Review: The Strain: ‘The Master’

So we come to the end of season 1.

Already?

Sorry, still new to reviewing a series on a week-by-week basis. It’s strange how quickly it flies by. Anyway, last night marked the end of the first season of FX’s second bid into horror television. The show still has some habits it can stand to kick in the future, but it’s also made some good steps forward.

TheStrainLogo
Since last night, I heard a lot of complaints from people feeling underwhelmed by the finale. On one level, I can get where that’s coming from: ever since, if I may be blunt, the Master thoroughly handed the team their asses a few weeks back, the show’s been keeping them on the wrong foot, allowing him to solidify his edge rather than really build up the momentum for a big show-stopper finale. I can see where the frustration comes from.

At the same time, here’s something to keep in mind: this isn’t a show they’re making up as they go. This story has already been all written out, plotted, and is available for you to read should you feel so inclined. What am I getting at here? In the overall arc the books have put together, this isn’t set up as a big epic show-stopper moment. This is the end of Act 1. Things are just being set up here. It may not be as satisfying as other finales, but for the story being told here, this is what they gave themselves to work with. It’s really more of a ‘set the next stage up’ finale rather than a ‘it all comes down to this’ sort.

Still, I’ll also admit that this wasn’t the show’s best. It has some good elements to it, but for the most part, it’s mostly just an interesting set-up that has higher expectations put on it by virtue of it being a finale.

Once again, we get another attempt to ferret out the Master. On the plus side, this time we get more of a sense that the teammates are finally starting to come together and actually work as a group. It’s actually acknowledged in a nice bit of sarcasm during planning for this week’s Master hunt (“Did you just agree with me?” “In this instance, yes.”), with the focus on Eph and Fet.

I have to hand it to Kevin Durand for his work on this show so far -the bit with Fet’s family aside, he’s synced up well with just about every actor on any given week. After how much the show’s mined the Fet-Eph dynamic for antagonism in past episodes, having them actually work together here plays out better than I’d expected, largely thanks to the way Durand and Corey Stoll play it. After several weeks and jokes of the idea of the show turning into Abe and Fet: Vampire Hunters, his work with Eph this week almost feels like a bizarre buddy cop dynamic. The bizarre part being…hey, it works. Plus, Eph’s actually starting to find footing on the team again, so I have fewer reasons to mock him.

FX's new 'Goodweather & Fet: Undead Vice' spinoff is already in the works.

FX’s new ‘Goodweather & Fet: Undead Vice’ spinoff is already in the works.

The end result of this week’s Master fight, while good for action, is likely what left people feeling underwhelmed. For an end of the season moment, the fight is rather low-risk, which is odd because given how fifth wheel she’s been so far, I was fully expecting Dutch to be this week’s ‘It’s on now’ team kill. Instead, the fight is largely a role call for both sides – the Master’s minions take a few wounds, but neither side is actually dealt a particularly deadly blow.

The one notable element of this fight being its finale, where everyone discovers that, unlike his progeny, the Master can work in the sun. It hurts like Hell, but he can do it. Which, of course, confirms his strength and means cornering him is going to be that much harder. Really, the bigger standout of this storyline instead goes to its epilogue, seeing the group driving through New York as it descends into chaos, only a trace of the storm to come. It’s a short moment, but it delivers the impending sense of doom that’s lacking in much of the main plot otherwise.

Surprisingly, the strong point this week is Gus’s plotline. Even more surprising given he really doesn’t get much done. He spends most of the episode getting glared at Quinlan (Stephen McHattie) before being the one to stumble on the big reveal and setup for next season. The handling of the Ancients is probably one of the areas where I think the show has done the book one better.

In the first book (which we’ve just about come to the end of with this season) the Ancients are an epilogue at best. They have no ground forces deployed, and they’re just voices in a dark room at the very end. By revealing them earlier, the series gives viewers more of a hook to come back next season. I know I’m more intrigued by the fact they’re playing up the Master’s actions as a declaration of war now rather than just making the finale another botched hit.

"Come on, kids. Don't cry! Remember when I was in Pan's Labyrinth? Remember the Pale Ma--On second thought, DON'T remember that one now!"

“Come on, kids. Don’t cry! Remember when I was in Pan’s Labyrinth? Remember the Pale Ma–On second thought, DON’T remember that one now!”

(As an additional nice bonus, one of the Ancients featured here is played by none other than Del Toro regular and ‘man behind the monster’ Doug Jones. Just a fun factoid.)

Aside from that, the show follows up with Eldritch Palmer as well, which gives him probably the most to do all season. The same can be said for his bodyguard, Fitzwilliam, who finally decides enough is enough and leaves of his own accord. Palmer, without that last bit of restraint, doubles down on the cartoon villainy culminating in a sequence following up on Eph’s recording last week. There’s a certain sick humor to watching as Eichorst converses with the CDC’s director while in the background, Palmer throws a woman off the roof. It’s one of those moments that’s shocking and bordering on black comedy.

Besides that, this makes the other big headway of this finale – from this point out, the Master has the CDC in his pocket, and Palmer is getting impatient to have his immortality. After being kept in holding this season, Johnathan Hyde’s finally getting material to work with, and it actually has me coming around on his being cast in the part, as well as curious to see what he’ll do with next season.

"So...Mr. Palmer tells me you work as an undead Nazi in a secret vampire conspiracy... How's that working out for you?"

“So…Mr. Palmer tells me you work as an undead Nazi in a secret vampire conspiracy…
How’s that working out for you?”

Finally, this week gave us some final follow up on the Goodweather family storyline. Not much to tell here beyond confirming that Kelly has in fact been turned by the Master. Also, we’re in for a distinctly violent custody battle over young Zach. On that note- I know child actors aren’t exactly the greatest thespians out there, but this is now multiple episodes where it feels like they just went with the first take on some of these line reads. I’m holding this one more on the directors, unless someone would care to present me with evidence otherwise.

So with this we draw the curtain on the first season. This definitely isn’t a series that’s going to be a heavy hitter at the Emmies, but for what it’s presenting, it’s off to a decent start. Compared to some of the clunky character interaction at the start of the season, the show has gotten better. Likewise, storylines are moving forward at least and there’s less of a feeling that most of the cast are just spinning their wheels till story falls in their laps. All in all, not too bad a first season. It’s been learning as it goes, but it still has a way to go yet.

In the meantime, they’ve been confirmed for another season, so I will likely be back for that as well. Until then, I’ve got other shows I can follow on in the meantime (feel free to join me), so there’s that.

"Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but it looks to me like we've done a good job out there!"

“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but it looks to me like we’ve done a good job out there!”

Till then.

Pros:

-Earlier reveal of the Ancients gives this finale a much-needed hook

-Final shots a subtly grim sign of what lies ahead for the team

Cons:

-While technically true to the book, the assault on the Master lacks the tension of the earlier confrontation with him

-Nothing against Ben Hyland personally, but they really need to have that kid try a few more takes on some of his lines

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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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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