On The Undead, Terror, And THE STRAIN

Living and undying in the vampire apocalypse.

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In a way, watching a show that explores decaying humankind, deteriorating law enforcement, and vacant, singed streets is indicative of the world we live in today—hopeless, hollow and horrifying. It’s certainly not an upper. But The Strain, co-created by Guillermo del Toro, never tried to appease audiences with tidy endings and likeable characters; it instantly introduced us to a state of doom through characters who, despite all good intentions, couldn’t escape human failure. In fact, the story depended on it.

It was New York City in a scarily near future when passengers onboard a Boeing 777 aircraft arrived at New York’s JFK International Airport and were soon found mysteriously dead upon touching ground. With officials suspecting a contagion, Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (Corey Stoll) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was immediately called in to investigate. He found four survivors on the plane, including one of the pilots, and the nagging suspicion that something eerie and lethal was among them. It wasn’t until the surviving passengers were allowed to leave, against his recommendation, that his suspicion was confirmed when a creature stored in cargo departed the aircraft and escaped into the city. What the audience, and Eph, soon learned was that the creature was carrying an unknown contagion that will soon turn humankind into flesh-eating monsters, vampires with the ability to infect the entire city and the world.

It was a fascinating premise in a sea of apocalyptic small-screen series that view the undead as villains, the terrifying other that they must find a way to escape from or kill. In The Strain, the enemy was one of their own, someone who was just eating at their dinner table, who gave birth to their child, a coworker, and a neighbor. This added an emotional layer that made them hesitate before taking out their weapon, and stopped them dead in their tracks before running in the opposite direction. As a result, each investigation was more calculated, and mandated that Eph and his team, consisting of his colleague Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), former college professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), internet hacker Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) and rat exterminator Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand), took time to devise a plan before they made any moves—even if it meant life or death. Because we met most of the “villains” before they actually turned, we as the audience developed an attachment toward them, so much so that we were conflicted when we saw them become a threat.

Eph’s wife Kelly (Natalie Brown) was a perfect example of a recurring character throughout the series that the team had multiple opportunities to kill. But before she turned, she and Eph were estranged. She had moved on to another relationship and took her son with her. Meanwhile, Eph resented her though still held feelings for her as the mother of his child. Then she turned, and despite her elongated tongue, balding hair, rotting teeth, and bloodshot eyes, there was a softness to her that we couldn’t ignore, as if her true soul could be seen hiding inside a monster. Especially when she was with her son Zach (Max Charles), it was hard not to feel sorry for her. She had to battle her natural instinct to protect him over the much stronger will to attack him. This explained why her character lasted so long on the show. She connected just as much to the human race as she did with the sub-human race in a way that is difficult to come to terms with yet indicative of an actual apocalypse.

As stylized as The Strain was, the series had a very warm, intimate look to it, which made it perfect for the small screen. Ironically so, since del Toro and writing partner Chuck Hogan turned down several opportunities to bring their series of novels to the big screen once they decided to turn it into a book series, citing that they didn’t want it to influence how they were writing the novels. This allowed them to really get into the underbelly of the surviving characters, the forensic diagnosis, and the motivations of the undead. As a result, it became a dense narrative that was easy to break into episodes for the small screen. For example, Abraham’s Holocaust backstory dominated nearly an entire season, and connected to vampire Thomas Eichhorst’s (Richard Sammel), who was a Nazi in his former life. On top of that, there was a recurring storyline around Augustin "Gus" Elizalde (Miguel Gomez), a gang member recently out of juvenile prison, grieving over his mother who had viciously turned and a city he no longer recognizes. Admittedly, it was a lot to tack onto a series that was already dealing with navigating the medical and sociological depression of the apocalypse. It got convoluted and dragged the show along for too long.

But the series found its way back to top form in its final season, its bleakest yet, as the characters reckoned with their own fates after a disaster left them ostracized from each other and utterly hopeless. Anger had mixed with apathy and soon they all became the versions of themselves they used to fear. The Strain showed how people react in times of crisis and despair. We saw the worst in people, but we also saw the fighters, the ones who pushed for answers and rejected the status quo. We saw the people who presented themselves as the heroes and the ones who could no longer hold on in this world. Kelly, the mother and inherent nurturer, turned into a decomposed shell of herself. Eph, consumed with the authority of medicine and public policy as well as white male entitlement, decided he was going to be the hero. Meanwhile, Abraham, Dutch and Fet are dealt with their own personal battles of redemption and agony. At the end, it was gut-wrenching, nasty, and utterly beautiful to watch.

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