“The world is not what it was one week ago. What will it be one week from now?”
That’s Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) getting his voiceover on once more for the finale of The Strain. It feels like a long time since he first began his raspy introduction to the series and yet nothing much has changed at all.
The opening hour, with its striking yellow-and-red palette and knowing use of Neil Diamond, was a dark beast of wry humour; a B-movie writ small, with just enough self-awareness to keep things entertaining. But the following 11 episodes have only occasionally delivered on that promise, frequently swapping self-awareness for stupidity.
Ever since its first white worm wriggled into someone’s corpse, though, The Strain has remained skilled at one thing: horror. It would be fatal if a vampire series wasn’t very good at vampires, but The Strain has excelled at them, relying on the shock of unusual biology to creep the hell out of viewers.
The show has been at its best when throwing these freaky beasts at the screen, racing forwards with adrenaline before you can stop to use your brain. It’s fortunate, then, that the finale focuses almost entirely around a single set piece: the attack on The Master’s lair, round two.
The sequence itself is cracking stuff, chucking in everything from smashing windows to dynamite. But the impressive moment comes before the assault, when Eph Goodweather hands his son, Zach, a silver sword. As Setrakian and the doctor explain to the boy how to kill, it’s a sign of just how far The Strain has come in that we buy it: Episode 1’s AA meeting, in which Eph monologued his character’s back-story (the alcoholism gets another awkward mention here), may have felt cliched, but Corey Stoll’s charismatic performance and Ben Hyland as his son are a surprisingly convincing pair. Could it be that these stock characters are starting to become fleshed out?
The Goodweather family drama gets its pay-off with the introduction proper of Zach’s mom, Kelly, in vampire form, but the confrontation between The Master’s latest convert and her loved ones ends up meandering into the night rather than striking home. The Master himself is similarly left to skulk off, building his strength for the second season.
Given the series is already green-lit to continue and there are three novels to adapt, this will hardly come as a surprise to viewers. In fact, that’s been the show’s biggest problem: everything has felt like build-up to the next 13 episodes. Cliffhangers are fine, but when there is no climax to a narrative arc after 13 hours of TV, that’s a problem.
The show has, like the book, flashed up location titles at every opportunity, an attempt to convey the rapid spread of the plague, but the scale of events has never quite convinced; despite opening with an airport, things have since been distinctly grounded. It’s no coincidence that the show’s most thrilling sequence occurred when confined to a petrol station – or that every time the notion of a wider world is raised (mostly through Dutch shutting down the Internet), things become more laughable than is intended.
But showrunner Carlton Cuse and co-creator Chuck Hogan team up to script this final outing and deliver one of the show’s stronger episodes. Directed by Mad Men and The Sopranos veteran Phil Abraham, it’s the best looking chapter since del Toro helmed Episode 1. The more we see of (seemingly-good-vamp) Mr. Quinlan’s face, the more disturbing he becomes and even The Master looks a little less like Sesame Street’s The Descent. The sets, meanwhile, drip with style – and often more tangible fluids – while the tunnels that sprawl under the city are fantastically atmospheric.
And so, while Eldritch Palmer galavants about like Kevin Spacey’s excitable uncle above ground, raising political hell, it’s the stuff below ground that really works. Here, we find Gus with Mr. Quinlan (Stephen McHattie), who at last explains what exactly is going on. “A turf war?” snarls Miguel Gomez’s bad-ass, biting great chunks out of the hammy dialogue. The barmy reveal gives us a hint of that scale missing from the series so far – and, just in case the strigoi’s weirdness was starting to get stale, a fresh dose of Guillermo del Toro’s warped mythology.
“It is a small world after all,” laments Setrakian, as we gaze over the city one last time. “We made it that way.”
If The Strain can step up a gear and stop dawdling, Episode 13 does what the first season seems destined to do all along: convince you that it holds promise for a second. Judging by the slow progress made in Season 1, though, there is no guarantee that this promise will ever be fully delivered. At least one thing remains true: The Strain is enjoyably trashy TV, especially when it rediscovers its pulse. The world is not what it was one week ago. What will it be one season from now? Probably much the same.
The Strain Season 1 is available on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with the first month only £1 if you sign up before 27th September. You can also buy it on blinkbox, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Wuaki.tv and Google Play.
Where can I watch The Strain on pay-per-view VOD?