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 Kelsey McKinney to discuss why this episode was the Strain episode we've been waiting for.
The episode in one sentence: Vampires lay siege to a convenience store with our heroes trapped inside, and having actual dramatic stakes instantly makes the show that much better, wouldn't you know it.
"Creatures of the Night" was the episode of The Strain we've been waiting for. Every episode of the show — even the fairly dire sixth one — has given just enough of a taste of what this should could be to keep us coming back for more. And though "Creatures of the Night" wasn't the best episode of television ever, it was a legitimately entertaining, fun hour of TV and the best Strain episode yet. That's a low bar to clear, but it really does seem like the show's writers are learning from their mistakes, and that holds promise for the future.
Here are five ways this episode of The Strain was the one we've been waiting for.
1) Actual dramatic stakes, focused on one event
It might seem silly to say this, but adding dramatic stakes to the proceedings instantly improved this episode. The past episodes have been so scattered that they never find time to build momentum, but this one focused, for the most part, on one event, bringing several of the human characters together in a race against time. Enclosed in a convenience store with vampires amassing outside, the majority of the still-human regulars (minus only Gus and Eph's estranged family) attempt to hold off the siege. It's a riff on Howard Hawks's Western classic Rio Bravo or John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, but there's a reason stories like that work: a small band of heroes against overwhelming odds is a story that will always be compelling.
Plus, the episode does a great job of dropping in all sorts of mini-stories about additional peril the characters get up to while trapped in the store. In particular, it does a great job with poor, doomed Jim, who gets nicked by one of the vamps, and, of course, ends up infected by worms and has to be killed (by Vasiliy). This story burbles along so well in the background that it always gives the episode somewhere to go when the siege storyline is getting too staid.
2) It has a sense of humor
Vasiliy is rapidly turning into one of my favorite characters, and he gives the show an increased humor quotient here, with lines like "I'm a looter!" after the CDC employees ask him why he's in a medical supplies store. But this episode has plenty of other great little laugh moments, like Eph's continued refusal to just believe whatever Setrakian tells him about the vampires, and Setrakian's growing irritation with his latest apprentice. A show like this needs to show that it knows this situation is at least a little bit goofy, and "Creatures of the Night" does that.
3) It built up minor characters
"Creatures of the Night" had enough drama to focus entirely on the gang of heroes and ignore the minor participants in the stand-off, but it chose not to. Part of what made the gas station stand-off so believable was that it showed how characters unaware of the growing epidemic would respond in moments of crisis.
A great example of this is the terrified, rule-following gas-station attendant, Hassan, who remains behind the counter the entire episode and demands the group pay for the supplies they loot out of the store. When everyone escapes in the bread truck at the end, Hassan refuses to come with them, choosing, instead, to trust that he will be protected from the vampires behind the bulletproof plastic that separates the counter from the rest of the store.
4) More female characters!
The first season of The Strain has been surprisingly male-dominated for a plot that doesn't necessarily need to be. Most of the female characters up to this point were just women who had slept with Eph (with occasional appearances by Gus's mom). In "Creatures of the Night," the show brings back Dutch, the hacker who shut down the city's internet and phone services. She's a character who seemed like she had disappeared from the show entirely, so it's a bit jarring — though welcome! — for her to pop up again here, even if she has perfectly messy blonde hair.
Though she has her differences with our heroes, she proves a resource and ultimately helps the team escape from the horrible trappings of the gas station. (Her friend, meanwhile, races out into the night and magically doesn't become vampire chow.) While she could easily sleep with Eph and become a stock character down the line, in this episode, she moves the plot and kills a couple of vampires. And she even seems to have a little regret about her role in bringing on the vampire apocalypse. We'll surely return to that in weeks to come.
5) A major character dies
Character deaths are frequently simply used to goose the drama on shows like this, and it's been clear that Jim Kent was going to die from day one, when we learned he was working with Eldritch and Eichorst (though, to his credit, he had no idea what he was helping bring into the country). As we learned last week, there's no room for collaborators in the universe of The Strain, and this means Jim was always going to go.
But at least he got to go out in pretty spectacular fashion. The worms have always been The Strain's creepiest, most surprisingly plausible element, so when Eph ran a UV light over Jim's skin and discovered worms squirming all under the surface, it was an effectively creepy moment. But even better was the way that the argument over whether to kill him seemed at once like something that would really happen (Eph and Nora really do care about Jim) and something that would eventually just be put to an abrupt end. Vasiliy shooting Jim is a great way to drive a rift between the ad hoc vampire-hunting gang that's forming, and it also builds up the Ukrainian as the guy who will do what needs to be done, while everybody else dithers. This is how you make a character death count: use it to build up the other characters, particularly ones we don't know as well.
The last two episodes have given The Strain a definite sense of momentum. Let's see if that can carry through as the season enters its last five episodes.