UK TV review: The Strain Episode 11 (The Third Rail)
Ivan Radford | On 26, Nov 2014
“We should think this out. Regroup.” “We’ve got him on the run! We must press on!”
Episode 11 of The Strain is the entire show in a nutshell: a frantic dash through blind tunnels to find the next big confrontation that, when you pause to think about it, makes no sense at all.
If the title – The Third Rail – doesn’t give it away, the episode sees our group of vampire hunters take to the subway to find The Master’s nest. It’s a desperate move, but a welcome one. After last week’s demonstration that stopping to explain everything to an audience is a surefire way to kill the tension, Episode 11 ramps the pace back up again to produce the most exciting episode since our petrol station showdown.
These moments are when the show really clicks: when the odds are stacked high and thinking room is kept low. They are also the moments when Chuck Hogan gets involved: either because the original co-author of Guillermo del Toro’s novels is capable of elevating the show’s pulp to levels of adrenaline-pumping entertainment, or because he secretly already knows which episodes are the fun ones.
Whichever the answer, he and Justin Britt-Gibson do a great job of tapping back into that single location claustrophobia in the darkness of the New York railway, all shadows and craggy walls. The central set piece sees our team struggle through a small shaft to escape The Master’s army. It’s a sign of just how smart the show can be that we don’t just see one person wriggle through: we watch the whole gang attempt it, one at a time. Will Setrakian’s heart hold out to make it to the other side? Will Fet be able to fit? Will Nora get to Eph in time to help him? And will our hero, frantically following the sound of his wife’s voice, come to his senses?
A disembodied loved one’s voice floating through an empty underground cavern calling for help? What do you think, Admiral Ackbar?
Of course, that ability to spot a trap is all part of the fun of The Strain’s game. It’s a series that understands the horror formula. Just look at the monsters themselves, designed to be as strange as possible to fuel audience fear in the face of so many familiar stereotypes. When they’re following our heroes through subterranean passages, we’re not afraid for the characters’ safety; we just don’t want to see one of those weird tentacles shoot out again.
Back above ground, the same principle applies with Eph’s son, Zach, who – for some unfathomable reason – is left to look after Nora’s mother, whose dementia is getting worse. Demanding that he fetch her cigarettes, he ventures out of Setrakian’s pawn shop; an escapade that gives the young star a chance to shine. He proves to be more sympathetic than the rest of the cast, showing just the right amount of naivety to complement his stubborn bravery.
Deran Sarafian directs his trek through a looted supermarket with the same awareness of location that has defined The Strain’s best bits, with grocery-related scenery all contriving against him. Sarafian has previous with gribblies on Hemlock Grove and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and he’s more than a match for the wonderful make-up and effects work. It’s just a shame, then, that the episode ultimately leans towards the latter, as The Master makes his first full-scene appearance. He looks laughably silly: more marshmallow than vampire, as if someone tried to sculpt The Joker out of discarded packets of Flumps.
It’s never a good sign when the chief villain is the worst thing about a TV series, especially when the rest of the undead are so creepy. Curiously, it’s almost the reverse of what happened with The Hobbit, where the orcs – carrying touches of del Toro’s original designs – were made up with excellent practical effects, only to be replaced by silly CGI. Here, the production team stuck with the old-school approach, but never stopped to take a step back.
That, of course, is the problem with the whole programme: consider it for more than a minute and it all becomes far too dumb to enjoy. “So you believe now? If we slay the Master, this plague of vampirism ends today?” asks Nora, at the start of the episode, reminding us just how silly the narrative logic is. “I have to believe it,” replies Corey Stoll’s Eph, who remains likeable despite being a douche. It helps that he spends so much time on the move. The same is true of David Bradley, whose hat-wearing pensioner is far more bad-ass when he’s slicing and dicing than when he’s delivering chunks of exposition. One scene where Bradley goes at The Master’s coffin with a hammer is fantastically performed, as frantic as it is rewarding.
And yet they soon find themselves having to stop anyway – and our brains start to whir. Why has Gus still not joined up with our team, despite encountering one of them halfway through? Why has it taken 11 episodes to assemble even half of the cast together? And why, with two episodes left, has The Strain not kept up this kind of breakneck pacing the whole way through? “We should think this out,” says Fet. “Regroup.” “We must press on!” insists Setrakian, wildly. We’re with him.
The Strain Season 1 is available on NOW, 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.