I’ve proclaimed that The Strain has become the best, dumbest version of itself so many times now — only to immediately get burned — that I wanted to hold off saying anything about season three until it was over.
But guess what? The Strain has never been as good as it was for the vast majority of its third season, which was mostly about the characters trying to hunt down a giant red worm. (Television!)
The season built logically to one final confrontation. It was packed with dramatic reversals. The frequent flashbacks to the characters’ past still felt a bit out of place, but at least they were better executed.
And the show was mercifully without many of the most revolting moments that had made earlier seasons an occasionally gruesome chore. It had, in short, figured out how to be the good kind of gory, rather than simply tossing gross situations at the audience for the sake of having gross situations.
All of that culminated in a season finale that seemed weirdly knowing about how the audience feels about the show — right down to having everybody’s least favorite character bring on the literal apocalypse because he’s being a shitty little baby. Even bigger spoilers than that one follow.
The world ends; The Strain goes on
The Strain’s preseason promotional campaign — featuring a Statue of Liberty vamped out with one of the long stinger tongues that all of the show’s vampires have — turned out to be a weird bit of foreshadowing. The finale concluded with a scene in which a nuclear device planted in the statue obliterated it, covering New York in the sort of all-day cloud cover that will allow the vampires to take over the city and maybe the world.
The show reaches what may be the height of its goofiness when all of its characters stand and watch the mushroom cloud rise into the sky, not only still alive but seemingly unworried about taking shelter or avoiding fallout. Sure, one of them mentions that "we’d better get underground," but c’mon. They’d be goners if they were that close to the blast.
But other than that, I loved everything about this twist — one that people who’ve read the series’ source novels knew was coming. I love the way The Strain treats the detonation of a nuclear bomb as just another shitty thing that can happen. I love the final shots of the vampires streaming out from the underground. I love how the characters are on the verge of sending the villainous Master to the bottom of the sea before the bomb blows up and foils their plan.
But most of all, I love that the reason the bomb explodes is that Zach — son of series protagonist Eph and the worst character in the history of FX dramas, maybe — is mad that his dad killed his mom. Yes, The Strain offed yet another of its rapidly depleting number of female characters, but this struggle (between ex-husband and ex-wife turned vampire) has defined the entire series so far. Eph killing Kelly before she could drink his blood felt like the most justified character death the show has ever pulled off.
Or maybe I’m just saying that because the show had Zach witness everything and then tearfully pull the trigger on the bomb. It’s as if the show knows how many of its viewers can’t stand Zach and went full troll on them. It was glorious.
The finale also let the good guys succeed — for a time
By far the most fun elements of The Strain’s third season were the ever-shifting allegiances among vampire expert Abraham Setrakian, vampire enabler Eldritch Palmer, and vampire Thomas Eichhorst.
These three are the oldest players in the game, with the least to lose (since they’re dying soon anyway), and they’re playing for keeps. (It doesn’t hurt that they’re portrayed by some of the series’ best actors.)
The finale confronted the trio’s fickle loyalties with a wild ride that saw Palmer finally break with Eichhorst and the Master for good, setting up an ambush where Setrakian and his allies could take out the Master (and the giant red vampire worm that is his essence) once and for all.
The Master had his immense power and his secret weapon — that nuclear bomb — but Setrakian had his advantages too. Namely: the element of surprise, an elaborate system rigged to disrupt the Master’s psychic messaging to his followers, and the half-human, half-vampire hybrid Quinlan (who is basically the Master’s son, something viewers learned earlier in the season in a particularly elaborate flashback episode). It seemed like the two sides would finally engage in a fair fight.
But the Master and Eichhorst flipped things around in the last minute — with the Master possessing Palmer’s body and learning where Palmer had stashed the bomb, as well as many of the group’s other plans.
The desperate showdown that followed had something The Strain doesn’t always possess: actual stakes, where I really wanted the good guys to win, even as I knew The Strain has a fourth (and final) season coming, so they probably wouldn’t. It felt like a genuinely fun, involving TV series, if only for a little bit.
What worked here was something the show has tried before, in season one, but not nearly as successfully: Setrakian’s crew actually won for a little bit, imprisoning the Master in a coffin he couldn’t escape from and preparing to send him to the bottom of the sea. But then Zach got snotty and blew up the world.
I don’t want to tell you The Strain is essential television or anything like that, but in its third season, I think it finally figured out that the best version of The Strain is the silliest, goofiest version of The Strain. I’ve watched many, many better TV shows this year, but I’m not sure I’ve watched one I had as much fun laughing at — or with.