Eph. He's common sense. He's in our corner. So it's not believable that this CDC guy basically says, "Vampire apocalypse LOL nope." But then, he's a slow-witted cog in the government machine. What'llyado.

OK, I'll stop playing the "I-agree-with-you-but-here's-a-big-theoretical-idea-justifying-the-show's-missteps" game for the second time in a row.

In other topics, I have to say your economics-based idea for how to ensure a vampire apocalypse is fantastic. I would fall passionately in love with The Strain if it did this, because it would be a good dose of subtlety to go along with the monster chaos.

I've got to say also that the best and creepiest plotline thus far is the nanny, the two kids, and the kids' (slowly vampirizing) mother.

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Eph and Jim (Sean Astin) have a heart to heart.

Todd: Yes! Week in and week out, the four people who "survived" the crash and are slowly vampirizing are the best thing about this show, whether their penises are falling off or they're locking themselves up in a shed to save their wife and kids. This is no exception. There's real menace in the scene where Joan (the aforementioned mother) stops the nanny and kids before they leave the house to go to the movies. It's the kind of menace the show hasn't had nearly enough of, and it makes me realize how much horror requires that kind of creeping psychological terror, that sense that something other has invaded your home or workplace or body.

The Strain has yet to really clear that bar, but this episode came really, really close to doing so. And to bring everything back to those flashbacks, I think that they, clumsy though they were, played a part in this. You're right when you say that having a vampire present in a concentration camp gives it a horrific feel that revitalizes the idea in some ways. And I guess we're supposed to be thinking that seeing the Master in the camp gave Setrakian something to live for, something to kill once he got out. (Plus, the presence of Eichorst at the camp suggests that the Nazis were in league with the vampires, which wouldn't surprise me.)

But if there's one thing that's lacking here, it's the thought that maybe the end is better, that maybe death is okay, even if you become a zombie-esque vampire. The best apocalyptic stories tease us with the notion that there might be something sort of intoxicating to start over again, to have the Earth's slate wiped clean. And the best vampire stories play with the seductive allure of eternal life. So far, The Strain hasn't really done either of these things, but maybe, by introducing Setrakian's back-story, it's finding a way to stumble onto them anyway.