Consider this a disclaimer for “Runaways” and every future episode of The Strain until further notice: At this point, I honestly have no idea how to grade this show. Grading on the curve set by the show’s standards, this isn’t its worst episode; it simply goes too many steps backwards when it should know better at this point. However, grading any of these episodes by the standards of anything resembling a logical episode of television, this is not anyone’s best. Maybe this is a D+ show. Maybe it being a D+ show is actually what makes it an A show. If I could, I would give this episode—and most likely every episode of The Strain—a Q, the most inscrutable letter of the alphabet as far as I’m concerned.
This isn’t a matter of hating the show. Hating the show would make grading it a lot easier, because there’s nothing hard about giving consistent failing grades to a terrible show. I simply find myself expecting more from the show, being disappointed when it doesn’t deliver—especially when it almost comes across as intentional when it misses the mark—and then hoping that maybe next time will be different. It’s certainly not a healthy relationship. In fact, this is probably how Toni Collette felt on Hostages (both as an actress and in character).
Now to the episode itself: In a show that, five episodes in, is already known for not doing much of anything on a weekly basis, The Strain provides viewers with a fairly large revelation (the type that speaks to the very infrastructure of the series) this week: Vampire lore actually does exist in this show’s universe. For weeks, there’s been the assumption that the show is operating under the idea that such stories don’t exist in this show’s world, keeping up appearances of the characters not knowing they’re in a genre vehicle because of this. Now, knowing that first part isn’t the case, it’s clear that the majority of the characters truly are working with a near embarrassing level of incompetence when it comes to ignoring the very clear signs vampirism or a disease that at least mimics such a thing. Characters ignoring warning signs—like blood drinking and sensitivity to the sun—has gone from absolutely absurd to simply preposterous.
If the writers—and especially Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan—expect the audience to identify with these characters because they’re “just like us,” then yet again, the show is missing the mark. It’s actually an insult to the audience’s intelligence. The audience who watches The Strain most likely don’t see the characters as “just like them;” they see them as the losers of a vampire uprising. Vampires aren’t real. But if they were, a certain amount of faith in humanity dictates that people (all it has to be is more than one person) around the world would respond to the signs immediately. The characters on The Strain barely even respond to the Internet in all of New York being down. No one in The Strain even reacts to genital detachment.
According to the episode synopsis for “Runaways,” “Eph reluctantly joins Setrakian’s quest,” “Fet encounters the unexpected inside the subway tunnels,” and “a medical emergency threatens Palmer’s master plan.” Two things jump out immediately from those three points: Vampires in the tunnels being unexpected and the fact that Palmer’s debilitating physical health is supposed to be an intriguing aspect of the series.
For the latter, while Jonathan Hyde has been one of the standouts of the series due to his acting chops, the character Palmer himself hasn’t really popped or contributed as much as one would expect yet. The audience knows that Palmer and the Stoneheart Group have worked to bring The Master to New York, but they’ve also concocted an elaborate (or at least poorly-written) “hack” on the entire Internet, so it’s not exactly clear what the endgame is. Palmer sees The Master and vampirism in general as his salvation and it’s the closest thing to a religious affiliation that he has; he even says to become like The Master would be to experience a miracle. Yet every Palmer scene now is about his health and how The Master and Eichorst—who are supposedly still part of his storyline, despite Eichorst’s absence from the present day in this episode—have, for some reason, not lived up to their end of whatever bargain has been in place.
That’s the major problem with The Strain. The show doesn’t just expect suspension of disbelief; it prefers for there to not be any sort of logic applied to show. The only way the show works and doesn’t completely fall apart is if the holes aren’t poked (or even grazed).
And after last week’s uptick in storytelling quality, “Runaways” simply throws it away the good will it has fostered. The Ansel plot, which was a highlight of last week’s episode, is over now, before it really became anything. Ann-Marie hangs herself, and Setrakian kills Ansel. That’s the end of that. A dog and a neighbor died for that.
And even with Eph gathering proof of the very real threat in this episode, nobody treats it as such, more concerned with the fact that Eph moved the body of Captain Redfern and it got caught on camera. Seeing footage of a real life vampire isn’t as important as footage of moving a dead body in The Strain’s universe. So now Eph’s off the grid because nothing on this show makes sense.
