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TV Review: The Strain, Season 2

The Strain

Following their failed attempt to destroy the Master--the root of the vampire plague overtaking Manhattan--our heroes must regroup and come up with new plans. Even the Master must rethink his strategy and recover from his wounds, and as the chess board is rearranged, the sophomore season of Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse's The Strain comes to life.

Where the first season was about holding on to the things and people we love, this time the show turns its focus to greed, with nearly every plot and subplot focused on how our base desires get in our own way. Each of our characters undergoes a transformation of sorts--some more literal than others--and each must decide what it is that they want most in the chaos around them. It is in these characters where the greatest strength of the show lies, and though they are stretched and bent in various ways, each of them still rings true to the characters we were introduced to last year.

Our primary protagonist, Ephraim Goodweather, takes a decidedly dark turn by embracing his alcoholism and womanizing ways in order to cope with the responsibility he bears. He even becomes a murderer (and tries to also become an assassin) before finally turning around and seeking redemption through those closest to him. It is a rough ride, and a difficult one to sympathize with at times, but hopefully we'll see a more determined Eph next time around. He and Nora succeed early on in creating a weaponized virus that can kill vampires but spare humans, but this victory is hindered every step of the way by Eldritch Palmer and the machinations of the Master. Most distressingly, his son, Zack, is being hunted by his undead mother. Zack's understandable inability to fully accept that this creature is not his mother is a frequent source of frustration and risk, and it climaxes in the season's biggest cliffhanging moment.

With great angst comes great baldness

Next up is Abraham Setrakian, the vampire hunter who has spent nearly his entire life sacrificing everything in order to avenge himself upon the Master and must now cope with his failures. We learn a few surprising things about him--not the least of which is the explanation for his age discrepency--and get a few more flashbacks that work remarkably well to flesh out the details. He takes up the quest to find a mysterious book called the "Occido Lumen," an ancient tome that supposedly lays out all the secrets of the vampires, including, he hopes, a way to defeat them. He is given the search for this book by the Ancients, a trio of old vampires we met at the end of Season 1. At first, it seems that Setrakian, Gus, and Vaun will be on this quest together, but Vaun is killed in a failed assault on Eldritch Palmer, Setrakian goes his own way, and Gus is reluctant to answer to anyone.

Unfortunately, Gus' story once again feels largely irrelevant, despite the set-up at the end of Season 1. After failing to take out Palmer, he decides to spend time at an Indian restaraunt, flirting with the waitress, rather than doing anything important. He meets a potentially interesting character in Angel, a retired actor with a bum knee who used to make pulp movies about fighting the forces of darkness (including vampires) while wearing a luchador mask and calling himself Angel de la Plata (the Silver Angel). Angel and Gus eventually form an alliance under Vaun's replacement, Quinlan (more on him later), but aside from being the surprise backup for Setrakian in the final episode, they don't actually do anything of note.

The auction
Believe it or not, the climax of the season is an auction

Probably the best transformation, though, is of the Master. His body was badly burned by the sun during the battle at the end of Season 1, so he must transfer his essence to a new form, and he chooses the goth-rock-star-turned-vampire Gabriel Bolivar (Jack Kesy). As Bolivar, the Master finally looks intimidating and frightening instead of looking like a man in a rubber suit, and with less need for visual effects to guide him, he is able to be more visible throughout the season. His loyal servant, Eichorst, feels spurned by this, but hides it well, eventually deciding to take out his frustration on Dutch Velders, whom he holds captive, tortures, and plans to devour in the show's most horrifying sequences to date.

Alas, that is the only time Dutch Velders is sympathetic or interesting. The show spends far too much time on a tiresome love traingle between her, Vasiliy Fet, and her thought-to-be-dead-but-of-course-she's-still-alive lover Nikki. This romantic tension serves to make both Dutch and Fet less engaging, and even though it is broken up briefly during her captivity, it takes up almost the entirety of their character "development" this season.

This is what fast-forward was designed for

There are a couple of new players in the game, however, and they do a good job taking up the slack. First you have the ambitious and over-the-top councilwoman Justine Feraldo (Samantha Mathis). She is determined to take the fight to the vampires, and after she succeeds in cleaning up Staten Island, she goes to Red Hook and purges the menace there. She's not a clear-cut hero, however. It's fun to see her take on the one-percenters of the upper east side by taxing them before she'll promise to help, but when she all but declares Martial Law behind an ornate desk in a large cathedral-esque bank while dozens of armed lackies appraise personal items, it's hard not to see the obvious historical parallels, even before they are vocalized by the show's resident Holocaust survivor.

Eldritch Palmer also gets a love interest, no doubt as a side effect of suddenly being fit and healthy for the first time in his life. Upon their first meeting, Palmer hires Coco Marchand (Lizzie Brocheré) as his personal assistant and immediately begins courting her. They get close enough that she eventually learns all about his alliance with the vampires and encourages him to assert his will against the Master, with predictable consequences. This love story isn't as exhausting or irritating as the Dutch-Fet-Nikki triangle--probably because Brocheré delivers a wonderful performance--but it still feels a bit forced. The villain love story in Netflix's Daredevil is much, much better.

My new favorite character

The final newcomer is easily the best. With Vaun dead, the Ancients turn to another of their kind, a half-breed named Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones). He can walk in the daylight, speaks with an authoritative English accent, carries a sword with a bone handle, and started his life as a gladiator in Ancient Rome. He and the Ancients are clearly not friends, but he agrees to help them, only because he has been hunting the Master for centuries for reasons unknown (at least to those of us who haven't finished the books). He quickly tracks down the Master, but their first confrontation is cut short by the ludicrously poor timing (and silly writing) of Fet's attempts to bomb the Master into oblivion. Still, he manages to steal every scene he's in, with blood lust, brutality, and a faint smile.

The overall story holds it own well and follows the template of the first season, with each episode focusing on a handful of characters at a time. Still, without the mystery that started with the plane in the first season, the show's weak pacing and meandering plot threads are more apparent than ever, with a few episodes doing little more than treading water. Councilwoman Feraldo's attempts to take back Manhattan aren't as compelling as the writers seem to think they are, Eph's mid-season visit to D.C. to enact his plan doesn't hold a lot of suspense since it's obviously doomed to fail, and the love stories drag down an already sluggish narrative. When the action picks up, though, it delivers in spades, and the final two episodes (directed by Vincenzo Natali) make the wait more than worth it.

Kelly and the Feelers
That's some creepy crap right there

The practical special effects are also quite good--even better than the first season--but there is far too much questionable CG on display alongside it. One of the creepy additions this season is a brood of turned blind children ("Feelers") under the control of the vampire Kelly. They climb walls, spring and sprint around with ease, and are much more difficult to kill than your average vampire. Unfortunately, much of what makes them so notable are the terrible, laughable visual effects. When they bounce around, they look more like hand-drawn animation than anything else, and it's just embarrasing. Hopefully they will get a better CG team as the show will inevitably rely more and more on it going forward.

Basically, if you liked the first season, there's no reason to stay away from the second. It's not a show that is likely to attract many newcomers, but it does a good job maintaining quality and being as original as it can be given the premise. Still, the slow pace is more aggravating than ever, and some of the subplots are just stupid. Also, since the main thrust of the season is the acquisition of a book nobody fully understands the importance of, it can be a little less than compelling.


This season is entertaining and well-made enough to keep fans of The Strain around for the next one, but the series' cracks are definitely starting to show

-e. magill 10/8/2015

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