UK TV review: The Strain Season 2, Episode 1
James R | On 26, Aug 2015
“You’re a doctor. Find a cure,” demands Eph’s son in the opening episode of The Strain Season 2, but not before uttering a well-chosen swear word. If you can’t imagine the ickle Zach of Season 1 cursing at his pa, that’s because he’s not the same Zach: Max Charles has replaced Ben Hyland in the role. After an uneven Season 1, The Strain is certainly in need of some changes. But is that the only one we can expect from the show’s return?
The series, based on Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s trilogy of novels, gave us a unique new spin on vampire lore last year: instead of bats and castles, the beasts hunt the streets of New York; instead of bite marks to the neck, the disease is spread through worms in the blood; instead of fangs, they have stingers that shoot out from their mouths.
The show has always been at its best when focusing on the intrinsic freakiness of that alien body horror – and at its worst when doing anything else, be it the family woes of alcoholic, divorced scientist Eph (Corey Stoll) and his romantically-entangled colleague, Nora (Mia Maestro), the noble-thief origins of good-hearted (and bad-assed) gangster Gus (Miguel Gomez), or the detours to the sinister Stoneheart Group boss Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), who craves immortality.
The weakest detour from the neo-Draculas, though, were the flashbacks to the Holocaust back-story of Van Helsing-alike Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), when he crossed paths with TV’s most sinister German, Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel). The bad news is that Season 2 opens with another flashback. The good news is that it’s nothing to do with WWII. Instead, we’re whisked away to a Polish village to see how The Master got his body. Shadowy, creepy and suitably gory, the segment (directed by Guillermo del Toro) is a reminder of how unsettling a monster can be when you don’t see it. So it’s a shame that, back in the present day, we remain saddled with the make-up job that soured the second half of Season 1: The Master’s minions may be terrifying, but The Master himself still looks like Sesame Street remade Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Fortunately, though, his encounter with Setrakian at the end of Season 1 has left him weakened and in need of a new host – another promising sign that things could be in for a mix-up.
The biggest shift of all is in the episode’s pacing: this opening to Season 2 zips along with some of the momentum of Season 1’s latter chapters, mostly thanks to the groundwork that’s gone before. Setrakian, Gus and our VampOps leader Mr. Quinlan (Stephen McHattie) finally cross paths, while Zach’s mum also feels more relevant to events, as she is officially crowned The Master’s right hand woman – a hiring clearly intended to help her go straight after Zach. And yet it’s also revealing that a newcomer could join in with this season and probably understand everything just fine; Season 1 spent so long laying its foundations and lining plot threads up that, in many ways, not very much happened. (Let’s not forget that The Master just… ran away at the big finale, like the bad guy in an episode of Inspector Gadget.)
Time spent with Eldritch Palmer this week feels like a remnant of that haphazard story-telling: he spends most of the episode flirting with an estate agent, which does little to develop either his character or the narrative. Exchanges between him and Eichorst, no matter how good Sammel is at smiling with his menacingly thin lips, only make you suspect that The Master mightly do perfectly well with only one sidekick, not two.
At least our good guys are being put to use, as Season 2 swiftly sets up its structure for the coming weeks: Setrakian is keen to find a book that might help defeat the strigoi; Gus is on board with Mr. Quinlan’s turf war against the evil undead; and Fet (Kevin Durand, as charming as ever) plans to track the critters through the city, one block at a time.
Which leaves us with Eph, Nora and Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas), the British female hacker who was invented solely for the TV show – partly to “shut down the Internet”, as an excuse for why the entire world hasn’t entered panic mode yet. Hints of Eph and Dutch flirting seem like something out of another series altogether, which suggests they may not have much of a plan for the welcome extra female presence, but Eph’s behaviour is just as odd: Corey Stoll is deliberately presented as more of a brawlerthan a boffin, his alcohol problem rearing its head once more to remind us that he’s not that nice a guy. Is the attempt at romantic tension just to emphasise that point, like Zach’s heightened aggression? Either way, it doesn’t get in the way of Eph and Nora doing some hardcore Sciencing. As the pair try to come up with a medical weapon to defeat this unnatural virus, The Strain finds a flicker of its original fear – in the biology of its creator’s brain.
Scenes where the show stops trying for serious drama and simply enjoys its trashy creature design – projectile vomiting, a school full of children, and a chained-up dinner sesh are all fantastically unnerving moments, heavily splashed with crimson – are as entertaining as the ones involving marker pens and flow charts. The Strain’s biggest asset is it treatment of familiar mythology, remembering that its protagonist isn’t a warrior, but a doctor trying to find a cure. Season 2 of The Strain may not begin with enough changes to convince those who tuned out last time around, but at least that one thing has stayed the same.
Season 1 and 2 of The Strain are available to watch online in the UK on NOW, as part of a £6.99 Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
Photo: Copyright 2015, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.