Speaking of nothing on this show making sene, Nora not only continues her refusal to join in Setrakian’s crusade, she refuses to see that the “people” she’s so set on not killing aren’t even people. No weight is really put on it—because no weight is really put on anything here—but Nora essentially allows a massacre to occur in this episode. Because of how blasé (the word that really defines the events in The Strain) she is when speed-walking out of the hospital with her mother, it’s easy to laugh at how she simply leaves, not wanting to get involved with anything that might get her killed. In fact, in some ways, it might actually be one of the smarter things a character (particularly a female character) in a horror story has ever done with regards to self-preservation. However, Nora is supposedly a hero character (the same with Eph and even Jim, who gets to help in this episode even though he’s very much responsible for a lot of this), and yet she simply allows a mass slaughter to happen without even a moment of trying to save the day—whether it’s by herself or by enlisting the help of hospital attendants, she chooses to do nothing. In only a couple of episodes, she has gone from a hero-in-waiting to the damsel-in-distress, a neat little box, just like The Strain likes.
And this is where the brief soapbox comes in to challenge The Strain’s neat little boxes. The thing about characters in The Strain fitting into these neat little boxes is that while Eph has his hero hair and is clearly going to be the one to save the day alongside Setrakian, no other character fares nearly as well simply because they don’t fit the archetype. To be perfectly honest, it also means that every character of color is doomed. This isn’t even in reaction to the horror trope of “the black guy always dying.” Just note how the minority characters that are introduced are secondary or subservient in some way. Palmer’s African-American assistant, Joan’s maid/nanny, Bolivar’s African-American manager. Nora is the most well-served of the minorities on the show so far, but she is still secondary to Eph in both her career and her function as a protagonist. Then of course, there’s Gus and his family, who have become a topic of both frustration and ridicule—more so than the rest—in just these few episodes. Guillermos Del Toro’s comment from Comic-Con about wanting to “have Latin characters and Mexican characters that defy the stereotype of gang bangers” is a lofty goal, but the execution has been nonexistent.
The only thing that’s universal for all of the show’s characters is that their family back stories are not at all interesting in the greater scheme of whatever The Strain wants to be or thinks it is.
So what is the point of any of this? What does The Strain want the audience to gain from its emptiness? If this is a story of overcoming the odds, then the insurmountable odds these characters have to face are simply themselves. At this point, the only person who makes any sense is Fet the exterminator. And he barely makes any sense.
If the show just fully accepts its status as the Q show that it is, so much fun could be had. In fact, the acceptance of such a status could make the show better, at least in terms of having the audience be able to accept it for what it is and not what it’s expected to be. Looking for true brilliance in The Strain is, to quote the great Cher Horowitz, “as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.” The Strain could quite possibly be the Son In Law of television shows, and for that, no one can fault it. In fact, if it billed itself as such, nothing else would be necessary from television as a whole.
- Billy Zane Hair Update: Eph’s hair as he shows the video of Ansel (and then has to sneak out of the CDC) is the hair of a man who is too frustrated with the world. I’m surprised the hair didn’t jump off of his head in frustration, honestly.
- This week in “The Strain Takes On 21st Century Technology”: The double shot of the cleaner mentioning cell phone GPS triangulation and the Internet and phone lines being “all screwed up” due to the amazing hacker from last week’s episode. I wonder if computers are new inventions in this show’s universe.
- For those few moments he was on the screen, the cleaner was my favorite character and the only one who benefited from having no reaction at all to the vampire situation.
- Hopefully we’re all in agreement that this show is the biggest waste of Regina King since Miss Congeniality 2: Armed And Fabulous.
- “The Master? Is that a proper name?” This is the best thing Eph has ever said and probably will ever say. He was almost likable, and then he told the Congo story.
- Peter Weller directed this episode. He also directed an episode of The Mob Doctor, which is just excellent.
- The last thing this show needs right now is flashbacks, especially when it just leads to Setrakian comparing things to the Holocaust.
- After weeks of nothing, Joan the lawyer is back, and she wants to eat her children. That’s great. The maid—instead of calling anyone who could potentially help—decides to kidnap the children. That’s the show in a nutshell.