Sunday, August 28, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Strain' - Eph Struggles Without Zack While the Strigoi's Evolution Changes the War in 'New York Strong'

FX's The Strain - Episode 3.01 "New York Strong"

The strigoi are evolving, becoming faster and smarter. Eph struggles to improve his bioweapon while trying to work through the emotional fallout of Zack's abduction. Setrakian and Quinlan attempt to crack the Lumen's deepest-held secrets. Fet helps a Navy SEAL team in a deadly mission: a search for the Master through the underground tunnels of New York.

There are times throughout "New York Strong" where it feels like The Strain has become a completely different show. The government is actually doing something about the strigoi that is actually beneficial to the community. Trained Navy SEALs are the ones in the tunnels below the city taking on the hoards of creatures. People are actually aware that the apocalypse is happening and chaos roams the streets during daylight. There's no time for silly romantic subplots because the Master's army continues to grow. All of these things stand in stark contrast to what the show has done in its first two seasons. No matter how silly those decisions were, the show still decided to go down that path. So now, it's strange and different when something completely new happens at the start of the third season. It should be interesting to see if such common sense storytelling extends throughout the whole season though. Of course, some things remain the same. This will always be a frustrating series when it comes to episodic analysis. That's a trend that continues in this new season no matter how different and smarter the show is in a number of ways.

Some of these changes were able to occur because there has been a small time jump between seasons. Passage of time has never been something this show has been great at. Apparently, only three weeks have passed over the course of the series so far. That seems completely baffling given everything that has happened and how it felt like things were deliberately taking longer than they should have. Those pacing problems came from the narrative arc of the stories and not from the onscreen timeline though. In its first season, the show was promoted as this apocalypse only taking a month to take over an entire city - with the world following shortly after that. So, it's not surprising that the entire series has focused on that one month where everyone is fighting to stay alive and defeat this vicious and horrifying plague. It's just not something that has been dramatized all that well. The show spent the majority of its second season in search of the Occido Lumen. It's a book that can dramatically alter the fate of this war with the Master. It became something important early in the season. But it quickly became clear that the book's hidden secrets wouldn't be revealed until the third season. And now, the third season has started. Time has passed. And yet, there still isn't any indication that the Lumen can change the direction of this war.

It's so frustrating that the Lumen remains just a plot device that everyone is after for mysterious and vague reasons. That was the sole motivating factor for a number of characters last season. And now, it's still fuel for a ton of conflict. None of it is especially well-handed because the audience still has no clue how the Lumen can actually hurt the Master and the rest of the Ancients. That's a huge concern for Quinlan and the Ancients. But there's still no evidence of the immense value the Lumen has as a piece of text. Setrakian has even been reading it too. It's not some mystery because no one has actually been able to open the thing. Setrakian has had it for a week now. And yet, he's no closer to solving its hidden secrets and unlocking the key to defeating the Master. All it's really providing is some vague statements that revert back to traditional religious terminology. That's just so lackluster. This premiere highlights so much change throughout the city. So much of that change was unexpected. But the change the show conditioned the audience to expect this season has not occurred yet. No adequate reason has been produced yet for such rationalization either. So even if the series is a bit more exciting with its action beats, it's still a show that loves stalling techniques just to prolong its mystery and tension for as long as possible.

The action sequences are still very exciting. They have always been that way. In the beginning, it was just a ragtag group of people who knew what was really going on with this outbreak. Now, more people are aware of what's happening and can no longer refuse to believe it. It's incredibly silly that Setrakian's opening narration for the premiere mentions the government bringing in the National Guard to defend the city against these creatures. That must have happened in between the seasons because it sure did not happen last year. In its first two seasons, it was important that government bureaucracy kept the appropriate organizations from doing anything to stop this outbreak in its infancy. The show was basically saying that the government won't help the public when it comes time for the apocalypse. That was always a weird stance to take. And now, things have completely changed. Fet is actually working with a group of Navy SEALs to search the tunnels for the Master. He's actually doing something to hunt the enemy down. Setrakian wants to be more cautious. Of course, no one is prepared for how the strigoi have evolved. These creatures have always been scary, cool and creepy to look out. But the show has struggled in defining the different stages of strigoi. There are so many different forms of maturation. It's been said it takes a month for the infected to fully mature as strigoi. But that hasn't meant anything for the narrative stakes of the show. Now, it's suddenly important that they can disable all of this technology and take out the best soldiers the government has. It sets up just how hopeless this fight really is. But did the show really need to re-establish the stakes of this war just by killing off a bunch of tertiary characters important for one episode?

