Sunday, September 11, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Strain' - Eph and Quinlan Plan to Battle the Master to Get Zack Back in 'First Born'

FX's The Strain - Episode 3.03 "First Born"

The Occido Lumen is gone. Setrakian and Fet race to recover it. Gus and Angel try to hide a secret houseguest while avoiding a police sweep. Quinlan's thirst for vengeance is revealed.

There has certainly been a bit more urgency and purpose in The Strain's main story this season. That's what happens when a show only produces 10 episodes a year. It forces the creative team to trim down on all the non-essential elements. It's still doing some pretty stupid things. The Strain will never be a perfect show. Every move feels calculated for some reason or another even though it doesn't feel entertaining or necessary. For example, what the hell is this current story with Gus and Angel? It's completely ridiculous. It's purpose is to push them into being a part of the team sweeping the buildings and expanding the safe areas. That's it. That's something that easily could have been condensed down to a one episode story. Instead it was played out over a couple and featured Gus' mom for some reason. Again, just a very stupid story that doesn't feel like it has a point. And yet, the main story is feeling very climatic. It's surprising that the protagonists engage in battle with the Master in "First Born." It's even more surprising that they seemingly win. Of course, it's only the third episode of the season. How big a victory can this actually be? But it's still thrilling to watch it happen.

The Master is the big bad guy on The Strain. There is no one else. This entire series so far has focused on the relative short timeframe in which he has taken over New York City. It's up to the protagonists to stop him before he turns the entire world and humanity ceases to exist. The team has come face-to-face with the Master a couple of times now. But there has always been some kind of plot device that keeps them from succeeding in their mission to defeat him. There's always some way that he is able to escape virtually unharmed. When they pushed him into the sunlight, he returned in the second season damaged but still able to lead this apocalypse. The show takes that a step further in "First Born." Eph arranges a meeting to exchange the Lumen for Zack. Quinlan ambushes the swap to kill the Master. Fet and Setrakian show up to aid in the fight as well. It's a significant sequence because it ends with Quinlan beheading the Master. He is weakened by Fet's light bombs and then Quinlan delivers the fatal blow. It's played as the victorious moment the series has been building towards. And yet, there's that one worm that escapes the battlefield to the sewer below. So of course, this isn't the end. It's just one more way to keep the Master alive while seemingly offering the heroes a major victory.

Again, it's not surprising that that is what ultimately occurs. This season especially has been building up the Master's grand plan. Kelly and Zack's story has literally just been Zack complaining about being locked up and Kelly telling him that the Master will make his ultimate plan known soon. That's a clear indication that the series is setting up something big. Something that the protagonists aren't planning for. Something that could change the tides of this war dramatically and wipe out the remaining faction of humanity. Palmer essentially confirmed all of that as well last week when he talked about the Master still having a need for him and how his absence would be a crushing blow. So none of that suggests that the Master dies in the third episode of the season. He will be much weaker than he has ever been before. He will need to find a new host as soon as possible. That explains why Jack Kesy was demoted to guest star this season. This episode marks the end of his run on the show. And now, the questions begin anew on who will be the next host for the Master. Again, the easy answer is Eichhorst. He wanted it during the last transition and was bothered by the Master instead choosing Bolivar. So now, it may be his turn to be the man in charge. And yet, Richard Sammel has done such fantastic work on the series so far. It could be a major mistake if the show were to ruin it by making him the cryptic bad guy who exists in the shadows and who everyone talks about but who rarely does anything. Eichhorst is a much more interesting and vital character than that by himself.

More importantly, is the war with the Master starting to grow stale? It has been the chief focus for three seasons now. In the beginning, the conflict came from no one wanting to accept that this epidemic was actually happen. Now, that's no longer an option. People can no longer deny that there are monsters out there who strike during the night. The government has even started accepting that there is a leader in this pandemic whose death would eradicate this problem completely. Of course, there's only so much competence the team can expect in that regard. They still largely have to deal with the Master by themselves. But with the entire city being aware of what's really going, wouldn't it be more exciting if there was some form of creative shakeup in the main story? Is the war with the Master the only thing that can be interesting for the entire series run? It's clear that this season will continue to focus on it. The three episodes so far have set up even more story and conflict. All of that would have been particularly wasteful if the Master was killed now. He will rise again. That's what he does. He's a difficult evil to kill because he can change host bodies so easily. The action is where the show typically thrives as well. But there's only so much of the same formulaic story that the audience can take. It's still thrilling to see the final battle of "First Born." After awhile though, those moments will no longer be interesting because the audience will know that they are just being manipulated.

