Now over halfway through its second season, The Strain is falling into a pattern that’s typical of a lot of shows. New characters and a shifting set of priorities strengthened the first half of this season. For a while, The Strain was transforming into a different show, one that embraced its camp and gothic influences while moving its dreadfully boring and contrived emotional storylines to the sidelines. This week’s episode, “The Born,” when coupled with last week’s installment, sees The Strain in a holding pattern. The storylines, specifically the one involving Eph travelling to Washington, are purely expository. It’s as if the show has hit pause in an attempt to regroup, getting everything in place for the season’s final arc.
That final arc will be Eph hunting down Palmer in the hopes of killing him, but for that to happen, a number of things need to take place. The Strain understands that Eph can’t just want to kill Palmer; that as a former employee of the CDC, his first instinct is, and should be, to fight the virus biologically, and therefore take down Stoneheart. What the show fails to execute though is proper character motivation. By the end of “The Born” it’s clear that Eph’s two-episode trip to Washington is nothing but a contrived way to create conflict between Eph and the Stoneheart Group.
Eph wanting to kill Palmer makes a lot of sense. He’s not only actively trying to stop Eph from getting his pathogen into the right hands, but he also has tremendous financial and social influence. The Stoneheart Group is a massive corporation that trumps any kind of publicly funded government project that might go against the Group (note how Palmer says Eph’s recently delivered biohazard is in “friendly hands”), including plans from the CDC or its former employees. Still, “The Born” does little to flesh out this conflict, instead boiling the entire storyline down to revenge. Eph wants to kill the man who had his friends killed. Considering that this storyline involves a potential global crisis, the bad blood between Eph and Palmer is severely undercooked.
“The Born” also struggles to land its emotional beats. When Fet and Dutch find Nikki holed up in Dutch’s old apartment, it’s a reveal that’s meant to introduce tension into their relationship. After all, Fet and Dutch were just getting close, and here comes Dutch’s ex-girlfriend to ruin everything. Introducing a past romance isn’t a bad way to create conflict between two characters, but The Strain has never been able to inject its romantic and familial drama with enough stakes to make it meaningful. The storyline hits all the predictable beats, to the point that any group of characters could be repeating the same lines and it would have the same effect. There’s no sense that this situation is unique to Fet and Dutch, no insight into how it’s impacting them on a deeper level. “The Born” is satisfied with just going through the motions, showing that Fet is hurt and jealous while Dutch is conflicted. It’s The Strain painting with the broadest strokes possible, reducing Fet and Dutch, who were finally being fleshed out this season, to mere caricatures.
“The Born” does find one source of inspiration though, and that’s the half-breed vampire hunter known as Quinlan. He’s the embodiment of the campy/gothic influences mentioned above, the flashbacks in this episode showing that he was known as The Barbarian Gladiator, viciously destroying any opponents who came before him. He’s been hunting the Master for some time now (as a flashback to Albania in 1873 confirms), and when he “felt” the Master after Eph and Setrakian forced him into the sunlight, he picked up his hunt again. Quinlan, and actor Rupert Penry-Jones, has a presence that’s unmatched on this show. Sure, he doesn’t have a lot of heavy lifting to do; he just gets to be a badass and walk around with a bone club, but for now, that’s enough. Considering that The Strain seems to be perfectly happy putting Gus and the Silver Angel on the backburner, once again refusing to give them any screen time or sense of momentum and character development, Quinlan is a breath of fresh air, a character with clear, understandable motivation, driving the actual vampire hunting narrative forward while the rest of the storylines stagnate.
With any luck though, “The Born” is the end of the holding pattern. With Quinlan chasing the Master and Eph telling Fet that he’s going to find and kill Eldritch Palmer, there’s potential for The Strain to find the kind of frantic pace that made the earliest episodes of season two so compelling and promising. However flimsy and contrived, Eph does have motivation now, and Quinlan is ready for a fight; it all depends on how the show uses that motivation to move the story forward.
- Fet bragging about his own bomb threat and waving dynamite around like he’s Wile E. Coyote is the Fet I want, not downtrodden, mopey Fet. Eph does enough moping for everyone.
- Can anyone explain to me what Nora’s role in the Merry Band of Vampire Hunters is? So frustrating to see Mia Maestro underused like this.
- Lots of talk this week about empires, specifically of the fallen variety. It’s the type of dialogue that’s meant to create a thematic throughline, but ends up feeling hollow because The Strain is telling rather than showing.
- Coco and Palmer: No. Just no.