The episode in one sentence: Setrakian leads a voyage into the depths of the New York subway system, in hopes of killing the Master, which goes about as well as you'd expect.
The Strain has obviously become a much better show in the second half of its first season — to the degree that it's actually possible to look forward to it as something other than a show to make fun of — but it still hasn't been all that scary, which is definitely a problem for a show about vampires taking over the world. It's fared much better when it leans into the more action-heavy side of itself, as in the terrific eighth episode.
But "The Third Rail" actually manages the trick of being uneasy, unsettling, and, yes, downright scary. Some of that involves cribbing from other, better horror stories. Some of it involves the sense of dread the series has impressively built over the back half of the season. And some of it is just the inherent claustrophobia of abandoned subway tunnels.
But whatever the inspiration, here are five scenes where The Strain finally made good on its scary promises.
1) Vasiliy's tight squeeze
In many ways, the scene where Vasiliy squeezes through a tiny tunnel in a subway wall with a vampire in hot pursuit is a remix of several elements from Neil Marshall's superior horror film The Descent. But it's such a thrillingly handled one that it's easy to just let go and enjoy it on its own terms.
A big part of this is the work of director Deran Sarafian, who uses the kinda goofy makeup of the show's vampires to his advantage. Filmed in night-vision, scrabbling toward the camera, the vampire coming after Vasiliy looks less like a former human being and more like a ravenous creature, and Sarafian taps into the part of your brain that has nightmares about some thing coming after you, right when you fall down or get your foot stuck or simply can't move. And the monster is coming, closer and closer and closer. It's great stuff.
2) Zack's upward climb
Despite being a child, Zack is a largely reasonable character who typically does what he's told — despite his immense curiosity for what his father is planning and his deep love for his mother's iPhone. In this episode, Zack leaves safety to go get cigarettes for Nora's mother.
Being a child, two twentysomethings ravaging a convenience store for food frighten him, and send him off to hide in a dark basement — which, of course, has a vampire in it. In his surprise, he loses his grip on the phone and chooses to retrieve it, instead of running (because he loves his mom, we suppose). The few moments afterward are terrifying not only because Zack is one of the few characters that is easy to invest in, but because the scene is frequently directed from his (notably shorter) eye-level, making all surprises that much more surprising. And whoever's idea it was to have him be forced to climb up a ramp designed to get things down into the basement by being made of spinning cylinders was inspired. It adds some great tension.
The Zack scenes also nicely drive home just how horrible things have gotten in New York. The city really does seem to be coming apart at the seams now, and if the show's slow-boil approach to the apocalypse was frustrating in the early going, it's finally paying dividends.
3) Eph meets the Master
Remember that goofy vampire makeup mentioned above? Yeah, it might be even goofier when it's on the Master, who looks sort of like Flukeman, one of the more famous monsters from The X-Files. But you know what? The scene where Eph finally meets the show's chief bad guy wasn't there to make us find the Master more interesting, or anything like that. It was designed to have him get inside our hero's head — and by extension, ours.
It accomplishes this handily, with Robin Atkin Downes' voice work finally getting a chance to really shine. His vaguely European accent suggests something of what the Master's heritage was before he turned (if, indeed, he turned and wasn't just created this way), and his sheer savagery when it comes to elucidating all of the ways he will punish the puny man he holds in his grip raises the stakes handily. It also makes the moment when Setrakian strides in, sword at the ready, that much more potent, because there's no way this old man can take down this giant figure. Our heroes are screwed.
4) Gus finds his mom
One of the biggest problems with The Strain is that it has often struggled to find the balance between its vampires being scary creatures and them calling back to the people they were, people who had friends and loved ones.
That balance is perfectly achieved, however, when Gus returns home still in his prison jumpsuit to find that his brother has been turned into a vampire. After a nicely choreographed and brutal fight sequence ends in Gus' brother's death, Gus reluctantly ventures to the back of the house where he finds his newly vamped mother resting in a closet, rather than confront the sun. His reaction is heartbreaking, but it's also terrifying. Is there anything worse than having your mother turned into a vampire who is now trying to kill you?
That may explain why Gus meets up with Zack at the convenience store. It's a nod toward where the kid is going after his own mom was transformed.
5) Walking through a room full of sleeping vampires
This sequence in and of itself wasn't particularly creepy, since it came so early in the episode (when it was reasonable to assume the characters would survive) and since it hearkened back to many other variations of this scene from other scary tales (perhaps most famously the one in The Birds).
But this scene was great for calling attention to something that the show has handled very well — the sound design for the vampires, who often sound like dolphins clicking and humming as they communicate with each other. It's all vaguely reminiscent of the fungal zombies in the video game The Last of Us, but there's also, at least in this scene, a fair amount of the Two-Headed Monster's snoring on Sesame Street. These vampires just sound unearthly, and that's helped make them seem like alien beings much more than anything else the show has done.