No pilot season is perfect.
[Warning! This article contains spoilers for the first season of The Strain.]
So the first season of the The Strain ended with 13 episodes on October 5 last year. My personal opinion about the TV series are somewhat mixed but ultimately not so positive. But seeing as it’s my own personal opinion, you’re free to contradict me on the points that I’m about to make.
The novel, also entitled The Strain (co-written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan) was a delight to read. But that was on paper, and the TV show had a lot of things that made it disappointing and painfully average, especially when it neared the end.
When The Strain started airing, it was OK, nothing so special, although on the first few episodes, it was pretty clear that there’s something to look forward to and that it will make the show special. Sadly, the first season struggled to show everyone else that deserved more exposure and there’s a particularly long stint early on in the show where viewers are dragged through cringe-worthy, mundane happenings before getting to the good part.
But in spite of the many flaws, there were also some good aspects to the first season that shouldn’t be ignored.
A mysterious passenger aircraft lands at the John F. Kennedy International Airport with the shades drawn and the lights off. All communication channels have mysteriously gone quiet as well, as if the plane is “dead”.
CDC head of the rapid-response team Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (portrayed by Corey Stoll) along with his team are sent to investigate, fearing biological threats. What Eph and his team discovered inside the darkened plane was blood-curdling: 206 dead passengers and only 4 survivors.
In an unsuspecting city, a horrendous contagion has come to break the peace – and destroy humanity as we know it. An unstoppable plague is set to spread like wildfire –ravenous, ruthless… and vampiric.
Eph, along with a small group of people, find themselves battling to protect not only their loved ones, but the entire city of New York, from a powerful creature that threatens humanity.
The Elements of Horror
Before anything else, you should know that The Strain is a horror show. Del Toro himself directed the pilot season, so the horror elements were established from the start as the strongest aspect of the show. Even when the show lulled, it was filled with thrills and chills, with near-death experiences and shocking turn of events that make you wonder who’s going to remain human at the end of the season.
Scenes like the young Emma Arnot returning home and sucking out all the blood from her father can be pretty haunting. There are also some episodes that amp up some of the tension and make you fear for the characters.
The vampires – referred to asstrigoi in the show – aren’t your usual blood-sucking vampires. Compared to other depictions of vampires, strigoiaren’t so elegant and deceivingly angelic. Rather, they’re monstrous, pale-skinned, hairless creatures with long, retractable “stingers” coming from their throat. These are vampires that slaughter and kill without hesitation.
There are some scenes where strigoihobble around and work almost on instinct, attacking and infecting humans. They’re just like zombies, shuffling about and attacking anyone who’s not like them. The way thestrigoiact and move about make the concept of vampires even more haunting and more dangerous than ever before.
It’s also a delight to see that the low-level caste of vampires in The Strain don’t have any special powers. Instead, they’re more concerned about infecting others and carrying out their Master’s orders.
The Story and the Structure
Perhaps one of the major downfalls of The Strain’s first season was the pacing of the story. For most of the first season, things just didn’t feel right or even. There were 13 episodes, and while every episode showed astrigoi, it wasn’t until mid-season when the creatures posed a real threat to society. In fact, in the first half of the show, there were only a few odd strigoiwandering around New York City, likely only turning random people in the streets.
It was not until in Episode 6: Occultation when the entire city dipped into chaos – only that it wasn’t well-depicted for a huge city like New York(however, that’s a problem I can overlook). Simply put, the first five episodes deal with the problems of Eph and his small group. This includes Eph’s failed marriage (and his issue with alcoholism).
The point is that the first few episodes of the first season was a tad bit sluggish, mainly focusing on how a human transforms into a strigoi. It’s important, of course, but it doesn’t have to cover a lot of episodes just to highlight how drastic the physical change was. I believe it’s not necessary to spend so much time on characters that would ultimately turn into strigoi, with the viewers saying “Oh, I remember that guy.” It’s a foolish idea when considering that, apart from a handful of identifiable strigoi, most of them are barely recognizable.
Thankfully, the first season of The Strain veered away from depicting humans killing humans, focusing instead on the true essence of the story: the ancient threat that is plaguing humanity.
Now, we come to biggest flaw in the show: the characters.
Let’s be honest, a lot of the characters, particularly the “good guys”, came off rather annoying and difficult to get on with. Not to mention a bunch of characters that we spent so much time focusing on early in the season, only for them to end up turning into strigoi, set aside and ignored for the rest of the season, and turning into nothing more than the Master’s servants.
