[This is a review of The Strain season 2, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
As a general rule, kids on TV can be the worst. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but unless a show is devoted to telling the story of a young person, kids typically serve one of two purposes: to occasionally be in peril, or to ground another character in the role of parent. To make matters worse, in genre fiction they are typically written in such a “kids these days” manner that their every move and decision is motivated completely by selfishness and the inability to see the world from any perspective other than their own. The problem is compounded when child characters are deliberately written to be the worst (please see every teen and pre-teen character in any Howard Gordon production during the last 10 years), and yet the writing of them is often so bad that it’s almost impossible to enjoy the kid based on his or her awfulness.
That has certainly been the case with The Strain, which in its third episode, ‘Fort Defiance,’ makes a strong case for young Zach Goodweather to assume the mantle of The Worst Character on Television.
To clarify, very little of Zach Goodweather’s horribleness has to do with the actor portraying him. Yes, Max Charles is a little one-note in most of his scenes, and his range of facial expressions has only two modes: haughty self-righteousness and sociopathic sneer. But considering the material he’s been given, the limitations of his performance are hardly his fault.
In a show marked by its willingness to portray people who should otherwise be very smart as very stupid and prone to repeatedly doing stupid things, young Zach has quickly surpassed his fellow vampire apocalypse survivors in the category of repeatedly doing stupid stuff. The worst part of Zach becoming The Worst Character on Television is not just that he runs off at inopportune moments (i.e., literally any time of day or night), or that he smashes up his dad’s lab because Ephraim is cooking up a plague to wipe out the vampires (meaning mom could potentially be a victim); it’s that Zach’s actions and his motivations are so clearly a facile attempt to imbue a mostly inert father-son relationship with some semblance of drama.
Sure, Zach is young and entitled and in the midst of a pandemic turning people into worm-infested vampires. He’s also just lost his mother, so anyone would cut a kid some slack for having a difficult time processing his situation. Heck, most people would cut the kid some slack on account of his father being a raging alcoholic who recently became roommates with a ragtag group of individuals, one of whom walks around with a sword cane and “gets the red in,” by dripping pulverized vampire worms into his eyes.
That is all to say, Zach’s situation should make the audience sympathetic to his plight, so why does he come off as such an unpleasant character?
Perhaps the answer lies in the way the character is actually written. The show is built around the framework of a bad situation getting worse. The appeal of these kinds of shows is in watching characters overcome the seemingly intractable hurdle of a world turned against them. Victories both big and small are what make the characters in shows like The Strain (and, similarly, The Walking Dead) both relatable and watchable – after all, who hasn’t eked out some minor, and in the grand scheme of things, insignificant victory during the day only to feel like you’ve just slain Goliath?
In that sense, characters that act as an impediment to the achievement of such victories, or as an unnecessary, dead-end digression in terms of the progression of the storyline, tend to be viewed as obnoxious and unlikeable, even when they’re meant to be (at least partially) sympathetic. Zach is certainly guilty of that, but then again, so is everyone else on the show. What makes Zach stand out is that his actions have absolutely nothing to do with the progression of the narrative; they only fuel the flames of animosity for a character who should serve as the heart and moral compass of the adults around him, especially as they sink deeper into a violent, disturbing situation.
In other words, the moment when Eph forces Zach to be face-to-face with a muzzled vampire should have elicited pangs of sympathy for the kid, and questions of Eph’s effectiveness as a father. Instead, watching as a child is shown the harsh realities of his situation feels like a win because the show has gone out of its way to make him so unlikeable for the past three episodes.
For the most part, The Strain works as high camp. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, so when Samantha Mathis’ Justina Feraldo declares Staten Island a vampire-free zone and presents decapitated vampire corpses like she’s unveiling a Bansky mural, it all comes with a wink and a nod. The show even asks its audience to take Dutch Velders’ (Ruta Gedmintas) castigation by her former lover’s mother with a grain of salt, so why can’t Zach have the same leeway?
Perhaps its because the show is convinced that Ephraim and Zach’s troubled relationship is the dramatic core of what is essentially a goofy take on an apocalyptic scenario. The show knows it’s silly and tempers that with some effective flashes of dark humor (if anyone recalls Gabriel Bolivar’s loss of a certain appendage from last season, you know what I’m talking about). But for whatever reason, it hasn’t figured out how to raise its dramatic stakes above “people might die on account of all the vampires roaming around.” It desperately wants Eph and Zach to carry the narrative’s emotional weight in order to raise those stakes, but the more unlikeable these characters become, the less anyone is going to care when they’re faced with life-threatening danger.
The Strain is the kind of series that should pride itself on being defiantly unlike anything else on television. And in order to do that, it must first refrain from doing what so many other television shows do: resort to making a child character insufferable as a way of superficially complicating the situation of the adults around him.
The Strain continues next Sunday with ‘The Silver Angel’ @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Michael Gibson/FX