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 immigration reporter Dara Lind to discuss how this show builds family relationships... sort of.
Todd: Allow me to introduce you to my favorite Strain character, whom I fear may not appear too many more times. That character is Ann-Marie Barbour, wife of Ansel, who decides when her husband turns into a vampire to take those lemons and make some blood-soaked lemonade by feeding neighbors she doesn't like to him.
There's a surprising amount of poignancy in this storyline. You have Ansel chaining himself up in the shed because he realizes something has gone horribly wrong with himself, and he doesn't want to harm his wife and kids. You have Ann-Marie finding the corpse of the dog Ansel has fed on. And you have the moment when she's just finally had enough of her life and decides it's time to take care of her vampire husband by sending him jerkass neighbors who just happened to stop by. I kind of want to see a Sam Shepard play about these people.
"It's Not for Everyone" doesn't have anything as weird and unsettling as last week's disappearing penis trick, but it certainly has its fair share of nifty moments. The autopsy on Captain Redfern is vintage Guillermo Del Toro weirdness (especially when Eph yanks the stinger out of the captain's head like a garden hose). And the conclusion with the CDC folks finally — finally — hooking up with Setrakian promises even better things to come. (There's a reason FX made this the last episode sent out to critics in advance of the show's debut. It suggests momentum, something the show was in dire need of.)
Of course, we have all of the usual problems, too, like the fact that the show isn't entirely sure how to incorporate characters who aren't immediately tied to the main action, as well as some of the other character beats that should have hit hard but mostly fell flat. Eph's dismissal of Jim, for instance, should have had much more resonance. Instead, it was just sort of there.
But, Dara, this is the first time you've watched this show. First of all: what did you think? Second of all: should vampires actually exist, how do you think immigration services around the world would work to either naturalize vampire citizens and/or shore up borders against them? Is the US doing enough to protect itself from vampires in the Strain-iverse? I think not! (We ask the tough vampire questions here.)
Dara: Todd, as a near-total horror n00b, I am surprised and dismayed that you don't think Ann-Marie is long for this world! I loved her arc, even though I'm a little dismayed Ansel, after all his efforts, won't un-die in dignified starvation. I'm also a big fan of Gus's homeboy Felix. I thought the car-theft scene was a really lovely bit of camera stillness. And I'm pleased that Felix's size is presented as something that makes him more intimidating (like when Gus is staring down his landlord), not just a target for fat jokes.
But I suspect I'm not likely to keep watching this show on my own. Because Eph drives me absolutely batty. I think his attitude toward rules is bafflingly incoherent, and I get queasy when government officials with lethal weapons start thinking they're above the law.
It turns out I'm 180 degrees opposite from your border-hawky rhetoric about keeping the vampires out to begin with. I guess I'm a Vampire Squish — and not in the sense of the squelchy sounds Redfern's corpse makes during the autopsy.
This episode was bookended by two scenes featuring Eph, one or more freshly-dead vampires, and someone squawking ineffectually about how things weren't going according to the official CDC rulebook. As Nora put it (in the worst line in an episode with more than a few bad lines), "We have RESOURCES! PROTOCOLS!" Nora's objections didn't make a ton of sense, since she'd started the episode reassuring Eph that killing a vampire in self-defense was kosher. But Eph, both times, showed the decisiveness and disdain for bureaucracy we've come to expect in our public-sector action heroes.
I've written a fair bit about the culture of impunity that the US Border Patrol's had in recent years: a bunch of trigger-happy agents, combined with a complaint and discipline system that didn't even have a category for "use of force" incidents. When you're convinced that the work you're doing is Too Important for Paperwork, that bleeds easily into a lack of accountability.
My biggest problem with Eph, though, was his cruelty toward Jim when he learned that Jim had also bent a rule. Yes, sure, Jim shouldn't have let the cabinet leave the airport — but the only reason he shouldn't, as far as he knew at the time, was CDC protocol. Nothing we saw from Eph tonight indicates that he wouldn't have made the same decision Jim did — not necessarily because Jim's wrong about Eph's marriage, but because when Eph thinks something is more important than protocol, he does it. Yes, Jim clearly made the wrong decision. But you can't go through a job — especially a job with lethal consequences — trusting you'll always have enough information to follow your gut.
What crystallized this for me was the exchange between Eph and Nora at the episode's end. Eph looks at a vampire and sees the parasite; Nora looks at it and sees the host, and wonders if the patient can be saved. We learned a lot about how the vampire virus works in this episode, but we don't know anything that would tell us whether or not Nora's right — and watching Angus struggle to reassert himself makes me hope that she is.
What do you think about the way the series has used science so far, Todd? Is it presenting a compelling vision of vampirism for you? What would that vampirism mean, metaphorically? And, oh yeah, why is the old rich dude so dismayed that he can't get a hold of anyone on the night he hired the world's greatest hacker to shut down all telecommunications?
Todd: I think you really nail the way that the characters in this show only care about things for a scene, mostly because they have to. You're right that Nora's sudden shift in priorities is very strange, as is the way Eldritch seems to only now be considering the implications of shutting down the telecommunications grid. I seem to talk week after week about how this is a show built more around individual scenes and moments than actual episodes. That approach can work, but it generally requires more in the way of character consistency than The Strain has been capable of.
While I like the idea of vampirism presented scientifically (and Susannah Locke sort of convinced me of the ability of worms to make people do crazy things back in the pilot episode), the show is never quite sure when or how to vacillate between science fiction and ancient, unnamed horror. The thought of a worm that rewrites human DNA to make us blood-sucking machines with an unquenchable thirst is not bad, as far as these things go, and it allows for all sorts of metaphorical considerations of how we protect ourselves from the sorts of viral threats one can never wholly eliminate (especially in this time of ebola outbreak).
