UK TV review: The Strain Season 1, Episode 5 (Runaways)
Ivan Radford | On 15, Oct 2014
“Like a… vampire?” asks Eph at start of The Strain this week. And there you have it. It has taken five episodes for someone to mention the word “vampire” in a situation that is clearly reminiscent of all of history’s previous vampire attacks. Guillermo del Toro’s series has thrived on that refusal to name its monsters, the show’s scariness stemming directly from the unfamiliar nature of something usually so familiar. It is perhaps only fitting, then, that this is also the first episode to mark a drop in quality.
“Strigoi,” corrects Setrakian, reinforcing the alien vibe of the beasts. “That’s vampire in… Romanian?” asks Eph, pushing the point. David Bradley delivers another one of his Important Speeches with rasping gravitas, re-stating the programme’s mission statement: “Take away the cape and the fangs and you have a predator, a leech… a blemish.” “I know it’s hard to believe,” he adds. “Even I didn’t at first.”
It’s normal for people to ask questions when masking sense of something – particularly when that something involves a parasitic infection spread by evil glow-in-the-dark-worms, which cause your body to grow a new set of organs, not to mention a tentacle that shoots out of your mouth to suck up other people’s blood. Oh, and blink sideways.
Last week, Sean Astin’s Jim did the same thing – and it redeemed him as a character, also adding some vague hint of realism (not that, but close to that) to events. What last week’s episode also had, though, was some quality critter time: we realised just how diverse the situations involving the new vampires – ok, Strigoi – could be. This week, on the other hand, that diversity goes too far, as we’re treated to a string of flashbacks.
To where? To the Holocaust, of course. After Setrakian’s mention of Nazis and his tense exchange with Eichorst, we’re taken back to the concentration camps where Abraham first encountered this dark force. Evoking the Nazis to illustrate how evil your evil force is? It’s par for the cheesy course in del Toro’s genre game, and could well be taken in poor taste, but what’s important is to do it right. This is where The Strain slips. The show’s limited budget (presumably all spent on the glorious CGI monsters and atmospheric lighting) simply cannot convey the horrors of the Holocaust in any believable way: trains, camps, beds, workers, none of it rings true. So when a guy in a cloak appears and starts feasting on the weak, it doesn’t quite work.
In the present day, it undoubtedly does. We see Nora trying to take care of her dementia-stricken mother, the show’s first real exploration of her character – and one that is much needed. We follow Eph as he tries to find video evidence of the infection to show to the CDC, despite Setrakian warning him that the only solution is the sword, not a smartphone. Meanwhile, exterminator extraordinaire Fet finally follows the runaway rats, the return of Gabriel Bolivar smooth-down-below singer is enjoyably camp, another survivor is introduced via her housekeeper (at times, The Strain has a nice line in focusing on minority supporting characters), and Ansel’s fascinating shed-bound situation takes a shocking turn.
As all of these plot strands descend into bloody carnage, the palpable sense of panic surrounding a viral outbreak begins to emerge. But while Peter Weller’s direction captures it effectively – quiet close-ups of freaky eyelids and shadowy shots of underground tunnels – the smell of cheese becomes a little too strong: taken out of the moment by the weak flashbacks, for the first time, you notice the bad dialogue and the wafer-thin characters. The Strain has survived so far on its ability to scare the crap out of you with unknown enemies. Episode 5 reminds us just how dangerous it can be to get to know your enemy’s past too well.
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.