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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Strain: “Identity”

Illustration for article titled The Strain: “Identity”

Relatively speaking, the second season of FX’s The Strain has improved upon the show’s first, largely because with the initial outbreak (and all the exposition that comes with that) firmly in the past, the show can move in a more focused and fun direction. Without having to establish the details of the virus, the Stoneheart Group, and Eph and his merry band of vampire hunters—something the first season struggled to do with any sort of nuance—season two has been allowed to let loose a little, and that’s been to the show’s benefit. “Identity,” though, is far removed from the looseness that’s defined this season so far. It’s the most laborious episode of the season, due in large part to its focus on Eph’s trip to Washington and all the muddled bureaucracy such a trip entails.

Every epidemic/disaster narrative needs to wade into the murky territory of government bureaucracy. That’s especially true of The Strain, where a spreading virus means various levels of government, from the local police force and CDC to the National Guard, necessarily become part of the story. That’s what epidemic narratives do: They evoke real-world and contemporary fears, not just of contagion and mass outbreak, but of the way our under-funded government institutions will ultimately fail us. The underlying theme of tonight’s focus on the Stoneheart Group and Eph’s need for a private pharmaceutical company to help fund research and distribution of his pathogen is that neoliberalism and the free market is good for making guys like Palmer rich, but bad for protecting lower-class citizens during times of severe crisis.

It’s a theme that’s hardly explored, though, The Strain instead choosing to flippantly cast its more substantial possibilities aside in favor of strained (no pun intended) character work. That’s the modus operandi of the show in general, which too often forgets that its best stuff comes from embracing horror tropes both campy and insightful, not peddling empty personal drama. That lack of narrative awareness or focus is embodied in Eph’s trip to Washington. Where his arrival last week signaled some promise, the new setting doesn’t distinguish itself as anything different from the rest of the show. Sure, Eph’s buddy Robert, and Lee Thomas, the pharmaceutical rep Eph ends up sleeping with, aren’t fully aware of the plague’s real effects on New York, but their reactions are cut from the same cloth as every single scene involving bureaucracy and epidemic containment in New York. The pathogen is a new variable that gives Eph a sense of purpose, something he hasn’t had in a long time, but that variable is wasted, with the scenes in Washington largely replicating the clunky, exposition-heavy ones from the first season. Even a hit put out by the Stoneheart Group that sees an assassin kill Robert and Lee can’t liven up the storyline.

Such flippant disregard for narrative progress extends to much of “Identity.” The episode spends more time catching up with Gus and the reluctant Silver Angel, but again, they’re scenes that repeat the same beats from previous episodes. Gus is still trying to start a romance with Aanya while Angel remains protective and basically hates Gus because he has tattoos. During a delivery, Gus, Aanya, and Angel run into a few vampires and Gus disposes of them using his fancy new fighting tactics. It’s meant to be a big moment for the Silver Angel, the realization that there’s more to this virus than he knows (or is maybe letting on, if his film past has any sort of truth to it), but it feels so inconsequential. The show has been building to this moment for two episodes, only to throw away the vampire confrontation while failing to pay off any of the emotional build.

Similarly stunted narrative progress infects Nora and Zach’s storyline, too. They essentially spend the entirety of “Identity” walking around New York and getting some fresh air, only to be cornered by Kelly and the Spider Kids (band name up for grabs!) in an abandoned church. Before it’s too late, though, Nora calls home base and Setrakian, Fet, and Fitzwilliam are off to save the day. It’s a joyous reunion for everyone until Fitzwilliam is bitten by a spider kid and infected with the virus. “Yeah, I know what this means,” he says, his casual tone of complacence mirroring The Strain‘s own philosophy toward its storytelling. Fitzwilliam’s death at the hands of Setrakian, who mercifully chops his head off before he turns, is the final act of flippancy in an episode filled with careless and frustrating decisions in terms of narrative and character development. Previous episodes of The Strain made a big deal of Fitzwilliam joining forces with the Merry Vampire Hunters, his former allegiance with Palmer integral to their fight against the strigoi. Then, the show unceremoniously kills him off, his death failing to hit any emotional notes while serving as an example of how lazy “Identity” really is.

Stray observations

  • So, Barnes is definitely dead, which means Eph is a murderer now. I really hope the show addresses that, as it could be an interesting examination of twisted morality in times of crisis.
  • Fet explains Zach’s cold behavior to Fitzwilliam: “He’s shy, or he doesn’t like you.”
  • $50 delivery fee for that Indian food, making the total bill $100? Small businesses must be cleaning up during the outbreak!
  • New Vampire Guy has a meeting with the Ancients. He’s here to clean up their mess, to pick up where the Strigoi SWAT left off and kill Palmer and The Master. If you’ve read the books (or know how to use Google), the arrival of this character is good news. We’ll see if the show can do the character justice.
  • Speaking of The Master, he’s finally found his new host. Much to Eichorst’s chagrin, it’s Bolivar, the eternal rock star.
  • Feraldo looks shaken in this episode. Seems like a harbinger of bad things to come for her.
  • One cool visual from the episode: the silhouette of the spider kids against the stained glass windows of the church.
  • The National Guard agrees to run some of its own tests on Eph’s pathogen. That’s what counts as a big moment in this episode.