But then the series wants to go all in on vampire iconography. Sometimes, this is really cool, as when we saw Eichorst putting on his human disguise in the episode's early going. And sometimes, it's just sort of silly. The Master having to live in a giant box filled with soil feels like the sort of thing that is just in there to have some connection to traditional vampire mythology somewhere along the line, and you're right that Eph's response to Jim is ridiculous. Why would a CDC agent be particularly concerned about vampires in that moment? Bending protocol isn't the greatest thing in the world, but Eph seems to always be angry at people for things they couldn't have known. Maybe that's meant to be character development.
When the show succeeds is when it gets us invested in the vampires not as monsters but as tragic end results of the virus rewriting someone's DNA. We see that with Ansel and Ann-Marie, for instance, and we got a little of that with little Emma and her father in the early episodes. Somewhere down in its bones, The Strain wants to say something about love and human connection, both how it makes us strong and makes us weak, but it can never quite figure out just what it wants to say.
All of which brings me to something you praised that I rolled my eyes at a bit. I'll agree Felix and Gus's car theft was filmed in a nifty fashion, that stationary camera catching how the two carried the crime out in a fun shot. But I also don't entirely see the point of these stories in the midst of the vampire virus outbreak. They feel for all the world like the show trying to remind us certain characters exist, for when their storyline inevitably intersects with the main one. This obviously didn't bother you as much, Dara, so I'm asking you to get me to care about these non-vampire standalones. Where do you hope they're headed?
Dara: The easy answer is that, not having watched previous episodes, I wasn't exactly blaming the show when I didn't understand where one plotline fit in. I couldn't tell you what Eldritch plans to do under cover of a dark grid, for example — I just assume it's evil and probably vampirogenic.
I admit I was primed to like Gus. At first, I thought that you'd asked me to watch this episode with you because of the Hispanidad. I was totally psyched that the scene at Gus' mom's was fully bilingual... before I realized the pause button on my screen was just blocking the subtitles. Then, I figured I'd been tapped because of the criminal-justice angle. The "ex-con with a heart of gold" is a pretty worn-out trope in art, but in reality it's a genuinely tough position to be in — it's hard to make an honest buck when you didn't have any real career training in prison, and when most states allow any employer to discriminate on the basis of a criminal record, no matter how petty or irrelevant the crime. Gus' agreeing to pull the car heist with Felix didn't feel like a plot development to me, but an inevitability.
People often use metaphors of virus to talk about crime. Those metaphors set me on edge. They rob people of their agency by casting them as mere victims — the same way Eph does when he can't see the host for the disease. Gus's circumstances might not be as tragic as Ansel's. But when Gus haggles with the Nigerian, or when Ansel chains himself up in the shed, we see men trying to carve out some form of dignity in tragic circumstances. Neither one of them can win, but neither one is exactly giving in, either. That seems like one of the stories of strength and weakness you're looking for in this show.
Gus's arc wouldn't have worked for me if the negotiation with the Nigerian hadn't been one of the Good Scenes, which I suspect (but can't prove) was simply a matter of pacing. With relatively low stakes — well, at least lower than global vampire epidemic — episode director Keith Gordon and the writers managed to squeeze out just the right amount of drama. That's something the car-theft and negotiation scenes shared with the vampirism-as-tragedy scenes between Ann-Marie and Ansel we both liked so much.
Any horror series is going to generate kilowatts of suspense, if only on the level of "will this character survive to next week or won't he?" But if The Strain isn't cohering well for you beyond individual scenes, I think it might be because it often doesn't use that adrenaline well — it doesn't convert suspense to dramatic tension. I felt that tension when Gus was standing chest-to-chest with the Nigerian, and when Ann-Marie realized what was inside the shed.
This may be my fault: I can't judge The Strain as a genre show, because I'm not familiar with the genre. I might be overthinking this episode because I'm not recognizing the pleasures that people who appreciate horror will get out of it. Hey, it's right there in the title: "It's Not For Everyone."
Todd, I know you've been wrestling with the question of what The Strain thinks it is. So I'll set up the "serious vs. genre drama" strawman right here, and watch how you decide to knock it down: Is there any difference between asking if a horror show is good, and asking if it's a good horror show? As someone who has no aversions to horror, but can generally take it or leave it, am I even qualified to have a position on The Strain? And where's the line between judging a horror show as horror, and the soft bigotry of low expectations?
Todd: That is an absolutely fascinating question that I am going to reframe in a different way: despite the success of The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and this show, is television even a medium where horror can work? I have had my problems with all of those shows (though the second season of AHS is absolutely sublime), but one of them is that, as you noted, lots of horror characters are mostly there to survive to the next chapter. Yet an ongoing horror series necessarily deprives us of a lot of that tension and release. Characters will die, but it eventually becomes a trope to lean on, rather than a visceral part of the storytelling experience.
Walking Dead sort of gets around this by being set after society has fallen, which allows it to get away with a post-apocalyptic mood that does a lot of the heavy lifting. But The Strain takes place in a world where society is in the process of falling, and that essentially turns it into a series of brief character sketches (which can be effective!) and procedural monster hunting. But the latter of these two options largely involves reading names off a list, it would seem, so it's hard to get invested in.
I'll say this, though: You've made me far more interested in Gus's storyline going forward. Here's hoping the show finds a way to tie all of this together.