Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
FX’s The Strain has always straddled the line between new-age action-thriller and midnight-madness guts-and-gore – an unsurprising duality when one considers that macabre maestro Guillermo del Toro and gritty thriller novelist Chuck Hogan collaborated on the source material trilogy – but since early last season, it’s been rapidly giving itself over to the genre trappings of the latter, mostly to its benefit.
As the Master’s reign of terror continues spreading across New York and beyond, The Strain has proven unexpectedly engaging in its slow burn, letting the epidemic of infected strigoi take roost in real time, charting the downfall of civilization in a steady, intriguingly focused way that neither Walking Dead series quite managed.
But even if the story’s progression has unfolded at an established, almost too leisurely pace, the show’s aesthetic has shifted noticeably from bioterrorism-centric science-fiction to full-blooded horror, with action scenes taking on a more visceral, cartoonish bent and characters like the vampire/human hybrid Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones) entering the fray with enough superhuman abilities to act as something of a sharp-toothed Vision.
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Such ingredients have enabled The Strain to ditch its heavier elements and focus on being what it should have been from the very beginning: a gross and gripping vampire thriller, marinated in extravagant makeup and steadied by the synergic strengths of its two creators. In season 3, the series seems to have finally figured out how it works best; in other words, expect less scientist gobbledygook about the biology of the strigoii and more swinging swords intended to decapitate them.
As the new season kicks off, the darkness of The Strain‘s second season has entirely engulfed the show. Valiant Nora (Mía Maestro), one of the show’s best and certainly most lovable characters, has taken her own life after being infected by Kelly (Natalie Brown), the vampiric ex-wife of CDC scientist/resident punching-bag Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll). The character’s demise, which marked a surprising diversion from the books, re-energized a series that had started to lose steam in the latter half of last season.
Her cool-headed charisma is sorely missed in the first two episodes back, but The Strain ensures Nora is far from forgotten. Eph, whose son Zach (Max Charles) has been kidnapped by the Master to be used as painful leverage against him, is trying to find some solace at the bottom of a bottle, while the others – including vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley, still one of the ensemble’s highlights) and exterminator Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) – are both shaken by her loss in their own quiet ways.
And yet, all three know that, in the grand war against the Master, her loss is that of a single chess piece in a much more dangerous and important game. They’re given little choice but to move forward, especially with Quinlan’s fierce, unbroken attention to the task at hand and their seizure of the Occido Lumen, a medieval manuscript that could be the key to destroying the Master.
The first episodes back move somewhat leisurely given those ostensibly urgent plot elements, but The Strain can be forgiven for dawdling when it proves highly capable – as it often does – of delivering top-notch action setpieces. Visually, the show is more ambitious and impressive than ever, from a showdown between hacker Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) and strigoi household servants in a lavish apartment bedroom to a night-time battle royale by a quiet pier, complete with automatic-rifle-toting vampires and razor-sharp swords that gleam like lightning flashes in the dark.
On another visual note, the ghastly, lashing probosces sported by most of the strigoi are also getting more of a workout than perhaps ever in the first two episodes back, and it’s to del Toro and Hogan’s immense credit (as well as to that of the effects/makeup teams) that the series is still finding fresh ways to make this vampire epidemic feel as invasive, perverse, and grotesque as it should.
Narratively, too, The Strain‘s third season reflects a slightly altered balancing of priorities. Season 2 strayed from the show’s core team of fighters and their infected adversaries, bringing in political figures and bit players (anyone remember Coco Marchand, Eldritch Palmer’s comely assistant?) who rarely escaped feeling expendable until they turned out to be exactly that.
This time around, The Strain feels tighter, with a clear emphasis on the unusual dynamics between Abraham, Vasiliy, Eph, and Quinlan – four men from very different walks of life, suddenly corralled with no room for pride or pretense – as well as the insidious gamesmanship of the Master, whose psychological torture of Eph seems certain to grow over the course of this season with Zach and Kelly both under the villain’s thumb.
For fans, that’s exciting. The Strain works best when it’s lean and mean, focusing on its handful of great characters, doing as little as possible with those outside of their immediate vicinity, and setting up one nightmare siege scenario after another for our heroes to fight their way out of. With the show’s writers having noted their plans to begin setting up an endgame for the series by the end of this season, it’s heartening to see The Strain return this summer with its blend of exuberant ickiness and preposterous pulp fully intact.
Still very much the thrill-a-minute lovechild of a macabre master and a novelist with a pronounced knack for the nasty, The Strain remains a juicy, pulpy, often delectable piece of summer programming in season 3.