With “Creatures Of The Night” being the most entertaining episode of the season so far, it immediately put a lot of pressure on this week’s episode to perform at as high of a level. While “The Disappeared” fits neatly inside the box of what The Strain is now, it’s unfortunately a step down from the past few episodes. The second half of the season (from “Occultation” on) is certainly better than the first half, which means that this episode being a step down doesn’t really put it in the same league as “The Box” or “Gone Smooth;” it just means that this is a perfectly average episode of the show at this point in time.
With the previouslies for this episode being full of clips of Eph’s family problems, there’s a sense of initial dread for what the episode will become. Fortunately, the episode does its best to not have this aspect of the show bring things to a screeching halt. Immediately putting Eph’s son Zack in danger (R.I.P. Matt) and having Eph save the day (R.I.P. vampire Matt) starts the episode off right in a place of action, even though, as a whole, it’s nowhere the near constant action of “Creatures Of The Night.” While that episode was all about the basic horror setup and getting the gang together, “The Disappeared” is more of a regrouping episode, with the crew going back to headquarters to come up with the next plan of attack. Along the way, Zack becomes a part of the tribe (while Eph’s ex-wife Kelly is missing in action), Dutch fesses up to her role in all of this, and and Setrakian plans the next stage of their war against The Master.
Oh, and Gus escapes police captivity, killing a transformed Felix in the process.
That’s not so much of a criticism of Gus’ storyline as it is a criticism of the way the show chooses to make his character an even lower priority than flashbacks to 1944 Poland. In fact, the parallels between Nazi-occupied Poland and the strigoi-infested New York are perhaps the strangest they’ve ever been in this episode, with Gus’ prison break mirroring Setrakian’s escape from the camp. Earlier in the series, this parallel would feel more offensive than anything else, but here, it just comes across like a misstep that’s as much of an afterthought as the Gus character himself. There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of the beats in his part of the episode, but because of the damage done to the character from the very beginning, he’s still of no importance to the actual plot, and there’s no reason to care until he joins our heroes.
Part of why this misstep is so important is because that feeling is present throughout the entire episode, and it’s the reason why “The Disappeared” plays more like an unfinished product than probably any other episode. At certain points in the episode, it even comes across like a joke being played on the audience. It could possibly be because the transition from “Creatures Of The Night” to this, but where that Guy Ferland-directed episode was a tight mini-horror movie, this week’s Charlotte Sieling-directed episode draws more attention to the truly absurd on this show—and not always in a good way. The scene where Nora’s mother gives Setrakian a hard time for leaving her alone is absolutely aces, but then there are the moments like Eph killing Matt and the sex scene between Eph and Nora. The direction in those latter two scenes especially is where it looks like episode is finally calling attention to the absurdity of the show, which would be much appreciated if it looked like the show as a whole was finally accepting how ridiculous it is. But as refreshing as it would be if that were the case—a blatant show of self-awareness and self-deprecating humor—instead, it’s out of place, because no other director has gotten the memo. In Sieling’s previous shot at directing, in “For Services Rendered,” she was able to subtly throw in these touches at the train station. In this episode, that subtlety is out the window during those moments, and it’s really a distraction from the good in the episode.
”There’s no hope for those who are infected. You must understand this.”
While the episode isn’t as action-packed as last week’s, as a regrouping episode, it does work. By separating the characters and giving them all some time just to be (now that we know for a fact how they’ll react during a battle), the slower pace of the show finally works. Eph and Nora’s pairing in the weakest, but the way they come to terms with Jim’s necessary death is an important moment. For Eph and Nora to get over their ideals and principals in a few hours or even a few days is perhaps asking too much. By their very natures, they are both conditioned to want to help in the most humane way possible. As far as they’re concerned, even if they acknowledge that this is a vampire outbreak, this is still an outbreak. It doesn’t always make for as compelling of a story as the writers would hope, because think of it this way—it’s war time. So “The Disappeared” is a necessary episode for them to really process that.
