Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
All of the best sci-fi and horror stories say something thought-provoking and profound about the human condition. They’re like viscera-smeared mirrors meant to help us check our egos, learn from our mistakes, take account of our faults and virtues, and laugh at our hideous pomp and pettiness. With blood-soaked midnight-movie stylings lifted from the works of co-creator Guillermo Del Toro, FX’s vampiric action-melodrama The Strain has largely focused on laying out in gruesome detail the consequences of humanity’s hubris, a theme that pervades on a grand scale in the show’s focused fourth and final season.
“Human selfishness and vanity are ingrained. Indelible.” That frighteningly relevant statement comes from the tyrannical big bad, The Master/Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), as he offers a diabolical life lesson to his young protege, Zach (Max Charles), son of series protagonist Eph (Corey Stoll). Season 4 picks up nine months after the boy detonated a nuke in New York City, triggering a worldwide nuclear winter that shields strigoi from the harmful effects of daylight, facilitating a full-on totalitarian reign for The Master.
Hope is all but blotted out for the human race: the strigoi are in complete control, with humans offered no mercy for even minor transgressions. Our heroes are disbanded, their spirits deflated: Eph is in Philadelphia, devoting himself to survival rather than resistance; exterminator Fet (Kevin Durand, always a unique on-screen presence) and vamp-human Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones) are sent on a mission by Setrakian (David Bradley) to the Dakotas to seek out a nuclear missile that could be their last shot at stopping The Master for good. Gus’ (Miguel Gomez) gang is pulling a heist that could get a loved one killed, Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) is imprisoned in a strigoi breeding facility, and Zach is being groomed by the Master to be the evilest kid in town, the perpetually creepy Eichorst (Richard Sammel) standing ever at his Master’s side as his minions hunt down the good guys.
Watching each of the characters fight to trudge forward despite the soul-crushing, suffocating weight of their new post-apocalyptic reality is gripping stuff, and each of the main actors feel more entrenched in their respective roles than ever. The non-action-oriented scenes are just as engaging as the moments of mutilation, which is absolutely key in shows like this. Eph has been rendered emotionally numb by the tragic events of the season 3 finale, and Stoll once again proves he’s one of the most dependable actors in the business, subtly conveying grief and misery without making us feel miserable ourselves. When a group of survivors raring to revolt manages to kick Eph back into fight mode, the story starts gaining a good amount of forward momentum.
Aside from the tantalizing storyline and character developments, much of the show’s propulsion comes from the tense, often unsightly action sequences, which continue to be one of The Strain‘s greatest boons. A standoff between Fet, Quinlan and a trembling sniper in a missile silo is wonderfully suspenseful, and watching the half-human kick ass in fast-forward is a visual treat that never gets old. The strigoi are as disgusting as ever. Though I typically prefer vampires who seduce you before they rip your throat out, these rabid bastards feel more modern and enact violence in a more visceral way, and their herky-jerky movements and startling speed are used cleverly in the fight choreography and stunts.
An odd complaint I have about this season of The Strain (which likely won’t affect most viewers but is worth mentioning) is the new, nuclear-winter color palette – in the fallout of the explosion, everything is drenched in a sickening, yellowish-brown hue. This makes complete sense with regards to the world-building, and the queasy coloring actually helps emphasize the characters’ hopelessness. But the tint is so pervasive that it at times feels like trying to watch a show after someone’s pissed in your eyes. I’m not sure exactly how this issue could have been avoided but if I’m being honest, it was often a big distraction.
The three episodes provided for review seem to signal volcanic larger story arc that is uncomfortably bleak and a bit dour at the outset but slowly builds toward a final showdown with The Master, which is sure to be nothing short of cataclysmic (if last season’s epic finale is to be topped, that is). When the series got cut from thirteen episodes to ten last year, the storytelling benefitted greatly, with each episode feeling like it was written with a more focused intent (Lost, one of the biggest feathers in The Strain writer-producer Carlton Cuse’s cap, saw a similar boost in quality when it was distilled from 23 episodes to 14).
The Strain season 4 looks to be just as deliberate in its course, with three opening episodes that plant seeds for some major developments, stomach-turning strigoi showdowns, and heartbreaking character collisions all the way down the line to the vampire saga’s highly anticipated finale.
The Strain's final season is focused and fierce, with opening episodes that plant seeds for stomach-turning strigoi showdowns and heartbreaking character collisions all the way down the line to the vampire saga’s highly anticipated finale.