Review: The Strain: Occultation

Ever have one of those episodes where it feels like the showrunners heard your thoughts and somehow implemented them in ways you didn’t anticipate?

That’s the feeling I had this week, both for good and bad.

As I mentioned last time, this is the week we finally see the much talked-about eclipse come to pass. After every other episode keeping it as marginalia, this week brings it out in full force, along with everything leading up to it. After starting the episode with ominous and even apocalyptic implications of the event, I have to commend them on the decision to not make the event a mid-episode choice. By saving it for the final moments, it now hints at what’s still to come rather than a sense of ‘wait, that’s it?’

TheStrainLogo

That said, there is one drawback to the way the eclipse is executed on the show. The eclipse itself is just fine, and there’s great shots and atmosphere – they sell the ‘something’s going down’ feeling it’s supposed to have very well. My complaint here is more the fact that the lead-up to it suffers from some of that ‘tell, don’t show’ syndrome.

I can sympathize with to a degree, I realize it’s only an hour a week and they already have a number of storylines to navigate as it is, but still – if you’re going to tell the audience that this eclipse is driving people crazy, it helps to at least show it. It doesn’t have to be anything flashy – a guy with a ‘The End is Nigh’-style sign in a background (See ‘The Stand’) or police reports overheard when Eph gets arrested would be enough. There’s lots of little ways it could be suggested rather than just outright dropping it, or, if you want to be lenient, the ‘set it and forget it’ this episode did with its introduction over various radio transmissions (which are still more tell than show), especially since the show has been great at “showing” up until this point.

Back to the main story. I will cut Eph’s story some slack this week – some. On the one hand, and this ties into my opener, it’s like the show heard my hailing the lack of family drama the last few weeks – because it was back this week with a vengeance. At the same time, it actually ties into the main plot, rather than seeming like a story from a different show, so I’m willing to let it slide. It’s still far from perfect, mind you: Eph’s marriage remains a weak point in an otherwise solid episode, but at least it takes a backseat to the plague story this time around – even if it leads to some awkward character flopping on whether he’s telling the truth or just crazy.

In fact, a lot of this episode amounts to the characters who know better being treated as weird or crazy by people around them. If it’s not Kelly and her new boyfriend, it’s Fet’s father or the cabbie that picks up Abe. It’s just a really lousy time to be hunting vampires. Sort of makes you see why Jim’s still meeting the conspiracy half-way while helping Eph behind the scenes.

TheStrainMattep6

“You know how it is, honey. Those Maytags aren’t gonna stock themselves.”

Speaking of Matt, Kelly’s new man, he gets some sort of an evolution. He’s still a bland non-character, but now it’s cut with a dash of jerkishness. I realize the man doesn’t have to like Eph, but calling the police before he even gets a chance to explain himself is a pretty strong bid to be the new king of Bastard Mountain (though he’s got a LOT of competition there).

The contemptible side is fortunately also cut with some unintended humor in how seriously he discusses his job – as an inventory manager at Sears (not to disparage those who work this job, mind you – but holy crap, the actor plays this so deathly serious it’s funny). I know, the writers don’t want his job to outshine Ephraim’s CDC position, but hearing him talk so seriously about his job just leaves me thinking of The Simpsons’ Kirk Van Houten proclaiming “I’m a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory!”

Look, I'm all for a darker reinterpretation of characters, but this take on Skeletor is just too much...

Look, I’m all for a darker reinterpretation of characters, but this take on Skeletor is going too far…

On the plus side, as ridiculous as the drama gets, much of the rest of this episode is incredibly entertaining. The horror side is more consolidated this time, but it’s used to great effect. The episode starts off on a downright chilling note with a scene of Eichorst setting down to a lunch of…well, I think you can guess. Between the set-up he keeps his victim in and the knowledge of the end result, the scene is just disturbing to watch. It’s also contained enough that it could be its own creepy two minute short and still work pretty well.

The other standout scene is Abe’s designated moment of vampire hunting. After the last few weeks of pretty easy kills, he finally hits a wall this week – two, actually. The first being the realization of just how far the plague has spread: two seemingly dormant vampires are joined by a third active, whose dispatching brings even more in expecting to feed. In the middle of all of this, Abe’s heart condition alluded to in the pilot comes back, forcing a hasty retreat and an alternative solution to the problem. Abe still remains the most interesting character in the cast, even when he only gets two or three scenes. The fact said scenes also serve to further highlight how far this has spread in such a short period only further makes these moments worth it.

