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 culture writer Alex Abad-Santos to discuss this show's frequent case of boredom.
This episode in one sentence: A solar eclipse happening during the vampire apocalypse should be a lot more exciting than this episode makes it out to be.
Watching The Strain this week made us realize something: this show chooses to be boring when it could be choosing to be awesome entirely too many times per episode. The show is caught between two models of success. It desperately wants to have all of the solid character work and exciting plotting of the best TV shows, but it doesn't. And it fails to realize that those things also get in the way of the show being fun trash. Trash requires momentum and a kind of headlong idiocy. And those are things The Strain lacks as well.
So with that in mind, here are five times this week's The Strain chose to be boring, instead of choosing to be awesome.
1) Eph gets taken by the government
As this week's episode opens, Eph is on the run from the government, which want him for questioning in the death of the airplane pilot a few weeks ago. (Remember that?) At the same time, we know that a solar eclipse is coming, and with the vampire apocalypse breaking out all over, it seems a poor time to be a man on the run from the government. This has the makings of a great conspiracy thriller, with our hero ducking away from G-men on one hand and vampires on the other.
Instead, Eph is taken by the government within the first 10 minutes of the episode. This might be okay if the show did anything with it, but, instead, it's just another chance for him to tell people the vampires are coming and have those people scoff at him. Our hero spends an episode featuring an eclipse during the vampire apocalypse locked up in a room, basically doing what he's been doing every other week. And when he finally left said room during the (too brief) eclipse sequence, he mostly just sat in a car and watched people get killed. Eph is the most boring hero to ever have heroed.
2) Kelly and Zach pondering life, and looking at the eclipse together
Right before Eph is taken by the government and made to sit around in a room and a car, he tells his ex-wife and his son to run to Vermont, because it seems safer than New York City. Yes, it's sort of strange that he tells his family to drive up there, considering the roads are jammed with cars and the eclipse is coming. But fine.
So Kelly and Zach have a dilemma. Do they go to Vermont and trust Eph or do they stay at home and watch the eclipse? Kelly, the adult-by-default in this mother-son relationship, defers to one of her girlfriends and her young son about what to do: stay at home.
It would've been more interesting to see them go to Vermont and get eaten by vampires that Eph didn't know were living there. At least it would have given them, and Eph, something more interesting to do. Instead, they just sit in the backyard and wait for the end to come.
3) Setrakian has heart troubles until he doesn't
Even in a weaker episode, The Strain can come up with a good scare sequence or two, and this episode has a couple of really strong ones. (Let's take a brief moment to mention the man Eichorst is apparently keeping chained up in a crypt.) By far the best is the sequence where Setrakian finds his way to what can only be described as a den of vampires. He plunges into combat, only to realize he's in way, way over his head and has to retreat. Along the way, his heart starts going nuts, and he fumbles for his pills, spilling them all over the floor of the vampire den.
When he later shows up at episode's end to usher Eph into his basement, where Nora and her mother are already waiting, it's as if nothing even happened. Sure, we can surmise that Setrakian probably had a backup bottle of heart pills and just took some of those. But the early sequence in the den creates a riveting tension that the episode then immediately allows to dissipate. That, in a nutshell, is The Strain's biggest problem.
4) Dr. Nora and her mom take a day trip
One of the things that the show gets right is the absolute fiasco that happens when you take your parents walking through the streets of New York. Nora's mom isn't happy about walking around a stretch of Manhattan. Nora keeps prodding her toward another subway. It's cold. There's nothing good that can happen out of this. But that's all it is: two people walking around and arguing about transportation options.
Nora and her mom's Manhattan adventure is all just to add to the hysteria of the eclipse and the desperation to leave the city and find somewhere safe. It's unclear why Nora decided to get off the subway in Manhattan and put her and her mom in danger (there are more people and potential vampires in Manhattan than Park Slope, Brooklyn). But the eclipse, we're told, makes people do crazy things.
5) The eclipse is a big bust
Above all else, this is the episode's unforgivable sin. When everything takes its sweet time getting to the eclipse, there's the brief thought that maybe — maybe — next week's episode will somehow be all about the eclipse. But instead, the eclipse comes, and it's over almost as soon as it has started. Eph finally finds the medical examiner he was looking for a few episodes ago. (Surprise! He's a vampire!) Felix gets infected by one of the vampire worms, just in time for him and Gus to be taken down by the cops (in a surprisingly effective bit of social satire). And that's about it.
When you spend your entire opening sequence on something straight out of Gravity or 2001: A Space Odyssey, depicting the grand cosmic ballet between Earth and Moon and Sun, then hinting that bad, bad things are going to happen during that eclipse, then something bad had better happen. And, yes, objectively, more people getting turned into vampires isn't a great thing. But it's basically just the same thing we've been seeing this whole season. There's no sense the plot is going anywhere. This show needs to find some momentum and quick.