Not being “ready” is a constant when it it comes to most of Setrakian’s conversations. It’s not just repetition—none of these characters are ready. As the main group grows, it’s becoming more and more obvious just how unprepared everyone is for this fight. Outside of Setrakian, Fet is supposedly the most prepared, but his devil-may-care attitude isn’t exactly the type you’d want in a leader. While Jim was, in theory, dead weight, he at least had enough heart (a “Goonies never say die” attitude, if you will) to do everything he possibly could to help. Nora and Eph have their own moral and personal reasons for not being all-in with this battle, but they’re still able to kill vampires with head shots when they need to. But then there’s their baggage in Nora’s mother and Eph’s kid (and maybe his ex-wife, if she is still alive), who are both liabilities. To say that a woman with dementia and a child aren’t “ready” is perhaps the greatest understatement to come from this show.
And as far as understating things go, we might as well talk about Dutch. On a personal level, I don’t believe that I would fare much better than many of these character during a vampire outbreak. However, watching these past two episodes, I can say that Dutch is probably the only character I can see myself in—the one who reacts to all of this the way I realistically, not ideally, would. I’d love to say I’d be a Setrakian or a Fet in this scenario, immediately understanding the kill or be killed world in which we live now. In some ways, I probably would be. But Dutch herself also understands the gravity of the situation, and how does she react? She accepts all of this, joins in on the fight, and she makes sure to drink as much alcohol as she can to remain numb to the insanity. It’s actually rather impressive that she’s being written this way, especially after being introduced as the mythical, all-powerful, too cool for school hacker all those episodes ago. It’s remarkably real for this show.
That’s actually one of the big picture aspects about The Strain that isn’t quite being talked about as much: the relatability of the characters. Not the likability but how the characters translate to the audience on a more human level of recognition. Character actions and motivations have been a constant discussion point, but there hasn’t been much conversation of if these characters—who are supposed to be grounded in a somewhat realistic world—resemble any that you would actually see in the real world. Are there really any relatable characters, characters that the audience can see him or herself in? The Walking Dead has its own host of problems, but one thing it has always done well enough is create diverse characters who come across as realistic versions of people you’d see in every day life, whether every day life is a zombie apocalypse or not. Who normally sees him or herself in Eph, especially when he is in wise-cracking, head-shotting mode? The most realistic Fet—as interesting as he is—has been in his quieter moments, like with his father or with Dutch in this episode. And while the direction in the sex scene between Eph and Nora takes away from the episode, everything building up to it (especially the funeral of Matt/memorial of Jim) is real.
That’s the biggest takeaway from “The Disappeared.” It finally gives the audience a reason to want to slow down with the show and really think about all of these characters. The episode works by allowing a bit of reflection on who the show’s characters are and how they will all move forward in the future episodes of the season and series. Sometimes that’s all you really need in an episode.
- Billy Zane Hair Update: At this point, the wig is no longer even trying. It’s not trying to stay on. It’s not trying to look real.
- Pop quiz! Which character do you truly see yourself in? Who would you be most like in this scenario? (Not who would you like to be most like.) At least one of you would be Eph’s kid who only watches the news, I know it.
- Speaking of Zack, it really doesn’t make any sense that Diane wouldn’t understand what the chaos in the city is all about. That kid literally only watches the news and talks non-stop—he would have mentioned it during the car ride home.
- Setrakian: “Nora’s mother.” Fet: “Oh. Obviously.” Again, this whole scene is aces.
- Can someone—anyone—just start saying “ex” each time Eph refers to Kelly as his “wife”? Or at least Dutch can take a shot every time he does.
- The way Setrakian doesn’t dwell on Dutch’s revelation that she’s partially responsible for this is why everyone can learn a thing or two for him. There’s no need for him to tell her she’s dead to him, because there are more pressing matters. Matters that could literally make her and the rest of them dead.
- The whole “God isn’t real” argument shows up again in this episode, with The Master mocking young Setrakian for having faith in such a higher power. Also, Eichorst’s faith in The Master—much like Palmer’s in the present day—is depicted with a type of urgency and pathetic yearning for something, anything, resembling salvation. Another interesting (and relatable, in a more disturbing way) character beat in this episode.