Fet is the only one to survive that final confrontation with the Master. He survives solely because he's a series regular character. The SEALs are killed off in order to prove that the Lumen is the only hope of defeating the Master. Once again, all of this importance is being thrusted onto the Lumen. And yet, it has done nothing to justify such importance. Right now, it's crucial that the government is giving up all hope on New York City. They are devoting more resources to cities where the number of infected isn't so high. It doesn't matter that they've reversed their thinking and have accepted that there is a king in charge of this outbreak. This hour mostly just highlights just how much despair is defining the world right now. Everything that gave the narrative and the characters hope last season isn't as great as everyone wanted. The Lumen has provided no meaningful assistance. Eph's bioweapon is slowly starting to fail. Justine's safe zones are growing but becoming increasingly harder to secure. The state of the world is very precarious right now. There's nothing providing a whole lot of hope right now beyond the Lumen. Everything revolves around that book. But again, it's a plot device that doesn't really have much of a function.

And then, there's the complicated mess that is Eph's personal life. That part of the character has always been very problematic. He's been fighting to save and protect his family during the apocalypse. He's been failing at that too. The Master got Kelly and has now turned her against him. But more importantly, Zack chose to run away towards the strigoi for some reason. He is one of the most frustrating and annoying child characters on any show right now. That decision made no sense at all and didn't particularly track well with the events of the season preceding it. And yet, it was something that occurred. And now, Eph is all depressed and drinking his sorrows away. That's basically his whole character arc in this premiere. He's continuing to develop the bioweapon. But every single thing he does is either to get drunk or to find his son. It's not a particularly meaningful story. And yet, it sets up the big cliffhanger at the end. Kelly reaches out and proposes a trade. The Master will return Zack if Eph hands over the Lumen. It adds to the personal complications of the Lumen's importance. It will certainly spark some serious conflict between Eph, Setrakian and Quinlan. But none of that really sounds all that exciting. It just sounds like a predictable mess that could really get in the way of the show actually thriving with some new creative energy.

Some more thoughts:
  • "New York Strong" was written by Carlton Cuse & Chuck Hogan and directed by J. Miles Dale.
  • Romance was something the show desperately tried to do in its second season and failed spectacularly. So, it's great that that element is completely gone here. And yet, that apparently means all of the female characters disappear as well. Justine is still here. But she's not the one actually driving the story forward. She just pops up to complain to Eph and Fet. Meanwhile, Kelly is literally a slave to the Master and delivers his proposition to Eph.
  • Fet doesn't trust Quinlan because he is part strigoi. Those creatures represent a threat to his city. He wants to get rid of all of them. He doesn't believe any of them can be good. That's a belief that will more than likely create conflict at some time this season.
  • Eph is now just driving a taxi around the city. It's something he can now do because Justine is protecting him from a government who sees him as a fugitive. That's nice. It represents a change of pace as well. But it can only provide so much protection from the strigoi.
  • Gus is apparently back at his mother's apartment again. He's tied his mother up instead of killing her. He's hoping she's still inside there somewhere. Until he knows for certain, he's giving her his blood to eat. Yeah, this is already a story to be concerned about this year.
  • The show tried a credit sequence at one point last season. It was cool. So now, it's actually going to be a regular thing. And yet, it's a completely new sequence this year. It's not all that great or particularly memorable though.