Perhaps "It's Not for Everyone" wasn't for everyone, but thanks to scenes featuring Eph yanking an organic feeding tube out of an infected corpse's mouth, the Spooky Geek's wife feeding their asshole neighbor to her bloodthirsty husband, and Setrakian slicing off the head of a little girl (well, former little girl) with a cane sword, it most certainly was for me. The Strain built on its great third episode with more gore, more suspense, and more scares, and the series is quickly becoming a piece of campy horror candy that goes down so easy, the wait between episodes is starting to feel cruel. I'd watch the entire first season right now if it was plopped down in front of me, forgoing bathroom breaks with a bucket and an open window so that I wouldn't have to stop.
Yes, the show got off to an uneven start. And I don't mean to suggest that The Strain is the new The Wire (Vampwire?) or anything. It still has flaws that are preventing it from shedding the somewhat backhanded-compliment label of "fun" (no one called Breaking Bad "fun!"). However, four episodes into The Strain's run, we now know what to expect.
In fact, sometimes we know too much about what to expect; this is, after all, an outbreak series and a vampire series, and both types of stories tend to follow incredibly well-worn paths. The Strain is currently something of a cross between Dracula and Outbreak, minus the frilly clothes and monkeys. Scientists look through microscopes, families wonder why daddy is drinking blood from the steak tray, and house pets are senselessly slaughtered.
But The Strain is more unique than your average bug or bloodsucker tale because it's combining the two to rewrite what we thought we knew about vampires. Series creator Guillermo del Toro recently wrapped up a press binge during the Television Critics Association press tour and Comic-Con where he repeatedly said the same thing: The Strain is here to de-sexify vampires. I'm pretty sure Count Chocula's dick never fell off, and the germs that killed Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion didn't make her shoot a fleshy blood straw out of her face. The autopsy scene that highlighted "It's Not for Everyone" was exactly what makes The Strain feel just fresh enough. The show's science-first attitude toward these monsters is like crack for a guy like me, someone who likes to look under the hood and regularly dissected Walkmans in his youth. (I'm aware that many outbreak stories have delved into zombies, but an outbreak of vampirism is new to me; have you read or watched anything else that's similar?)
Let's review what we know about these creatures based on the very graphic and grotesque autopsy Eph performed on the Pilot. (Note: I watched this scene while eating stir-fried Thai vermicelli noodles. I recommend that you avoid doing the same!) I imagine that while crafting the biology of these monsters, Guillermo del Toro thumbed through a zoology book and cherry-picked the most disgusting anatomical features of the animal kingdom, then squeezed them into the shape of a human being. That means The Strain's creatures might share certain traits with mollusks, reptiles, insects, and anything else you don't want to share a sleeping bag with. The mystery of the Rocker's missing genitals was solved with the discovery of the Pilot's cloaca, a pee-and-poop chute that makes going to the bathroom more efficient. The guy's neck contained some flappy folds that Eph said would serve as the vestibular system, which helps control spatial orientation, equilibrium, and balance. So obviously the way to stop these things is to punch them in the flappy neck folds, then stick a cork in their cloaca until they burst like an overfilled water balloon or that guy from Big Trouble in Little China.
And the stinger! Seeing him pull that thing out of the Pilot's mouth like a bunch of magician scarves was everything we wanted it to be. Somewhat like the neck siphon of the geoduck clam, which is honestly one of the grossest evolutionary features Mother Nature has ever created and an ingredient that's way too common on Food Network competition shows, the stinger can project from the body for feeding and then retract when it's no longer needed. And when Eph yanked it out, the result was a diarrhea fountain of ammonia. Cool.
The survivor update this week belonged to the Spooky Geek, who—just as I hoped for last week—ate his dog. I've got nothing against dogs, but I really enjoyed that. And then the Spooky Geek's wife suddenly became one of the series' best characters. She's so loyal! Even after she caught her hubby chugging meat juice (red flag, ladies), she still stuck by his side. Of course, to his credit, he chained himself up inside the shed and begged her to leave, resisting the voice in his head that was instructing him to "rip your throat out and drink from you." Maybe that's not your idea of romance, but seeing these two together tickled my heart. Especially when wifey tricked the dog-abusing neighbor into the shed so the Spooky Geek could have dinner. That was fantastic. I'm really hoping to see more of this vampire-human cooperation as more and more loved ones find their partners losing hair and consuming raw beef.
On less-awesome side of things, Gus remains completely outside the action. I'm assuming he'll be in the loop before the season ends, but as of right now, he's on a totally different show. I'm not even seeing a possibly entry point for the character, given what he's done so far: He drove the box in for Thomas Eichorst, he returned a clock to Abraham Setrakian (NYC is like a small town), and now he's stealing cars. Maybe he accidentally steals a vampiremobile? Maybe his landlord is a vampire? Probably his dumb brother gets mixed up in things, right? Whatever it is, it can't happen soon enough, because it's frustrating when The Strain gets interrupted by The Gangbanger Diaries. Hurry it up, Gus!
Thankfully, The Strain is starting to offer answers before we even ask questions, which is a good sign. The vampire conspiracy, led by Eldritch Palmer's alliance with Eichorst, hatched a plan to slow internet speeds and limit access so that pesky CNN iReporters can't spread the word that New York City is under attack. I'm not sure it's possible for one sexy euro hacker to clog up all the intertubes of a city as big as New York, but if I'm going to believe that a tiny worm can make someone's penis fall off, I supposed I'd better start believing the tech stuff, too.
Meanwhile, Eph is continuing to grow on me. I loved the way he referred to the post-transformation Pilot as a "thing" and a "monster," instead of using terms that relate to human beings. Despite being a star in a field that asks him to heal people, he already recognizes that these "things" are beyond salvation, with no hesitation or guilt. Heroes often make a desperate effort to save these kinds of infected folks, but not Eph. He can't kill 'em soon enough.
Plus, if The Strain wants to, it can give Eph a bit of a reverse arc. Corey Stoll's ridiculous hairpiece isn't just there for us to laugh at, right? I suspect that the naturally bald actor is wearing that rug because Eph's going to get infected at some point (especially if he keeps exposing himself the way he did during the Pilot's autopsy). The show will need to transform him, and as we've already seen, hair loss is a big part of that. Then we'll be able to witness Eph's internal struggle as he learns just how human these creatures are or are not while he experiences becoming one firsthand. I haven't read the books The Strain is based on, so I have no idea whether I'm on the right track, but that's my guess!
Congratulations, The Strain. With your cloaca talk, beheaded children, and dog carcasses, you have passed the 4-Episode Test™. I was excited after Episode 1, annoyed and ready to quit after Episode 2, and delightfully disgusted after Episodes 3 and 4. I'm totally on board with this show. What about you?
– So far that's two hackers, both of them women if you're keeping count!
– Emma, still jamming to "This Old Man!" R.I.P. Emma. We miss you already!
– Jim with that jab on Eph: "You may not understand this, Eph, but I would do anything to save my wife." Ouch. That got Jim punched in the mouth.
– Is it really that easy to steal a car from a parking garage?
– That was Jamie Hector (The Wire's Marlo) as the leader of the car thieves.