Sunday, July 19, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Strain' - Setrakian Digs Into His Research While Eph and Nora Run Experiments in 'By Any Means'

FX's The Strain - Episode 2.02 "By Any Means"

Eph and Nora experiment on their newfound patients. Fet and Dutch grow closer as they clear out the neighborhood buildings. Kelly begins her hunt for Zach.

Last week's season premiere did a great job at re-establishing the stakes and horrors of the show. It still had many problematic moments - and that trend continues in "By Any Means" as well. But it often focused on the elements of the narrative that worked really well. There was less of that in the second episode of the season. There was nothing close to the epic prologue scene that opened the premiere. However, it was still fantastic to see the show gaining more confidence with its action set pieces. Sure, Setrakian and Fet's big escape from Eldritch's new food pantry wasn't all that compelling. Were they able to escape his bodyguards simply because they slammed a door shut really hard? But the episode also had a rousing success when it came to Fet and Dutch taking out the vampires in the activity center's bathroom. There was interesting camerawork on display as well as a willingness to actually go for those moments in the most exciting way possible. It was thrilling. It was easy to understand why the two of them would use that high to finally hook up.

As exciting as that sequence was, Dutch and Fet were only on the fringes of the episode's story. The hour had two major focuses in Eph and Nora doing their best to develop a biological weapon against the vampires and Setrakian reading his notes to remember what he had forgotten about a book that could also be weaponized against the Master. Both of those stories had solid ideas with which to build a meaningful story around. And yet, the show was only half-interested in exploring those plot threads. The show's need to touch on almost every corner of its universe in every single episode was a huge deficit in the first season. Things flowed well in the season premiere. But this episode continues that scattered approach to the show's detriment. Several key moments aren't able to land because the show has to cut away to some city officials in a room discussing the pandemic or Eichhorst and Gabriel relaying information the audience already knows about. Moments like that take the tension out of the stories that desperately need it. They do show that Eph, Fet and the rest of the group may be getting a powerful and competent ally soon in this fight to save the city and that Gabriel has risen in prominence amongst the vampire hierarchy. But they weren't completely necessary.

The morality over what Eph and Nora are doing to these two infected people should be a huge deal. The show has explored that the most humane thing a person can do is kill the infected. That's a clean and simple death. It takes all the suffering out of the experience. Because Eph and Nora want to better understand this disease, they have to force their subjects to undergo the entire transformation. It's a horrible thing that they are doing. But they are doing it for the greater good. They want to effectively wipe out this disease so it can't destroy all of humanity. That's a noble cause. And yet, the weight of what they are doing needs to be seen. This whole experience has to effect them in some way. But it really doesn't - at least not in a way that makes it meaningful. They are trying to understand. But there isn't a whole big argument over how the two should proceed with such an experiment. Zach has been a horrible character this season so far. He's even more whiny than he was last season. He wants to know what his dad and Nora are doing. He is the only person left out of the conversation. That's entirely because Eph wants to protect his son. But it's not a story beat that the show knows how to handle well. Zach erasing the word "Infect" on Eph's research board should be a symbolic moment on the internal struggle and separation between the two characters. The show does it and thinks the audience will be riveted by the imagery. First of all, it's a very weak image. And second, there was no effective buildup or reason why the audience should invest in how Zach is feeling at this point in time.

The audience knows that Kelly is on the prowl with more power than ever. She is able to lord over the new vampire creations with such intensity. Her only mission at the moment is to find Zach. It's interesting that this disease can kill the host's body piece by piece but still be able to keep a portion of his or her memory. The vampires are essentially dead. They can't be cured. And yet, those memories of love are still capable of manifesting. That is suppose to bring out hope that something can be done to save the infected. That underneath the monstrosity, Kelly still exists. It's going to be horrible when Zach and Kelly finally reunite. He is so hopeful because he doesn't know any better. Eph is trying to be a good father and failing at it. He is drinking again (which doesn't manifest in any interesting complications). But more importantly, he is withholding key information that would allow Zach to understand the world as it is now. That's the most dangerous thing. Eph doesn't think Zach is ready for such brutality. And yet, that world is being thrust onto this family no matter what. That is only going to lead to more whining and misunderstanding before leading to a rousing moment where Eph has to rescue Zach from Kelly. It's a forthcoming moment that is painfully telegraphed in the narrative in the most blatant way possible.

And then, the episode's other major story with Setrakian was largely told through him staring at a book and reminiscing about the past. The show utilized several flashbacks for that character in the first season. He has lived a long life that has been plagued by these creatures. And yet, how much of that story does the audience actually need to see? It's great that the information has been given as to how Setrakian got his sword. But him having a history with Eldritch doesn't add a whole lot to the narrative. It's all building up to their confrontation later. But that moment isn't fueled by some big realization either. It's simply Setrakian being reenergized in this battle against evil. But he never really lost that spark or that hope either. He was frustrated for a moment. One moment that allowed him to throw all of his research around the room. But that didn't make him feel like he was a failure falling prey to the battle of old age. It simply felt like a story beat that the show thought it had to do to make things look completely hopeless before finding a glimmer of hope. That's literally all Setrakian has to go off of. And yet, it's not an effective moment for the episode because the audience is fully aware that the book isn't the only thing standing in the way of the heroes and the Master. Things aren't hopeless which takes the urgency out of the narrative - and doesn't replace it with anything remotely interesting.  

Some more thoughts:
  • "By Any Means" was written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle and directed by TJ Scott.
  • Coco has officially joined Eldritch's team as... his speechwriter? That does offer more clarity on what her purpose will be moving forward. But how much of his big speech was on the paper and how much did he feel in the moment? The way it was shot left things ambivalent.
  • While Eichhorst laying in the Master's coffin was a very cool image, there was absolutely no reason or context for it to make a lasting impression.
  • The greatness of the Fet and Dutch take out vampires scene is undercut by just how elongated and boring their later hookup was. There was just way too much bloated dialogue and situational conflict. By the time they actually kissed, the moment had passed.
  • Does the show really think the only way the audience could identity a young Setrakian from the 1960s is if he was sporting the same facial hair as he is now? That was weird even though the casting for both the young Setrakian and young Eldritch was strong.
  • It only took Eph and Nora two test subjects to figure out a way that could effectively hurt the vampires. How in the world did they not think of this sooner? As smart as they allegedly are, they are really dumb at times.