Sunday, July 20, 2014

TV Makes You Stupid: The Strain S1E02: "The Box"

              FX’s celebrated vampire series continues…

            For this second episode of The Strain, the show slows down considerably from the frenzied, rushed pace of the pilot, and is all the better for it. What was great about the novels from which the series comes from was their deliberate, building pace. The world doesn’t end in one fell swoop, instead slowly deteriorates as the vampire plague spreads uncontrolled while the public at large goes about their business, blissfully unaware. The pilot’s willingness to blow through a lot of that for a bunch of storm and bluster had me worried for the series as a whole, but fortunately the second episode puts on the brakes just enough to get us hooked into this world, without sacrificing any of the momentum already begun. Even better, the slowed-down pace allows us to delve a bit deeper into the show’s (mostly) excellent ensemble cast.  

First we are introduced to new character Vasily Fet, a vermin exterminator with the New York City Health Department. Anyone who’s read the novels and is familiar with Guillermo Del Toro’s work in general could see how the character of Fet seems tailor-made for Ron Perlman. But Perlman’s busy with his other FX show, and so the role instead falls to Kevin Durand, who proves himself more than up for the job at hand. Fet is one of the very best characters in the series, what with his direct nature and very twisted sense of humor (such as the scene here where he clears a vermin-infested restaurant by holding a dead rat in its patrons faces), so it’s good to see Durand and the show-runners hit the ground running with the character’s introduction - even if Durand’s accent is a bit shaky.

One thing the show needs more of John Bradley, who gets only a single scene this episode. But, being that said scene is fantastic, I suppose it’s enough to tide us over until next week. Here Abraham Setrakian is visited in prison by the deliciously-evil Eichorst (played to creepy perfection by Richard Sammel), a wonderfully-acted and -written scene that reveals more of Setrakian’s badass past. We learn that Setrakian is a survivor of the Holocaust (hopefully we’ll get some of the flashbacks from the novels), and we also get more insight into Setrakian’s past with the vampires, and just what the deal was with the vampire heart he keeps in a jar that we saw in the first episode. Bradley grimaces his way through the whole scene, delivering badass lines of dialogue like a pro. I don’t know if the show will be crazy enough keep true to the books, where Setrakian starts beheading vamps left and right while shouting, “My sword sings of silver!” but we can only hope.

Augustin “Gus” Elizalde also gets a bit more fleshing out. Little more than a one-note, sort of stereotypical gangbanger in the pilot, we get to see another side of Gus here, and Miguel Gomez shows that he has a lot more to him than the tough guy posturing from before. The glimpse we get at Gus’ home life does much to endear us towards his character, and the inherent hypocrisy in judging his brother for being a worthless thug is fascinating, although his fight with his brother comes off as incredibly forced.

But for all the main characters, our main hero is still Eph, once again played perfectly by Corey Stoll. The personal stuff between Eph and his family works much better in this episode, largely due to the slowing down of the pace. Here, the moments are allowed to breath, and we get a much more convincing picture of a good man who saves lives yet is unable to keep his personal relationships together, as his wife and son have essentially replaced him with her new boyfriend (side note: does turning an office into a game room really require so much DIY carpentry?).  Eph also can’t keep it together at work, as he’s faced with the bureaucracy of the CDC and their unwillingness to call for a quarantine based on Eph’s hunches (although Eph has a creepy, vampire plague-carrying worm one would think he could use as evidence for a convincing case, but whatever). Stoll throughout continues the fine work he started in the previous episode and, knowing how Eph’s story plays out, I for one am incredibly eager to see Stoll realize his arc on the screen.

The main cast is great, although some players still come off as a little broad. I’m still unconvinced about Jack Kesy’s Gabriel Bolivar, although having him lap the blood up from the floor was a nice tip of the cap to Chronos. I’m also still unsure of Jonathan Hyde’s sickly billionaire Eldritch Palmer, although that’s possibly due to my own preconceptions of how the character comes off in the books. There was such a creepy desperation to Palmer that is thus far absent to Hyde’s performance - the actor is entirely too calm and demure in his portrayal of a man so desperate for immortality, he’s willing to allow the world to end to achieve it.

But, all in all, this is a vast improvement on the (already quite good) pilot, with a more deliberate pace and, more importantly, much scarier tone. The Master is partially revealed in a scene that is goofy and creepy in equal amounts, in all the best ways. Even better is the scene that closes out the episode, where the little vampire girl who returned home to her father finally strikes in a wonderfully creepy and disturbing attack taking place in the bathroom. That connection was touched upon in the pilot, how the vampires are drawn to the ones they loved strongest while they were still alive. That’s easily the most fascinating aspect of the books - that dichotomy of how love is simultaneously our salvation and our doom - and, judging from tonight’s episode, looks to be something the show-runners will wind up pulling off after all.

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