On thinking it over, I've come to two conclusions about an Abe Setrakian decision flowchart: 1 - Every option involves 'kill it with silver' 2 - 90% of the options also end in 'and set the building on fire.'

On thinking it over, I’ve come to two conclusions about an Abe Setrakian decision flowchart:
1 – Every option involves ‘kill it with silver’
2 – 90% of the options also end in ‘and set the building on fire.’

Meanwhile, despite attempts to steer clear, both Nora and Gus find that the plot is going to make them a part of it, even if it has to drag them in kicking and screaming. Of the two, Nora really doesn’t get a lot to do this week, though hopefully the next few weeks may fix that, considering she’s an active member of the team in the books. Gus, meanwhile, at least has a creepy little scene when he’s brought before Eichorst for another job. After his initial show of bravado, he gets a good hard look at what his new employer is really like and starts to get the sense he may be in over his head. Cinematography-wise, the sequence is also another one of the better shot this series has offered so far – with some good use of shadows to further feed into the unsettling nature of Eichorst, and Gus’s unease.

Pictured here: the one thing in this apocalyptic vampire series that finally pushed audience suspension of disbelief to its breaking point - and yes, this IS supposed to be taking place in 2014.

Pictured here: the one thing in this apocalyptic vampire series that finally pushed audience suspension of disbelief to its breaking point – and yes, this IS supposed to be taking place in 2014.

Speaking of which, there is a bit of an uneasy moment in Gus’s storyline this week – though that’s more a case of bad timing than any fault of the series itself. The fact his storyline ends this week with him and a friend being roughly arrested by the police after being attacked a vampire – complete with a sarcastic “Now you show up!” – feels a little awkward in light of what’s been happening in Missouri this past week. I know the show was filmed months ago and so this isn’t really anything they planned for, but I just imagine that must have turned into a very uncomfortable moment at FX when someone caught that timing.

In looking back, for as many issues as I may have had with this episode, I still liked it overall. The family drama is still clunky – including one flat line read from Eph’s son that is accidentally brilliant in reflecting how uninvolving the family storyline is – but at least this time around most of it feels like it has a reason to be there. Even if a lot of it didn’t really land for me, there was only one moment this week I could honestly say I wanted to see fully dropped out (For those wondering, it’s the scene with Kelly and her caricature of a friend; I can accept the need to develop her, but I feel we got more out of the later scene with her son than with the friend). In the meantime, the plot has hit a tipping point with the end of this week and we may now be at the end of the proverbial foreplay. Also, though diminished in number, this episode’s scare moments were a continued highlight – the Eichorst scene being probably the best flat-out creepy moment since ‘Night Zero’s’ ‘Sweet Caroline’ kill. In all, this week was like an encapsulation of the best and worst points of the show so far, and the good parts are enough to outweigh the bad.

I know I’ve been saying this for the past few weeks, but the momentum is continuing to step up here – the eclipse is now off the table, the wheels are turning, and people are finally starting to take Abe seriously. From here, the series is going to start changing gears and even having read the books before, I look forward to seeing what the show does with it from here. It’s still a goofy mess at points, but it’s a fun one to spend an hour a week on.

That wraps up another week. We’ll be back next Monday with the fallout of the eclipse in For Services Rendered.

Till then.

Pros:

-As a major plot point, the eclipse itself does not disappoint.

-While kind of uneven, when this episode is good, it’s some of the show’s best to date.

-Ending shows signs of more direct vampire killing efforts to come.

Cons:

-The collective families of Eph, Fet, and Nora continue to weigh things down despite the writers’ best efforts.

-While the payoff is good, the eclipse buildup this week is heavy on tell over show.

-Several episodes in, Matt’s really just dickish human filler.

Rating: 3.5/5


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This is what happens when a man takes a degree in English and the excessive analytic skills therein and chooses to use them for... ...is this evil? I'm not sure. But there are monsters and potentially robots, so there's potential for evil. ...we'll get back to you on that.

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Guyinthe3rdrow

This is what happens when a man takes a degree in English and the excessive analytic skills therein and chooses to use them for... ...is this evil? I'm not sure. But there are monsters and potentially robots, so there's potential for evil. ...we'll get back to you on that.

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