The series has set up an interesting mythology with the strigoi as well. In the beginning, it was confusing to keep track of it all. There was more than one type of strigoi. The conflict could have been streamlined immensely if there was only the Master and the lesser monsters he controls. Instead, the show has those regular monsters, the feelers, human-strigoi hybrids and the Ancients. That's a lot to keep track of. It's an intricate mythology. It's also one that could be explored further. If the Master were to die, what would happen to the balance throughout the rest of the world? What becomes of Setrakian or Quinlan if they no longer need to hunt the Master? Quinlan knows it's a suicide mission for him. But he gets that victorious moment in cutting off the Master's head here. The show clearly shows the warrior falling afterwards. He too will wake up again after the Master proves he's not dead. But what if the Master's death doesn't kill Quinlan? The unknown could be an exciting mystery. There has to be more to the Ancients than just them sitting in their one room wanting updates on the fragility of the world, right? What happens to this world that knows these monsters exist? Can this world ever come back from this apocalypse? The show has been very reluctant to show that this outbreak changes the daily lives of New Yorkers. It's better now but it took a lot of work. Would things go back to normal if the Master is dead and all the creatures go away? That may sound boring to talk about. But the show could find renewed creative energy in a new story framework focusing on the world that comes after the Master.

The majority of "First Born" is about that final confrontation between the Master and Quinlan. It's because of Eph that it's able to happen. But this hour also provides even further context to Quinlan's centuries-long fight in this war. The use of flashbacks haven't always been great. They typically are the first time but the more the show goes to them the less powerful they become. Quinlan had one last season that showed just how powerful a warrior he has been throughout all of time. "First Born" decides to show the audience just how personal his vendetta against the Master really is. He explains to Eph how a human-strigoi hybrid came to be. His mother was already pregnant when the Master turned her. That forced him to develop differently. He doesn't have a connection to the Master like the other strigoi do. But his fate is still intertwined with his. He doesn't know this for a long time. It takes someone showing him compassion in the early days of the Roman empire for him to know his grand purpose in this world. It's through this woman that he becomes more human again. The Master rips that away from him. He wants Quinlan to see that he is a monster just like everyone else. It's a predictable story of the Master forcing Quinlan to kill his mentor in order to survive. It's a trick that doesn't work. Quinlan wants to kill the Master because he was forced to make that decision. It's a necessary motivation to have - especially for that final battle. But it doesn't always make for an entertaining story throughout the first part of the episode.

Some more thoughts:
  • "First Born" was written by Chuck Hogan and directed by Ken Girotti.
  • The idea that no strigoi can cross moving water has been a fairly inconsistent concept. It's never important until some character mentions it. And even then, it's still not that big of a deal. Here, it pops up just to tell Fet and Setrakian that Quinlan had human help in stealing the Lumen.
  • Fet was very smart in putting a tracker on the Lumen so that the team can know where it is at all times. It's something that could really come in handle during any situation. Hopefully, this isn't the last time it's put to use.
  • The Lumen has been a fairly lousy plot device for everyone to fight over. But here, it's importance is seen just a little bit. It's been touted as providing the weapon that can defeat the Master. And now, it's been revealed that it is the weapon itself. When the Lumen touches a strigoi, it burns them.
  • So, Gus couldn't bring himself to kill his strigoi mother. And yet, he has no problem abandoning her when police run into him and Angel as they are trying to get her out. They are arrested for it and she is more than likely killed. So again, this plot just seems so pointless.
  • Zack is doing much better with his breathing since taking the white from the Master. His asthma has been an inconsistent plot detail. And now, it will be completely irrelevant moving forward.