The Strain comes to a formulaic end that still manages to surprise for its willingness to bring the goofy vampire series to a definitive close.
Most of the time, the degree of difficulty in ending a television series is so high few shows seem to find the right way to bring their stories to a close. Even now, when it’s no surprise to see phenomenal shows like Breaking Bad or The Leftovers run a tight five seasons or less – instead of just riding it out until the there’s nothing left in the tank – knowing when or how to call it quits is still a tremendous challenge. Earlier this year, Damon Lindelof’s transfixing series took a tale about the end of the world and turned out an emotionally satisfying conclusion, while David Lynch brought Twin Peaks to a close (for now) on a note that was as ominous as it was ambiguous. But there’s another series coming to an end this year, and although The Strain is a far cry from the programs listed above, it does have one thing they don’t: In addition to its steadfast determination to defiantly march to the beat of its own worm-infested drummer, The Strain is a series tailor-made for today’s TV in that it wasn’t built to last; it was built to end.
From the very first episode, The Strain presented its audience with a problem it intended to solve. Unlike its biggest competitor, The Walking Dead, The Strain wasn’t meant to run in perpetuity; the show, hailing from co-creators Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and run by executive producer Carlton Cuse, was very close to its end right from the beginning and it really could have only ended one of two ways – humanity wins or it doesn’t. Throughout its respectably short four-season run (the series ended a season sooner than del Toro and Cuse initially believed it would), its characters, with their wonderfully implausible names like Ephraim Goodweather, Abraham Setrakian, and Dutch Velders, were never more than a lucky break away from abruptly bringing the series to an end. It should have made the series remarkably tense, but more often than not, it made The Strain feel like it was spinning its wheels.
Shows that are as adamant as The Strain about pursuing the end of a single plot tend to make a better case that they are – in the increasingly irksome parlance of so many working in television today – really just a long movie. (Spoiler: they still aren’t.) Sometimes it results in the series venturing down some unexpected paths while essentially killing time between the beginning and the end, but when you’re dealing with an end-of-the-world scenario brought about by a really gross vampire infestation that’s tantamount to a roundworm outbreak with a pet store as ground zero, the road you travel doesn’t tend to have too many off-ramps. The upside is, when the final season finally arrives, the series can floor it and burn whatever’s left in the tank because there’s no going back.
That has more or less been the case with The Strain season 4. Cuse had a similar situation earlier this year with Bates Motel, another series of his that was built to reach a very specific and closed end, and he aims to accomplish something similar here, but on a much larger, action-movie-sized scale. The result, then, is ‘The Last Stand’ an episode that puts, in no uncertain terms, its sense of finality right there in the title. Eph and his cohort of unlikely vampire apocalypse survivors are either going to make a daring end run and save the day, or they’re going to go out in a blaze of glory, taking the rest of humanity with them.
The series’ setup has always made it possible for The Strain to have a fairly pat ending, so it’s no surprise that Cuse and his writers would aim to deliver just that. It is a little surprising, though, just how pat an ending the series was ultimately able to deliver.
For much of the final season, The Strain kept its core group apart, giving them separate missions or tasks to undertake, spreading the weight of the plot out among a series of smaller stories. Eph was lying low in Philadelphia after his kid plunged the world into nuclear winter. Fet was on the road trying to find another nuke because one good atomic turn deserves another. Meanwhile, Setrakian and Dutch were on the run from Eichhorst and discovering just how bad things had become after the Master’s plan to enslave humanity finally came to fruition. Then there was sweet, loveable Zack, hanging out in Manhattan with the Master, showing just how much he’s learned by killing a girl who won’t return his friendliness with romantic attention and then betraying the entire human race because he’s still mad at his dad.
Season 4 was, in many ways, what the series should have been from the start. Instead of the slow and inconsistent fall of New York – one minute it looked like people were dying in the streets and another it seemed like business as usual – The Strain plunged its characters into a much more satisfying do-or-die situation. They weren’t stemming the tide of a potential cataclysmic event; they were caught in its aftermath. So when Fet and Quinlan showed up in New York with a nuclear warhead in the back of their van, all bets were off. That nuke was going to detonate. The only question was: would there be anything worth seeing rise from the ashes?
In terms of responsible detonation of a fictional nuclear devise, The Strain heads in the opposite direction from the season 3 finale. After Quinlan’s first attempt at a Last Stand goes awry, Fet decides the end game should happen at New York City’s Water Tunnel No. 3, which is still under construction. He posits that 800 feet below the surface, the blast would surely kill the Master and keep New York relatively safe (sure, why not?). The only problem is, it will take all the luck in the world to lure the vampire to his death, and Quinlan can’t do it alone; someone will have to sacrifice their life. Fet, being the closest thing The Strain has to a traditional cinematic action hero nominates himself, much to Dutch’s disapproval. If you put money on Eph robbing Fet of the chance to give up his life to save the world, then congratulations. You’re the big winner.
Endings in television are hard, but a show like The Strain seems to make it easy – at least with regard to how it’s supposed to end. In this day and age of the never-ending cinematic superhero universe and cut-to-black ambiguity of some television series, the fact that The Strain ends as succinctly as it does is perhaps the biggest surprise delivered by the series as a whole, much less the finale. Once Eph takes Fet’s place in depths of the No. 3 tunnel, everything pretty much falls in line. After Quinlan fatally injures the Master and forces the creature to seek another host, it comes down to what choice Zack will ultimately make. To the series’ credit, it doesn’t try to redeem Zack entirely – he does set off yet another nuclear bomb, mind you – which helps make his change of heart less regarding his father (who is now host to the Master) merely convenient and trite, instead of absolutely absurd.
Even then, though, Zack’s embrace of his dying father, just before setting off the most destructive force humankind has ever created, is part and parcel of what ultimately defined this series: its off-kilter approach to just about everything, up to and including the end of the apocalypse. Just enough of that admirable, likable silliness is there right up until the end. The Strain works hard to make you appreciate the mostly pedestrian nature of its climax and especially its declaration that, in the end, the most potent strain of all was love. In the end, this wonderfully goofy series closes out on a pitch perfect (for The Strain, anyway) note.
The Strain seasons 1-3 are available to stream on Hulu. Season 4 can still be streamed on the FX Now app.
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