Sunday, August 9, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Strain' - Eph Sets Off for D.C. While Nora, Fet and Dutch Team Up with the Police in 'Quick and Painless'

FX's The Strain - Episode 2.05 "Quick and Painless"

Eph changes his appearance to leave the city while Nora is left as the reluctant parent for Zach. Dutch and Nora make a deal with Justine to secure Fet's release from jail.

The state of disarray in New York City has always been a heavily contentious point on The Strain. At times, everyone seems aware that vampires have started taking over their city. And then somewhere else, it's business as usual with people posing in front of reporters and cameras without any sense of tension or dread apparent. It has certainly been the weirdest part of the show. Speaking in front of reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour, showrunner Carlton Cuse basically said that the New Yorkers in the show have been trying to ignore what's happening in their city for as long as possible. Later, the creative team on the panel said that only a few days has passed - which makes no logical sense whatsoever. It's basically what they needed to tell themselves in order to justify their decisions regarding the show. But that was never an angle that the show was able to well articulate to the audience. It's not until this episode that some character gives some sense of reasoning as to why people can ignore the apocalypse. The explanation isn't that great and the show doesn't linger on it.

"Quick and Painless" promises a lot of changes to the core narrative. They are all incredibly welcomed too. This is the first episode of the show this season where the tension remains consistent throughout. The city has reached a point where no one can continue acting like nothing is happening. The action is high throughout the hour. Finding the horror within those action beats has always been a strong point for the show. So it's great to see the show gaining more confidence and not wasting time on silly contrivances regarding people who don't want to think about the central premise of the entire show. Contrivances still occur. But the show has reached the point in its life where the horror and urgency of the narrative is able to be the overwhelming drive of the episode.

The Strain is no longer a show about a ragtag group of survivors doing their best to stop the vampire apocalypse. Eph, Nora, Fet, Dutch and Setrakian certainly know more about this plague than the average citizen. But they've constantly been met with opposition that hinders them from effectively bringing change to the city. Basically the story up to this point was sidelining the heroes long enough so that the vampire population can rise a significant amount. It certainly is more thrilling watching characters placed in situations where the monsters outnumber the humans. Those tactical moments are very thrilling stuff and this episode has plenty of them. It's also fantastic to see Nora, Dutch and Fet get some much needed assistance in this ongoing war. It was apparent from the moment Justine appeared onscreen that the heroes would one day team up with her. And now, the show no longer feels the need to prolong such a meeting. Justine and her police officers are able to trade tips with the team over how to handle the monsters. It's just such a relief to have every character in the scene openly communicating about what is actually happening in the dark corners of this city. The show has been so against that for so long that it's remarkable that it is finally allowed to happen.

It's still going to be an uphill battle for control of the city. The police force is still losing members on a regular basis - especially whenever they encounter Kelly and the feelers. But the team is being united in much larger and more significant way. It was always hard to believe that Eph and company were able to take on the Master and his army all by themselves. Now they have an actual team that can provide backup. That still may not be enough. But now, there's unity behind the cause. Everyone is becoming aware of what these creatures really are and how the infection spreads. That's still very devastating. But it will hopefully bring about meaningful action. It's great watching Dutch and Fet join the police to evacuate a building. That was just such a strong action set piece. Fet's arrest wasn't as big a plot contrivance as I initially feared. Sure, the show writes it off very quickly and makes him best friends with the officer. But who cares? It led to a team up that actually got stuff accomplished even though the war is only just getting started for the citizens of New York.

That proves that even if a contrivance creates a plot, the action and story of it can still be very entertaining. That's also apparent in Eph's story. His fugitive status has never been something the show has ever addressed all that well. But here, it was used in order to create a fantastic subplot that didn't need vampires in order to create suspense and tension. It's astonishing how much more interesting Eph is once he shaves his head. Before that moment, he is still an infuriating character. He is very hopeful about taking Nora and Zach on this journey with him to Washington, D.C. It's a high risk operation. He never would have been successful if he had to take those two characters with him. And yet, he is still stubborn about that. And then, he shaved his head and suddenly he was a man capable of thinking smartly. He is able to get onto the train and avoid any kind of suspicion. It was tension of the psychological nature. He doesn't know if he'll be recognized and that's inherently tense and exciting. He ultimately does get noticed by his former boss at the CDC. It's not that great that the show is able to kill that character with very little emotion whatsoever. He sided with the vampires in this war because that was his only option. But there's no anger or hatred towards him either. He was simply an obstacle that stood in Eph's way.

However, it is meaningful that Eph pushed Dr. Barnes off of the train during their big tussle. He is a changed man. He won't let anyone get in the way of his mission. He believes he is acting nobly for his city. He thinks he'll get this weapon to the Army to use and then go live in his old house with Zach and Nora. That's incredibly wishful thinking. But it's the hope that is fueling his every action right now. When he steps off that train in D.C., he is walking into an environment vastly different than the one he came from. The city around him is operating like nothing is wrong. Again, that's a quality that the show is comfortable with. But now, it at least has a reason why. New York City is where the plague is located right now. Eph may be able to get assistance during this big trip. But they may have a different urgency to the situation right now. More ignorance probably isn't the best thing to add to the narrative yet again. But at least the situation in New York has gotten significantly better. Hopefully, that's a sign of good things to come for the rest of the season. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Quick and Painless" was written by Liz Phang and directed by J. Miles Dale.
  • Apparently, Jamie Hector's Alfonzo is the only gangster still operating in New York City. His run-ins with Gus last season weren't that great. But adding Setrakian to the environment kept things as tense as the rest of the hour. Sure, the book still hasn't been found. But things are definitely closing in.
  • After a solid lead last week, Kelly and the feelers seem just as clueless as ever over where Zach actually is. And Zach continues to be the worst. He needs a character rewrite just like his dad.
  • Do Dutch and Fet just have an unlimited supply of silver grenades and bullets? As vital as they are, it would be nice to know just how aware the rest of the characters are to their remaining supply.
  • Eldritch explains to Coco that "denial is a special privilege for the rich." That's a somewhat explanation for how things can still be somewhat normal in their part of the city. It still seems odd that that can still happen when a building is on fire the next street over!
  • The show just really doesn't know how to handle any kind of romantic moment well. Dutch and Fet have moments but the show can't sustain them. Eph and Nora don't work all that well. And now, something is happening between Eldritch and Coco. That scene just lingered for too long and sucked the tension and greatness from the rest of the episode.
  • The episode also ends with a mysterious stranger landing in New Jersey and making his way to the city. I'm guessing he'll be Vaun's replacement for the Ancients. But he definitely adds an uncertain element to things for the immediate future. Let's hope the show doesn't waste that like it has so many previous promising moments.