For three straight seasons, FX’s The Strain struggled to find its own voice and define its creative vision. In striking a balance between being faithful to the novels by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan while also trying to forge ahead with a vampire story during a time of peak “monsters on TV,” the show couldn’t help but feel like a lesser version of most of the shows around it. For three seasons The Strain was, in a word, “fine.” It delivered enough gore to satisfy the casual viewer just looking for something horror-tinged to watch, and many of the performances did enough to hook some viewers looking for something more substantial. But it never really found its footing across three seasons, and the key to understanding why is contained within the show’s final season.
Unequivocally, the fourth and final season of The Strain has been the show’s best. There’s been an urgency to the narrative that genuinely built anticipation from one episode to the next, and for the first time since the virus started to ravage humanity, it felt like the main characters were being challenged in interesting, complicated ways. More important than that though is the fact that The Strain finally committed to exploring the themes that had been humming in the background of the show all along. This final season, at last, moved those themes to the forefront, becoming more political and pointed.
While I’ll get to the series finale’s single giant setback that practically ruins everything that came before it in a moment, it’s certainly worthwhile to mention that “The Last Stand” clarifies the season’s themes in a satisfying and, dare I say it, beautiful way. The series finale is focused on one story: the plan to destroy The Master with a nuclear warhead. A big task, yes, but what The Strain gets right is in never really trying to tackle the broader scope. If there was a time to do that, it was back when the virus was spreading through New York and the show was struggling to convey the devastation while also focusing on the characters. With all that in the past, the finale can narrow its focus, making this more of a personal journey rather than one that encompasses the entire fate of humanity. Yes, the team is trying to save the human race, but the limited perspective gives the finale a personal feel, and it truly pays off here.
Nowhere does it pay off more than in the journey of Fet, a man who began as an exterminator and ends up as, well, another kind of exterminator. Along the way though he’s become the show’s moral center, much more so than Corey Stoll’s continuously conflicted Eph. When he and Quinlan come up with a new plan for destroying The Master once and for all, one that involves luring him deep under ground before detonating the warhead in order to save the city above, Fet gives one of his signature history lessons on the tunnel and waterway systems of New York.
Embodied in that lesson is the thematic underpinning of this season. He says that this 50-year project, with a hole dug 800 feet deep and scheduled for completion in 2020, is unlike anything ever attempted. He stares in wonder at the sheer vastness of the tunnel, the size of which parallels the enormity of the work and imagination needed to make it happen. “People built this,” he says in a reverent tone. He’s not just amazed by the work, but by what humanity can accomplish when it’s working together, undivided, toward a common goal. Isn’t that what him and Eph, Dutch, Quinlan, Setrakian, and the others have been fighting for? Not just to survive, but to ensure that the human race, with all of its flaws, gets a chance to come together again?
Look, we’re all sick of noting the parallels between the art we consume and the political climate we’re living in, but it’s near impossible to talk about the final season of The Strain, and its series finale, without noting that much of its creative success comes from being much more political. When The Master tells his strigoi to wipe Manhattan of all human life, telling Zack that “the masquerade of coexistence is over,” it’s hard not to see parallels with the reactionary swing represented by the election of Donald Trump. “The Last Stand” is about people coming together to fight off an evil they thought was in the past, only to find out that it’s been lurking in their communities all along. There’s destruction and injustice abound, but within that is a sense of hope, the idea that such a cataclysmic fall can only lead to something better rising out of the ashes.
At least, that’s the optimistic take. And to be fair, “The Last Stand” perhaps is a little too optimistic. When a montage closes out the episode, and Fet’s voiceover says “in the end, it was love that saved us all,” you’d be forgiven for cringing. It’s an overwrought, cliché message, but I can’t say that it’s not, in its own way, effective. Considering the doom and gloom that surrounds us each and every day, and that pops up on our phones every time we refresh our news feed, it’s nice to see people recovering from a traumatic event and coming out on the other side of it. They’ve lost a lot along the way, but they’re here. They’re motivated and moving forward, and that’s something.
If that was The Strain’s final message, it’d be a fitting end to a final season that pushed itself into more obviously political territory. But that’s not the final message, and there’s one single plot choice that remains baffling. After finally getting The Master into the tunnel, Fet prepares to sacrifice himself for the good of the city; a fitting end for the man who loves New York with all of its bumps and bruises. But then, Eph steps up and steals his moment. To be fair, it’s a choice that makes sense; Eph sees that Fet has more to live for, and on top of that Zack is still with The Master, knocked out in the service elevator while Quinlan and The Master battle it out under ground.
But then things take a turn. After The Master kills Quinlan, ending their centuries long battle, Zack refuses to kill Eph. Thus, a disappointed Master looks to turn his protégé once and for all by vomiting a bunch of worms into his mouth (an image I won’t necessarily miss seeing, to be honest). He’s too slow though, and Zack turns the gun on The Master and shoots him, but not before Eph gets the worms instead. As The Master takes over Eph’s body he tells Zack that they can now rule as father and son. That’s not Zack’s plan though. He apologizes to any part of his dad that may still be inside The Master, and then he sets off the warhead, saving the city and all of humanity with one flip of a switch.
That moment would have tremendous emotional impact if it was literally any other character flipping the switch. Zack’s journey across four seasons has been one of reprehensible behavior and incrementally increasing violence toward those around him. I was convinced the show wouldn’t seek to redeem Zack because, well, there seemed no logical way to do so. There was no blueprint for redemption in that specific character arc, and for me, it knocked a B+/A- finale down to the grade you see above.
And yet, despite the lack of blueprint for redemption, The Strain goes for it, and it’s hard to underscore just how disappointing it is. Rather than give Fet his heroic moment, or perhaps give Eph the touch choice of killing both him and his traitorous son in order to save the human race, Zack gets a moment of monumental heroism. He gets to be the savior, and it’s a truly disappointing, infuriating choice. I can’t see a way to justify giving Zack an final act of redemption after everything we’ve seen. It feels like convenient, sappy storytelling that doesn’t fit in with the more brutal, challenging turns the show took in its final season.
In that sense, The Strain was very much itself in its final episode; everything was looking good until Zack nearly ruined it all.
- Every time Fet isn’t wearing a hat, it freaks me out.
- “Right before I detonate the warhead I’ll probably say something clever and cool. Like Bruce Willis, you know?” Fet, you are a beautiful, charming human.
- The “Nine Months Ago” flashback was a little out of place. It’s meant to underscore how far these characters have come while also allowing for one final appearance from Setrakian, but it momentarily derailed the episode’s otherwise solid pacing.
- “We won Zack. Because of you.” No, that’s not how that works!!!
- Well folks, that’s a wrap on The Strain, and therefore these reviews (in their various forms). I have to say, while it’s been a slog at times, it’s been fun sharing in our misery together. Whenever I felt discouraged reviewing this show—which, mind you, did have plenty of brutal, unique, evocative moments—I could always count on a bunch of like-minded folks ripping Zack to shreds in the comments. For that, and for reading at all, I thank you.