Sunday, October 4, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Strain' - Eldritch Betrays Eichhorst & the Master While Kelly Makes One Final Attack in 'Night Train'

FX's The Strain - Episode 2.13 "Night Train"

Setrakian and Fet battle for possession of the Occido Lumen, and gain a surprising new ally. A massive attack imperils Eph, Nora and Zach's escape from New York.

All season long, Setrakian has been searching for the Occido Lumen, an ancient book that details the secrets of the Master. It represents the turning point in this battle for mankind. With it, Setrakian and his comrades can attack the Master in a much more meaningful way. The way that the show dramatized Setrakian's search for the book this season was very tiresome and annoying. It became clear that this was the only significant thing he was going to do all season and that he wouldn't get his hands on it until the finale. Well, it's now the finale and Setrakian does close the season with the Lumen in his possession. That should feel like a massive victory for the show and the character. It's not though. The tension is high regarding this conflict for the book. That is exciting. But the book's significance is only spoken of in the abstract. It holds secrets that will remain secret until Season 3. So the personal side of this conflict needed to be adequately explored if answers weren't going to come. And yet, everything Setrakian did this year became so one note that it's hard to care that he has finally gotten the thing he so desperately was searching for.

The season had been building to this conflict at the church between Setrakian and Eichhorst in "Night Train." It was a different way for the two of them to duke it out. Usually they fight physically with the battle always ending with Eichhorst miraculously being able to flee the scene. Here, it's almost a battle of the wits. Money and greed will determine who takes the Lumen. This kind of conflict needs to exist in order to understand the tension between the two characters. It's fun seeing them battle in the same way over and over again. This is a nice change but it's not something the show remotely does well. All the tension in the scene comes from who has the most money that can be transferred into gold. It also hinges on Eldritch being angry enough at Eichhorst and the Master to withdraw them from his account during this crucial meeting. It's a display of his power but it's such a predictable twist too.

However, the finale can't hinge on a battle between good and evil that is just talk. That can be delightful but it just doesn't suit this show for a finale. Tension and action sequences are usually what this show does best. Even though they have been more routine and monotonous, they are still thrilling. That's what makes the rest of the finale slightly more thrilling. But again, whenever the characters are the actual focus of the action scenes, the show loses momentum because it's still so hard to feel anything for the characters. Fet and Gus launching attacks on the vampire army attacking the truck is thrilling. Both men are just following orders by people in control of the situation - Setrakian and Quinlan. Those two want the same thing but are also fighting each other for it. Quinlan told Gus that they would have to take the Lumen from Setrakian. And yet, Quinlan isn't loyal to the Ancients. So he was never reasonably going to do their bidding like this. Setrakian has a point in saying that the Ancients will just destroy the book to keep its knowledge secret. A tentative Setrakian-Quinlan alliance is very shaky. These players are only united in their shared goal of defeating the Master without any other interested party getting in their way.

The season ends with Setrakian sitting down to read the book. Again, none of its information is made known to the audience. Setrakian still has to transcribe the whole thing. That is going to require time - something that they really don't have at the moment. The season ends basically in the same way that Season 1 did. A ragtag group of people are stuck in some transportation vehicle with things seeming more dire than before. Having the Lumen is a massive victory but both the Master and the Ancients will pursue them more relentlessly as a result. The camera pans out to show the continuing fall of New York City. It basically amounts to several more buildings on fire. It's the exact same image as the end of last season. The context is slightly different. More characters are involved and the weight of this conflict has more meaning throughout the city. But it's still too similar to feel like this season made any significant progress at all with anything.

The battle for the Lumen is one of the stories happening in this finale. The other involves Eph, Nora and Zach trying to get out of the city so Zach can be safe and Eph and Nora can refine their bioweapon. It also leads to the final confrontation of the season with Kelly. Kelly has been a vastly more interesting character since she was turned. But that also made Zach an even more annoying and frustrating character. He did the same thing and learned the same thing over and over again. He was hopeful that his mother was still alive and could be cured. He saw her in action and was scared of what she was capable of. He knew that she was no longer his mom. And then, he would see her again and the cycle would repeat. It was the absolute worst thing the show did this season - and it did a bunch of really stupid things. This final confrontation isn't any less tense. But it was also lessoned by the fact that the characters don't act in any understandable way. The storytelling fails them. It makes Eph important. But all that emotional character work is for the future. Here, he is mostly sidelined from the action which makes the climatic scene of the story feel anticlimactic and lame.

Nora's death here isn't unexpected. All the usual TV signs were pointing to it in the previous episode that explored her backstory with Eph and reintroduced their grand love story. However, it was a case of too little, too late. The show never really knew what to do with her. She was basically a surrogate mom to Zach this season. Her maternal instincts were there. That's what made the fight with Kelly make thematic sense. But that entire scene hinges on Zach's emotional state. The erratic nature of a child determines this big death sequence. It's horrible. Because Zach doesn't run away like Nora told him, she dies. Her death happens in order to get a reaction from Eph and Zach. They respond in different ways. It's hard to understand why Zach does anything in the scene. His love for his mother can't still be that strong. If it is, then what has his character arc actually been this season? He feels exactly the same as the beginning of the year. And yet, he gets Nora killed and then willingly goes off with Kelly. It's just so weird. Then, Eph appears in the scene too late to do anything and has to stand over Nora as she takes her own life to avoid becoming a servant for the Master. It is a hyper-stylized scene but it never plays as a moment the show has really earned. Her death happens to set Eph on his course for the third season. It's not really a conclusion to this one that establishes stakes and despair for the character. He is alone in the end having lost everyone he cares about with no way to mass produce his bioweapon. That makes him a questionable presence for next season. But the reaction doesn't make the story as a whole for this season remarkably better than it was. It was mediocre with some moments of true horror and action.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Night Train" was written by Carlton Cuse & Chuck Hogan and directed by Vincenzo Natali.
  • It's also not surprising that Coco dies as well. She was a big proponent of Eldritch standing up to Eichhorst and the Master to remind them of his worth in this partnership. She had no reason to be as confident as she was. The Master killing her shows that he and Eldritch aren't partners. The Master needs Eldritch but he is just as capable of taking away someone he deeply cares about.
  • Also, it's not good that this show that doesn't do characters all that well kills off two female characters at the end of the season solely for the reaction of their male co-stars. It's problematic even though I'm never looking for this show to handle issues like that all that well.
  • No Dutch at all in this finale. I can't say she was missed too terribly either. Now both she and Eph are alone and probably looking for the rest of the team. Unfortunately, they are hiding on a boat in the middle of the river.
  • The train derailing because it runs over hundreds of vampires was a very fun and chilling sequence. Yes, it was dark and probably CGI'd but the effect was really cool. And yet, there weren't enough vampires in the aftermath of that collision.
  • This season of The Strain had moments that worked. The same things that were compelling and fascinating were largely the same this year - creature design, Guillermo del Toro direction, performances by Richard Sammel and Jonathan Hyde, etc. But it also didn't really add much that made the overall storytelling feel as effective as it was going for. The show has been renewed for Season 3. I will probably keep watching. But it's still just for those few things and not because the show is one of the best right now.