Transformation (or perhaps more aptly, mutation) is again the theme of this week’s episode of The Strain, and I mean that both in terms of the major characters and the rather unsightly changes that the plane survivors are undergoing. This show isn’t afraid to make its vampires really gross, and the body horror aspects of “Gone Smooth” are what will stick with me the most about it. But there’s more to the episode than just those physical changes – in its third installment, The Strain still feels like it’s shifting as a show, figuring out what it wants to be. Unfortunately, there’s more Scooby Doo-esque dialogue and silly acting in “Gone Smooth” than the last two installments combined, but I’m willing to forgive The Strain that trespass for what it still offers – campy/creepy scares, top-notch visual effects and an ambitious storyline that so far isn’t getting side-tracked by any of the characters’ individual subplots.
Honestly, not a ton happens this week up until the last ten minutes, but you don’t really realize that until you step back from the episode. Carlton Cuse, Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan have introduced so many characters in the show’s first three episodes that each could take a tiny step forward and the hour would still be easily filled up. Luckily, The Strain isn’t treating everyone equally – Gus Elizalde, Eldritch Palmer and Joan Luss are entirely absent from the show this week, and their lack of screentime isn’t felt in the slightest. “Gone Smooth” instead keeps Eph’s investigation in the forefront while filling us in on the backstory of his dubiously allied co-worker Jim Kent, a smart choice given how integral both are to the main plot. Both Eph and Jim are seriously deepened in this episode, with Eph losing out majorly at the custody hearing (his son wants him to visit maybe one or two weekends a month, so that family time doesn’t cut into his “important” work schedule) and Jim’s motivations for working with Eichorst and Palmer at the Stoneheart Group to inadvertently spread the strain throughout New York being revealed (they’re offering his terminally ill wife entrance into an experimental treatment program that might save her life).
There’s still a sense that The Strain is dwelling in the calm before the storm with “Gone Smooth.” The strain is out there, but it’s still incubating, and for most of the episode, the vampires stay in the shadows, allowing Eph and Nora to continue their investigation without throwing any new monkey wrenches into the works. That said, the human side of their inquiries are providing problems enough. “This is no longer about disease control,” Eph and Nora’s boss Everett tells them when they confront him about the phony carbon monoxide story being fed to the media. “This is about damage control.” That’s why the strain is such a threat – it’s pervasive, relentless and so sneaky that the ineptitude displayed by the CDC has from the start doomed New York. It won’t give them another chance to stop it. No one else seems to realize just how dangerous the strain is, and so Eph and Nora are really on their own with trying to contain it.