The Strain 1.13 Review: “The Master”

the strain13

It took twelve hours to get here? “The Master” is less a climatic season finale (which it feels like The Strains been building to) than it is an hour of hand jiving and dancing in place, an act that requires viewers to abandon all logic to sit through a heartless, mindless hour of piece-shuffling. New York still isn’t under quarantine? Ancient vampires sit on stretchers where they dream and eat ’round the clock? Rich guys can just throw government officials over the side of a building without a second thought? Needless to say, The Strain concludes its first season as it opened it: loud, shadowy, and stupid.

The biggest problem of “The Master” and its build to the Big Showdown, is there is obviously no showdown to build to. It’s pretty clear from the show twiddling its thumb with long, fake descriptions of underground speak easy’s and more screen time for Palmer and Zack than either character demands, that “The Master” doesn’t have a lot of story to burn through. And what story it does have, it progress nowhere: nothing that happens in the course of the episode hold any dramatic stakes, except that the former Mrs. Goodweather shows up at the family home to force Eph to start drinking again, and send her son into a screaming frenzy (a situation that arises because Zack lies about an asthma attack to get a photo album, proving Zack’s intelligence is not on the level of his father’s). “The Master” is all about time wasting, right down to the Showdown itself, which amounts to a poorly-shot sequence of objects being thrown through windows, and a clearly defeated Master escaping (with some of his army, since Fet & Hacker Girl stopped attacking once Eichorst and others backed off) by the skin of his teeth, literally by abandoning the logic of the entire show (he runs around in DAYTIME and survives! I thought that was instant death, hence why they avoided it like the plague!).

What’s frustrating about all of this – besides spending the entire running time knowing that Eph and Abraham wouldn’t end The Master in this episode? – is how little it does to fill in this time. There’s no emotional or dramatic weight given to anything in the episode: it’s simply a straightforward romp into Bolivar’s latest real estate property (which makes it real easy to find, and reminds us that Bolivar was once somebody this show cared out) for some easy vampire-killing, with the added eye-rolling of the show’s desperate emotional ploys in the final few minutes at the former home of the Goodwether family. It’s all nonsense, slight and forgettable thanks to the simple facts everything lacks gravitas and logic: without the latter, there’s no way for the former to take grip, and “The Master” fails on delivering this fundamental component of dramatic storytelling.

The examples are abundant:  all season, The Strain conditioned us to believe both Nora and Kelly are lesser people, women pulled into a strong, complicated man’s orbit without knowing how to handle it –  a fact it proved in the finale, when Nora begins smoking and handing out awful advice, and when Kelly’s presence drives Eph to alcohol and Zack to fits of crying. By the same token, Gus’s inability to do anything but spit stereotypically racist phrases (this week, we get “vampire turf war”, “homeboys”, and for what feels like the millionth time already, “you eating Mexican tonight?”) make him a pointless character to watch, as does Fet, whose ever-changing accent and knowledge set (seriously; how does he know so much about hidden New York architecture?) makes him a blank slate for each episode to reconstruct as it sees fit.

The stupidity – or in cases like Fet and Zack, the outright unreliability – of characters, is ultimately what dooms “The Master” (and the first season as a whole): when a mindless action show wants to have cake and eat it, too, it leads to things like Setrakian’s eye-rolling flashbacks, and the presence of Palmer, a character who isn’t so much a human being is he a breathing, wrinkled plot device, a being of supposed great power and influence, who so far has done nothing but manipulate “powerful” women into doing his bidding (or in this episode, throwing them off a building when they don’t). These don’t make for interesting characters; and when the characters aren’t interesting or consistent, it’s impossible to discern what they’re doing and why they’re doing it: outside of Setrakian chasing his grudge around the world (or around New York, I guess… maybe he was just owning a business as a time-wasting excercise?), there’s no interesting motivations or relationships to invest in.

Going into The Strain, I tried to enter with tempered expectations: if The Strain could be a passable The Walking Dead clone with a little more visual panache, I would’ve embraced it as fun, weightless summer entertainment. But even a show as aggressively mediocre as The Walking Dead often is has a better grasp on characters and location than The Strain, which blatantly copies TWD‘s formula for action scenes (either use a bunch of non-attacking zombies to incite fear, or let them attack one at a time! At least on TWD, the fear of death is ever-apparent for main characters!) without any sense of how to make those scenes work, or mean something in the larger story of vampire apocalypse and the impending three-way war between vampires, vampire mercenaries working under the orders of napping vampires in stretchers, and humans too dumb to quarantine a city full of mutated creatures.

Is that supposed to be interesting? “The Master” certainly doesn’t have an answer to that – and given how little The Strain had to say about anything before this episode, doesn’t give me a lot of hope the show will try to recreate itself in its second season (which has already been ordered). In other words, this journey is nowhere near its end, the only feeling The Strain is able to convey with lots of vague dialogue, a relentless despair that doesn’t occur when things happen on-screen, but when one stops to consider there’s still at least thirteen more hours of this show to go.

[Photo via FX]

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