As FX's vampire saga The Strain heads into its final season, it puts its heroes on the wrong side of a losing battle with delightfully campy results.
After three seasons of wondering what a catastrophic vampire apocalypse might look like, FX and Guillermo del Toro's grisly, often campy horror series The Strain jumps to the other side of that "What if?" question it has been teasing for so long. The series' fourth and final season picks up nine months after a nuclear explosion, brought about by Zack Goodweather, the insufferably petulant son of Corey Stoll's central protagonist, Ephraim Goodweather, effectively giving the vampires (or strigoi) the upper hand in a slowly progressing battle and plunging the world into nuclear winter. The result is, in its final season, the series at last has the chance to live up to its potential, delivering the kind of absolutely desperate situation and high stakes scenario it never quite managed to venture into before.
The first three seasons of The Strain were more or less an unnecessary exercise in restraint. The series teetered frequently on the verge of an actual apocalypse, but typically settled for delivering a series of localized outbreaks around the New York City area. It saw the strigoi multiply and their Master jump from body to body, leaving behind a massive and massively awkward creature that wouldn't look out of place in a Jim Henson creature workshop, to later inhabit the more suitable body of Goth musician Gabriel Bolivar, before eventually moving on to (or into) the body of wealthy industrialist Eldrich Palmer.
Like the ridiculous hairpiece Stoll was fitted with in the series' early going, though, The Strain seemed intent on being something it was not. Sure, the show would often be campy as all get out, but then it would seemingly reverse gears and ask the audience to be fully invested in the fate of humanity when the characters representing humankind so often made it seem like watching it all get flushed down the toilet – like Bolivar's… well, you know – was perhaps the best thing for everyone. In other words, The Strain has been mixed bag of horror, comedy (inadvertent and otherwise), action, and misguided characterization that at long last, feels ready to let its become the series it was always meant to be in what will be the final 10 episodes of the series.
As it has demonstrated before, The Strain is the sort of narrative that benefits from time jumps. It helps generate a renewed sense of interest in what's going on, largely due to there being questions as to what, exactly, is the new status quo. Season 3 saw the strigoi infestation move forward in time, but nothing as extreme as what the season 4 premiere, hilariously titled 'The Worm Turns', has in store for the audience and its characters.
To its credit, The Strain's approach to the new status quo is not entirely straightfaced, and for the most part, it works. Nuclear winter has darkened the sky and made it possible for the UV sensitive strigoi to wander about during the day. The result is much of the Eastern U.S. has been thrown into a police state, wherein humankind is subject to constant monitoring and given the opportunity to be a productive member of society by donating blood to feed their new overlords. The result is a vampiric Man in the High Castle-like scenario by way of Paul Verhoeven, as a cheeky bit of televised propaganda shoulders the responsibility of exposition, putting a wry smile on what is otherwise a lost cause.
While far from being a potent satire, The Strain's goofy playfulness nonetheless keeps it from becoming a dour Walking Dead clone. It also grants the series a welcome tonal variance that, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, steadfastly assures the audience Eph is the kind of guy who could navigate a post-apocalyptic black market system, while simultaneously turning Vasily Fet, Rhona Mitra, and Quinlan's Midwestern mission for an unspent nuclear warhead into the sort of high-stakes quest befitting the series' endgame. It also leaves room for the season to dedicate time toward the Master's grooming of Zack for some future purpose by taking him to an abandoned zoo to shoot a tiger, and later creepily subjecting a young woman to becoming the boy's reluctant housemaid, by which he may earn some shot at redemption.
Zack is the show's resident difficult character. Or rather, he's the most difficult character of a group of difficult characters. He's easy to dislike, and has been for some time. To the series' credit, The Strain seems ready to steer into Zack's unlikableness by putting him at the center of the main conflict and using him as a tool to sew the seeds of dissent between the Master and Eichhorst. The Strain has a long way to go between now and the series finale, and that leaves a lot of uncharted territory for Zack to consider his actions – both past and future – and hopefully the series will take the character down an interesting path that eventually intersects with the one his father is on.
At any rate, the story threads introduced in the season 4 premiere help make The Strain seem more focused and, strangely, sure of itself and the kind of campy program that it is. The series has always marched to the irregular beat of its own drummer, yet never seemed to settle into a suitably consistent groove. Now, with the end finally on the horizon, there's a sense that because it's all coming to an end anyway, The Strain can finally throw caution to the wind and really let its freak flag fly.
The Strain continues next Sunday with 'The Blood Tax' @10pm on FX.
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