This is ordinarily something I don’t seek to do, but if I keep spacing this, it’s only gonna get worse from here. So I apologize for the temporary change of format for this writeup. We’ll be back to individual episodes as of this Sunday.
That said, so far at least, this season has taken a big jump off from the story as presented in the second book of the series.
And to be perfectly honest, I’m actually really, really liking that.
I know this isn’t the first show where I’ve stated my interest in seeing a series adaptation taking liberties with its source material, but this is one case in particular where I can honestly say it’s working for me. The Strain books aren’t bad, albeit not great, but they’re really better suited as concept pieces than blueprints for a run of television. We saw some of that back in the first season, and one of those digressions was easily the season’s best episode.
Like the first book, the events of The Fall are a mix of some interesting ideas and a narrative that is in serious need of some livening up to really carry on a week to week. Fortunately, the show has so far been up to the task – between its new characters and expanding on characters that were already there, they’ve taken things in a direction that has improved considerably on the print equivalent.
This is probably the best point to say before I go on, I wish to correct a mistake I’d made in some of my earlier reviews. As I’d said before, there had been some confusion regarding the identity of Stephen McHattie’s strigoi-hunting envoy of the Ancients. I had previously assumed he was playing the book character of Quinlan, but it turns out the mistake was on my part. His character, Vaun, was a new addition for the series, as this most recent episode introduced us to Quinlan as played by Rupert Penry-Jones.
And as the new character for these episodes, he’s made a good first impression for himself. Penry-Jones gives the role a sort of distinguished anger – watching him berate the Ancients for their leniency towards the Master, his performance leaves just enough clues of a personal grudge to lay groundwork for coming storylines.
Besides the introduction of Quinlan, these episodes have also brought us another book character in the form of former luchadore Angel (Joaquin Cosio). Like Quinlan, the show gives him a Hell of a first impression, care of a prologue directed by Guillermo del Toro. The sequence, a sort of then and now between his old luchadore glory days and the older, wounded man he is in the series, is well done – immersing us in the movie but then also taking us out of it as Angel fast-forwards through parts of the tape, a great little reminder that these days are behind him.
Another nice plus to Angel is that his presence means the show is actually finding more for Gus to do now that Vaun’s out of the picture. Back in the first season, he had been something of a plot device that just got left hanging for large chunks of time. Even his being detained by the Ancients largely just amounted to him hanging around prior to this arc of episodes. Now he’s actually being active in the story again, and with Angel he has someone he is actually able to interact more with with beyond his usual casual defiance – he genuinely has some respect and admiration for Angel’s past, even if Angel himself rebukes it. It’s a small storyline, but for this character, it’s a big improvement.
As the topic of improvement goes, a number of the new stories this season has introduced have done well for expanding on the narrative, as well as addressing the questions of the outside world’s responses. Eph and Nora’s biological weapon is still going ahead, and I continue to give the show points for the fact it hasn’t deterred that with any sort of ‘crisis of conscience’ moment, even when they saw the Master willing his infected to destroy themselves. It’s that dash of moral ambiguity that a character like Ephraim has been needing to break out of his cliché, and Corey Stoll definitely seems more comfortable with it now, and not just because he gets to do away with the hairpiece.
The decision to have him slip into Washington for allies was probably done for external reasons – more than likely to balance his schedule filming Ant-Man, but honestly, I like the idea. It’s a chance for him to play to his strengths, and, after starting this season with him acknowledging his lackluster skills as a hunter, having him play to his strengths beats having him just lapse into self-pity.
There’s two other big changes this season that, at this point, I’d call big pluses. The first of these is one that the first two episodes set up – the idea of New York launching its own counter-offensive against the infected. Rather than simply crumbling in an episode or two like they could have done, the show has been letting it build, further added to by the double-dealing of the Stoneheart Group and made it into one of the more interesting developments to come out of this season, especially coupled with how the world at large is responding.
Tied into that, the other nice change-up this season has provided is expanding on the backstories of Setrakian, Palmer, and the hunt for the Occido Lumen. It hasn’t been as prominent in the more recent episodes, but it’s helped give both characters (Palmer especially) some welcome development. Even though they’re still fundamentally the same as before there’s at least a bit more to the both of them, as well as making the Lumen a more active plot element.
Though speaking of Palmer, one of the changes to this season that I was on board with came to a thudding halt with this most recent episode. After his seeming turn at the end of last season, the show decided to bring back Palmer’s conscience-riddled aide Fitzwilliam for a few episodes this season. It had the potential to be an interesting turn of events – especially since he certainly adds more to the team right now than some of its members – but then this past week…well…
Let’s just say the show caught a bit of a case of The Walking Dead Syndrome. The decision to introduce and then kill off black characters shortly thereafter was a big problem on that show and in their on chance so far to beat it, The Strain fell into the same hole. Which, even outside of the awkward racial angle, still just feels like a big missed opportunity.
Finally bringing us up to speed, this most recent episode ended with a turn that has me wondering at future plans for the series. I had wondered why the series was setting up the Master abandoning his Sardu body as soon as it was, and now I know. That they’ve taken an event from the climax of this book and dropped it mid-season leads me to wonder if we’re about to see the events of this narrative veer sharply from the text, particularly as there’s been no groundwork established for that original finale just yet.
All in all, this season’s been getting better as a whole. The show does still have some of its old weaknesses hanging over it – the showrunners still can’t seem to decide what to do with Dutch and Zach, for one thing – but all in all, it’s at least shaken off the cobwebs it had at the start of the season. On top of which, it’s improved two of the weaker characters from the last season, so I’m keeping hopeful for the second half.
We’ll be back up to the one a week format next week with The Born, and kick off the second half of this season.
-Considerable improvements on Eph and Gus compared to the first season
-Increased focus on what’s going on outside of New York a welcome change
-While still exceedingly villainous, Palmer at least more fleshed out as a villain this time out
-Dutch and Zach still just sort of there, and with Eph in Washington, Nora’s stuck in that holding pattern too
-Really? Fitzwilliam’s gone THAT fast?