Take for example the four plane ‘survivors’. Viewers spent roughly four episodes watching as these characters gradually turned into husks of their former selves, transforming into mindless beasts. It was tragic, yes, but it was hard to sympathize with them (except maybe for the pilot), especially when they’re more obnoxious before they even turned. The show focused on these characters and their negative traits, so much so that it’s hard to feel for them once they became strigoi.
Pathetic Good Guys
Most of the other characters also struggled. This is largely in part of the story’s sluggish pacing, as well as how some of the characters acted foolishly, majority of which are the protagonists.
Let’s suppose a strigoiwalks up to you and you need to chop off its head. Any normal, unsuspecting person would, at first, be skeptical. The initial reactions of Eph and Dr. Martinez (Mia Maestro),Eph’s“closest” ally, were quite understandable. They reacted in a way you’d expect normal people would, especially when Prof. Setrakian (David Bradley) proclaimed that something terrible is about to come.
For two doctors who are trained to believe something based on a scientific evidence, it was just the beginning of an outbreak. Yes, it was potentially fatal, but not so bad as to cause people to behead other people. Their reaction, however, was not appropriate even after they had seen how one of the plane survivors deteriorated as they monitored his condition. It was only when they were attacked by the strigoi, with its monstrous sting-like appendage sprouting from its mouth that prompted Ephand his companions to change their tune. They saw and examined what happened to the victim, and witnessed first-hand (and even recorded the incident on video) that they were dangerous, yet it took them another few episodes before they have come to realize what’s really going on.
In a viewer’s standpoint, Dr. Goodweather and his group looked stupid, and it was frustrating to watch. The show wants us to have the characters grow to accept the struggle, but it took so long before they have come to accept that they need to go and kill others in order to survive. Even at the end of the season, you can still feel Dr. Martinez’s hesitance, seemingly incapable of understanding that it truly was a necessity to kill in order to survive.
Then we have cool guys like Fet (Kevin Durand) and Gus (Miguel Gomez). The two were easily my favorite characters, as far as the first season of the show is concerned. They light up the atmosphere the moment they appear, reveling in what was happening around them. Ephand Dr. Martinez, it didn’t take long for these guys to cope with the situation. They fought from the very beginning, immediately recognizing the threat instead of just sitting around and waiting for other possibilities. Gus and Fet are some of the most interesting characters in the show because they were a total badass despite things going wrong for them.
Amazing Bad Guys
On the other side of the spectrum, the bad guys in the show have surprisingly delivered more value and satisfaction than the good guys.
Take Eichorst (Richard Sammel), for example. He’s a former Nazi who turned and became the Master’s right hand. Eichorst was a real meanie (and an extremely charismatic one, too), whether it’s the flashbacks from World War II or the present. In fact, his character reminded me of Christoph Waltz’s role as Standartenführer Hans Landa in the movie Inglorious Basterds. He’s the kind of guy you’d hate to love – a joy to watch with that cold, calm demeanor.
Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), the dying billionaire who’s helping the Master through his influence, would have been an awesome character, but he got the best bits at the end of the season, which kind of ended the suspense prematurely. He was amazing as a sick old man seeking for immortality, even if it means sacrificing the world. We actually got a glimpse of what was left of his morality during his encounters with the Master. But of course, he was also the best thing in the season finale. It was an amazing and rare moment in The Strain.
Then there’s the Master. As the main antagonist of the show, his revelation came unexpectedly early, at least in my opinion. Like many other characters from del Toro’s works, the Master’s design was excellent. He’s kind of like a tribute to Nosferatu, perhaps a bit campy but he’s just as good. The mystery behind this ancient evil was quickly dissolved, though, so by the end of the season, it felt like watching just another monster in just another monster show. I’m looking forward to more back story and proper characterization in the second season. That would be awesome, right?
Second Season: What’s In It for Us?
Despite already covering most of the first two books, the TV show revealed little of the inner workings of the strigoi and how exactly their system works. In fact, we still have no idea how it works. The season finale left us with uncertainty of what these monstrous creatures are really capable of and what they can withstand. It was pretty clear that the Master didn’t die even when he was exposed to sunlight, giving us a good enough reason to look forward to the second season. Hopefully, this will bring about more interesting stories with the Master directly.
So far, we only know little of the Master’s true intentions. In fact, the only thing that’s clear right now is that he’s clearly defying the will of the Ancients. Speaking of which, I’m looking forward to seeing more of these Ancients and their group of militaristic vampires who seem to be far more intelligent than the Master’s horde of mindless servants. Other characters, like Gus, have joined the band, so expect more screen time for this guy. For now, we’re looking forward to seeing less of Dr. Goodweather’s group and their folly, and more of the Master and the Ancients.
What do you think of the first season of The Strain?