Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 23 through 29 is “The Blood Tax,” the second episode of the fourth and final season of FX’s The Strain.
What gives a dystopian scenario resonance? We’ve always loved fantasizing about the end of the world — especially in the past 70-plus years, as the invention of the atomic bomb actually gave us the means to bring that end about. But some apocalypses are more popular than others.
The Walking Dead, for instance. Why was that such a massive hit when so many other apocalyptic series over the last several years have fallen flat? Or think about The Handmaid’s Tale, which has hit a cultural nerve. Why that show? Why not another?
The flip side of this question works, too. Certainly FX’s vampire-infested The Strain has been successful on some level. It’s lasted four seasons, after all, and will get to come to its planned conclusion. Indeed, at its very beginning, its creators said they saw the series as running “three to five seasons,” and this is right in line with that.
But it’s hard to argue the series has made any larger cultural impact. I love its brazen stupidity and campy sense of self, but at Comic-Con, I sat in on a panel and when the series’ star Richard Sammel entered the room to implore everyone to watch The Strain, you could hear the wheels turning in the audience members’ heads. The Strain? they seemed to think. What’s that?
At one time, FX saw The Strain as its answer to The Walking Dead. Now, it’s ending in a fashion where its last season premiere was scheduled on the same night as the seventh season premiere of Game of Thrones, underlining how little attention it’s expected to draw from the general viewing public. What happened here?
On some level, the most popular dystopian fiction is about feeling a little bit smug
Let me hasten to remind you that I do, on some level, enjoy The Strain. It’s trashy TV, but it’s fun. It generally knows how stupid it is, and it can build dramatic stakes when it really wants to. The height of this approach came at the end of season three, when the show’s worst character (whiny child Zack) blew up the Statue of Liberty with an atomic bomb — something that apparently triggered a global nuclear war somehow. (Don’t think about it too much, is my advice.)
But there’s always been something a little weightless about The Strain, no matter how hard it tried to make itself matter. It would do storylines set in World War II concentration camps, or try to compare and contrast its vampire threat with the Nazis, and it all felt too pulpy to really hit home. Why did the show struggle so much to land with audiences?
The more I think about this, the more I think that The Strain suffers from being insufficiently connected to real world events. It’s trying here in season four, God bless it, but it’s too little too late.
Most of the truly lasting dystopian stories function, on some level, as warnings, often of a political stripe. The Handmaid’s Tale is an obvious example. Nobody genuinely thinks Donald Trump is going to create a throwback theocracy, but the fear that he doesn’t respect women one iota (outside of maybe his daughter) is omnipresent. Similarly, as I’ve written about here, The Walking Dead is, on some level, a story about the assault on small-town values by an endless horde of outside influences. I don’t think this means it’s an anti-Obama tale — but I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Trump campaign targeted Walking Dead viewers in particular back in 2016.
This means that the dystopias we typically care about are ones that let us be a little smug about the correctness of our way of life. That can’t be all they offer — good storytelling and compelling characters and interesting filmmaking will always win the day — but The Walking Dead worked because it was (perhaps accidentally) about something people were actually worried about, right now in the 2010s, while The Strain is stuck trying to turn its vampiric world into a metaphor for past atrocities.
The irony in this, of course, is that Nazis might have seemed like cornball villains when the show launched in 2014, but they feel very present in 2017 — yet the show has mostly moved past them. The weird thing about the show is that its metaphorical collapse of society is all about affluent urban areas suddenly finding themselves under assault from unlikely foes, then cracking under the pressure. That, at least theoretically, could play to more people in our post-Trump world.
But just as the world has seemingly caught up to make The Strain accidentally relevant, it’s pivoted to become about something else entirely.
#Resist (the vampires)
The Strain has never, ever known what to do with the women in its cast, having killed off one after the other in a variety of ways meant to motivate its various men. The sole exception has been Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas), who was introduced in a throwaway part as a computer hacker, then gradually came to be one of the show’s few important women, simply by virtue of compelling screen presence. She’s been everything from a vampire hunter to one point in a needlessly bland love triangle, and at every turn, the show has utilized the character poorly, but Gedmintas keeps giving it her all.
After leaving Dutch out of the fourth season premiere, “The Blood Tax” catches up with her. She’s being held in a forced breeding camp, which is at once worth an eye roll (the show sent its one woman off to a bland Handmaid’s Tale riff?) and worth some interest, because Gedmintas gets a lot to do and handles all of it with aplomb. You can see where she might be a genuine TV star once she’s off this show and allowed to let in a little more light.
I don’t precisely know when The Strain shot this season — probably in early 2017 — but it’s been deeply apparent that the show is hoping to capitalize on some sort of tie to the hashtag-Resistance. (At one point in “The Blood Tax,” elderly vampire hunter Setrakian says, “We want to believe that progress is lasting, universal. We want to believe this so badly that we let down our guard, and our own evil crept back into us.”) And because it’s pretty clearly set up its vampires in the past as a metaphor for fascism, there’s room to maneuver within this basic setup.
But for the most part, The Strain’s vampire-ruled world seems like a riff on what might happen if the worst possible elements of socially liberal vulture capitalism took over the world (even more than they already have). The season even opens with an ominous fake ad for “The Partnership” — between the ruling vampires and collaborationist humans — that emphasizes the harmony and diversity of accepting all walks of life, as it tries to gloss over the fact that the vampires are attempting to bump humanity one step down the food chain.
There’s something potent in the idea of corporate doublespeak infecting this universe, of companies saying the right things in order to cover up their own horrible actions. And it’s not as if our world doesn’t have a fair amount of that as well. But it’s constantly at odds with the show’s desire to simultaneously play itself up as part of the Resistance against Trump, without really being sure what it’s trying to #Resist within the universe of The Strain (beyond the idea that vampires are probably bad news). It’s a whole bunch of metaphors, at odds with each other, unable to coalesce around a single, central point.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The show is more tightly plotted — in its own agreeably idiotic way — than ever before, and when, say, Dutch nearly breaks free of the breeding center, only to go back on that possibility to save a newfound friend, there’s some legitimate tension.
But if I’m asking why The Strain didn’t break through in the way FX clearly hoped it would, that metaphorical confusion has to come front and center. The Strain so desperately wanted to be about something from the very first that it tried to be about everything. Better to blunder into relevance as The Walking Dead did than throw yourself heedlessly after every new political resonance that comes along.