Review: The Strain: ‘Loved Ones’

Here are words I never thought I’d say about this show – Kelly was the highlight this week.

After last week’s disappointment of an episode, I went into this one hoping for something, anything to improve over last time. Despite my earlier jokes about how this show seems to respond to my criticisms, this week didn’t shoot for the fences. At the same time, it did at least have some good things going for it.

TheStrainLogo


After the last two weeks of relatively tight-knit stories, this week went back to fragmented storytelling with mixed results. The misgivings about this were only further added to by the fact that said storylines put the spotlight on some of the least interesting characters in this series – Eph tries in vain to find Kelly, Dutch and Fet team up to try and deal with the Stoneheart Group, and Kelly slowly walks down the inevitable path we all braced for upon seeing what became of Matt.

"What do you mean this is all we get to do this week?!"

“What do you mean this is all we get to do this week?!”

I’m trying to not be frustrated with the Dutch storyline at this point. I’ll concede that, as a hacker in a vampire apocalypse, her skills aren’t necessarily in high demand. Fine, I can deal with that. The problem is, even with this week’s efforts to get her to interact with other cast members, she just doesn’t really seem to fit the series. We’re talking about a character whose introduction into this series was to kneecap all communications in New York City – a move that this episode relays in passing, is also doing some economic damage on a national level. Despite making a move that dangerous and that problematic, she catches almost no flak from anyone over it. Even Fet, as prone as he is to busting her chops, seems to let that point slide. For the same series where Jim Kent’s taking a payoff for the sake of his sick wife got him punched out and told to get lost, one would think people would be more angry at the fact this hacker played a big role simply because she was hired to do so. Which is the other really frustrating thing this week’s episode brings attention to – in a show where characterization, admittedly, isn’t the strongest suit, Dutch still manages to come up lacking compared to everyone else. There’s an accidentally meta moment when she tells Fet about herself “what you see is what you get” – there really isn’t a sense of personality or background to her. She’s a sentient plot device, and it leads me to suspect that, once the series sorts out the internet and cell phone storyline, she’ll be summarily killed off with
her purpose served. Ruta Gedmintas is trying here, and she actually has a pretty good rapport with Kevin Durand, but the fact is, she only has so much to work with.

Besides her spinning her wheels, the Stoneheart storyline this week has only two other events of note to it. The first of these is that Eldritch Palmer makes his reasons for selling out the human race even more clearly a matter of immortality, with a line that is equal parts entertaining and groan-worthy (referring to immortality as ‘the ultimate hack.’) As clumsy as the line is, I’m honestly going to give Palmer some leeway here for being the one person in this series to respond to Dutch’s self-righteous moments by reminding her “you DID play a key role in sending this city to Hell.” The other standout is that after several weeks after hinting at it, Palmer’s aide Smithers — excuse me, Fitzwilliams – acts against the conspiracy. It’s a move that is technically in character, but after how many weeks he’s been on the backburner, it’s a turn that feels like it came out of nowhere. This may not irk as much on a binge-watch, but as a week-to-week story, this could have been done better.

"Lady, I'm a cartoon carictature of an evil rich man and even I have more distinguishable personality than you. What does that tell you?"

“Lady, I’m a cartoon caricature of an evil rich man and even I have more distinguishable personality than you. What does that tell you?”

Meanwhile, Eph’s story this week is, to be perfectly honest, a lot of nothing shy of framing and cleaning up after Kelly’s story. It’s supposed to make us care about the Goodweather family, a losing battle the show’s been fighting its way uphill on since the pilot, and it makes no leeway here. After repeatedly seeing the dangers of going alone in this situation, he once again heads off solo to look for his wife, tracking her phone. What he gets out of it is a conversation with a homeless person that doesn’t add much beyond a few chuckles at his expense and a rather blunt notice that his ex is now batting for Team Master – which also means he gets this week’s token vampire kill (no, not her.) To the family’s credit, Zach makes a game effort (for him, at least) to try and work some emotion in at the start and end of the episode-barring one painful line read near the end-but it still remains a storyline that the show just can’t get me to care about.

Again, I never thought I’d say Kelly’s story would ever be the best of an episode, but she found a way – and all it took was getting infected and turning into a vampire. Yes, by this point we’ve seen several people already turn, but honestly, I think this particular take on it benefits from when it’s happening. When we saw the airline survivors turn, the show played things fairly close to the chest. It worked well there, but it was still a ‘what’s gonna happen?’ angle. With Kelly, we know what’s coming – thanks to a simple but VERY effective bit of gross out/body horror care of a worm to the eye – and so the show gets to play with a lot of cool details that wouldn’t really work before. A standout being as Kelly  walks the streets, and we see more signs of other turned vampires throughout which is a nice touch, she begins to see her vision change: normal humans now appear to her more as the blood within them than as people. That she eventually dispatches of Diane as she transforms as well becomes a nice bonus, don’t get me wrong, but even without that kill, this story is a well put-together piece of transformation horror. Calling back to my issues with Dutch, this is another case of an actress doing what they can with what they’re given: after weeks of bad writing, Natalie Brown has fewer lines this week, but still delivers some of her best work simply through expressions and increasingly feral behavior. The only complaint I can say for this story is the episode’s decision to present this one in flashbacks. It’s not bad enough to destroy the story, but there’s really no point to it whatsoever beyond allowing Eph to run in tandem along with it.

"Mmmm...veal!"

“Mmmm…veal!”

Overall, this isn’t a high point of the series. At the same time, however, it’s a big improvement over last week, and it pulls a hat trick of taking the three weakest plots of the show so far and manages to make one of them interesting. The other two are still stuck in ‘Oh great, it’s back to this again’ mode, but this week at least suggests there’s hope for them in the future. Speaking of hope, Setrakian spent this week sidelined with Nora working on a plan. Hopefully with this set up next week will continue to improve after that stumbling. In the meantime, the season continues its uneven course with some new developments this week which could prove interesting in the weeks to come.

Wow. Splinter got BIG over the years.

Wow. Splinter got BIG over the years.

That’s it for now until next Monday, when I’ll be taking a look at The Third Rail.

Till then.

Pros:

-Simple, but effective use of body horror in Kelly’s infection

-Some great stylistic touches during transformation into a vampire

Cons:

-Despite extra attention, Dutch and Eph remain largely uninteresting players in this saga.

-While in character, Fitzwilliams’s alliance shift feels too conveniently timed thanks to his time on the back burner.

Rating: 3/5

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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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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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