At the end of The Strain‘s first season, Setrakian and the gang suffered a devastating defeat when their tactical assault drove The Master into direct sunlight, and yet he lived on, fleeing back into the underground. For Season 2, The Strain travels back in time with its opening sequence, a prologue directed by Guillermo Del Toro that is packed with narrative seeds that have already begun to sprout by the episode’s end.
The prologue picks up in a 1932 Romanian village where a childhood Abraham Setrakian begs his grandmother to tell him the tale of Yusef Sardu…even if it’s a scary one. The scene travels back even further in time where we pick up with Sardu (Robert Maillet), a benevolent Polish nobleman who suffered from Giganticism. Yusef was content with his lot in life, a jovial childlike “gentle giant”, but his brother was shamed by his condition and organized a hunting expedition to drink the blood of the great grey wolf and cure his ailment.
That hunt leads them not to a great wolf, but to The Master in his original form – a pale, paper-skinned ancient beast with spindly fingers and a gnarly waddle (there’s more than a little Pan’s Labyrinth flavor to his emaciated, animalistic design). From here we get some of that signature The Strain gross-out when The Master transfers his consciousness into Sardu’s body via a torrent of worm-vomit. So The Master, who once had an ancient form, can change bodies at will. Probably not good news for those trying to kill him.
Number one on that list being Setrakian, of course. We hear his grandmother warn him that evil must be stopped, and the scene cuts to the present-day Setrakian (David Bradley) we all know and love — and he’s carrying Sardu’s cane. Inspecting the scene of his failed attempt to assassinate The Master, Setrakian is dwelling on the miscalculation that cost him what should have been his hard-won victory. He tracks The Master’s path underground and instantly realizes he is not alone. “Show yourself!” he barks into the darkness, and out comes — not The Master, alas — but the extra-badass hooded vampire hunter (Stephen McHattie), who finally names himself as Vaughn (books readers, feel free to take a moment on that anti-reveal), and slips a bag over Setrakian’s head.
For a moment Setrakian and Gus (Miguel Gomez) are reunited! And they’re delightfully sassy towards each other. Vaughn and his ilk are on their own hunt for The Master, working on behalf of the ancients, the slumbering circle of pasty-pale strigoi we saw in the season one finale. We see six of them, but there is a seventh – The Master – and they all share a common mind. The seventh, however, can disrupt thought, but when Setrakian drove him out into the sunlight, he lost control momentarily, and now the ancients want to recruit Setrakian in their shared mission to bring The Master down. He’s seeking an ancient text, he tells them, the Occido Lumen, and the ancients effectively freak the fuck out. Whatever this text is, it’s clearly real, powerful, and likely holds the secrets to putting some hurt on an ancient vampire. A terrified young man is brought in on chains, and the ancients devour him viciously. “As you walk on in the daylight, never forget this”, Setrakian tells Gus, both standing on a floor sticky with pools of human blood. They may be allies, but they are not peers.
And what of the rest of our intrepid vampire hunting gang? In Red Hook, Brooklyn, Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand) is fortifying the outside of his loft — the new home base for the gang after Eichhorst raided Setrakian’s pawn shop last season. “Vampire-proofing is a lot more labor intensive than rat-proofing,” he says to Eph (Corey Stoll), and whatever tension was between them seems to have largely dissipated. They’re still posturing, sure, but they’re on the same team now. Down in Fet’s loft — which is a gorgeous, intricately detailed set — we see how the gang has formed an ecosystem. Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) is doing some welding of her own, an art project, and she’s doling out heavy amounts of shade in Eph’s direction, but it’s that very sass that inspires his next idea: a virulent plague of their own, one designed to knock out the vampire race. It says a lot about Eph that he’s not trying to find a cure, as his son (recast with Max Charles and seemingly re-written) consistently reminds him, or even a vaccine, but turning his mastery of pathology into a weapon. (It’s also worth noting that Eph’s drunk as hell the entire episode, rolling around in the muck of his determined defeatism. It’s possible that Eph is the least likeable protagonist on television right now).
Thank god we have Fet, the show’s regular scene-stealer (for the heroes at least, Richard Sammell takes that prize for the villains), who feels a familial love for Setrakian, and is bordering on panic since the old man has not returned. Setrakian struts through the door just as Fet is about to set out on a mission to find him, and the wizened vampire hunter is notably irked at Fet’s affections. The relationship between the two could easily be a highlight of the season. What Setrakian does need from Fet is a little help retrieving his stockpile of weapons from a local storage facility. And so the gang heads out for the episode’s highlight action set-piece. As they navigate the hallways of the storage facility, the lights cut out, and a flip of the switch finds them suddenly infested with strigoi. The gang executes them with tactical precision; they’re not the green fighters of Season 1, this is a unit who can handle themselves. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for a middle-aged couple hiding in the facility, and when a strigoi nicks and infects them, Eph decides they’re the ideal candidates for his viral research. Human test subjects? Yep, he’s got to be the least likable protagonist on TV.
As for Eldrich Palmer, he’s still mortal, but temporarily cured by the gift of “The White”, and he is relishing his newfound health with youthful vigor — and that, of course, means a sudden interest in the ladies. One lady in particular — an assertive, confident, and efficient foxy young thing by the name of Coco Marchant (Lizzie Brochere). One of the episode’s great pleasures is watching Eicchorst go from amused to impatient to down-right irritated at Palmer’s painfully obvious flirtation. Jonathan Hyde and Richard Sammell are both such accomplished, commanding actors, it’s a pleasure to watch them go toe-to-toe in a trade of arrogance.
As for The Master and his enclave, the ancient vampire tells Eichhorst his body is dying. Scorched by the sun, Josef Sardu’s corrupted form is charred and at an end. The master is alive, but he is also hurt. And so Setrakian and the gang cannot claim victory, but neither can they call it a defeat. But the Master has plans of his own. He’s preparing a succession, a new body, and he’s also got a few tricks up his sleeve for Eph, in particular. Kelly, Eph’s vampirized ex-wife, is about to get a promotion of sorts; the ability to speak and regain part of her consciousness. And she’s also getting a new team of helpers called “The Feelers,” a group of blind school children Eichhorst selected and turned. As they slowly rise from their mass grave toward their new “mother” figure, these spasmodic child-like monsters have the potential to be the show’s scariest invention to date.
★★★★ Very good
- Season 1’s slow-burn approach is long gone. They are in the thick of the vampire apocalypse now — the action and plot have been ratcheted-up accordingly.
- Not crazy about what they’re doing with the character of Zack, which is no fault at all to the new actor. They’ve reshaped the character into a bitter, demanding little punk-ass, and I liked last season’s quiet self-sufficient Zack a lot more. Again, to be clear, not picking a child actor — he’s doing what they’ve asked of him just fine — this is all about the writing.
- The Master: “As a blessing, I bestow them.”
- Setrakian: “You and five strigoi – not very smart!”
- Dutch: “The man’s a bloody sword-wielding Armenian Samurai”
- Eichhorst: “Setrakian and his Merry band of Vampire Hunters” – I would go to this band’s concert.
- Eph: “What the hell is this?” Dutch: “I won’t know really till it’s finished.” Eph: “How will you know when you’re finished?” Dutch: “When I know what the hell it is.”