The smartest move FX’s vampire horror series The Strain makes in its return is opening its first episode with Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), and a little history. Setrakian is the show’s most heroic character, a strigoi-slaying badass with a sword cane and inestimable amounts of knowledge, and The Strain is at its best when it’s able to show off its effects and its action sequences. So the choice to kick off Season 2 with a look back at the mythology and chaos that created The Master (Robert Maillet) is the perfect way to reorient viewers with the world, and get everyone excited about the season to come.
From there, though, things are a little less certain. In between the completely gross aesthetics of the strigoi (their appearance, their habit of vomiting out worms, their blood-sucking projectile tongues, etc) and the nicely edited scenes of heads being chopped off and strigoi being blown up or incinerated, the show must rely on things like character building, or just dialogue, and this is where it all gets shaky.
Still, some of the character relationships do start to grow and change, like the former rat-catcher Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) becoming both a disciple and protector of Setrakian. He also becomes closely allied with Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas), and they prove themselves to be two of the most capable members of the gang. Meanwhile, Ephraim (Corey Stoll) continues to sulk and pout and drink, and it’s Nora (Mia Maestro) who must take the lead on the experiments to infect the infected, fighting a disease with another one. And like father like son, Zach (recast as Max Charles) is reduced to sullen angst and lashing out instead of toughing up and training, like he seemed to be doing at the end of Season 1.
TV shows that aren’t about children don’t tend to know what to do with child characters, but Zach’s inclusion with the group proves important regarding his mother, Kelly (Natalie Brown). Though she was turned in Season 1, she has been chosen by the Master to take on a leadership role (in a new establishing of hierarchy, implemented by Richard Sammel’s wonderfully evil Eichorst). Though Ephraim presumes the Master will be using Kelly to come after him and Zach, he has no idea the methods by which that will happen. In a horribly neat trick, the Master develops a new, pint-sized army of demons to assist Kelly in her work, and it’s one of the most surprising (and most morally questionable) developments of the series yet.
That’s the thing about The Strain. It can occasionally be fantastic with its gore and its visceral frights; a fight sequence between humans and strigoi in a darkened storage center is a highlight of the first three episodes. Then people start talking, and (aside from a few punchy bits of humor) it gets ridiculous. When humans running around with silver broadswords slashing off tongue pinchers connected to worm-infested beings is more believable, somehow, than the relationships and conversations on the show, something is definitely off.
Still, Season 2 does provide a little more background about the resistance fighters featured at the close of Season 1, who seem to be part-strigoi, and who team up with Gus (Miguel Gomez). Setrakian also provides a link to Eldridge Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), who is now in the full service of the Master and Eichorst. Bolivar (Jack Kessy) also returns in a new role, and the scale of the apocalypse gets a little more defined as the New York burrows begin closing off their borders and taking measures against any threats. Samantha Mathis also joins the cast as a politician who leaves beheaded strigoi corpses on the edge of Staten Island as a warning: “This is who we are!” she declares.
Scenes like these open up some interesting possibilities about how humans change, and how morality may shift, as the battle continues (like when Nora goes along with conducting experiments on volunteers who aren’t fully informed about what they’re volunteering for), but the show only touches upon these things lightly so far. After all, there has to be time made for a little skinny dipping and scientific discovery along the way, as well.
Like True Blood before it, The Strain is in many ways a horror soap opera. “Setrakian and his merry band of vampire hunters,” as Eldritch calls them, are fairly fractured in the first episodes of the new season, but so is the story. It jumps around and never gives a clear sense of how things are developing, or drags when it spends too much time on Eldritch and his real estate needs, or Dutch looking for an old girlfriend. But, The Strain ultimately puts a lot more emphasis on its horror, and it pays off. As Setrakian says to Gus after they watch ancient vampire beings gruesomely devour a man in chains, “as you walk along in the daylight, never forget this.” We won’t.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Whether you liked or disliked Season 1, Season 2 is essentially the same.
The Strain returns to FX Sunday, July 12th at 10 p.m. Check back here on Collider for Haleigh’s weekly episode recaps.