In a summer of ISIS terrorism and Ebola fears, “The Strain” could have hardly been better timed. Initially something of an oddity for FX – a vampires-among-us fantasy, on a network steeped in gritty realism – the adaptation of Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s creation piled on layers of mythology, bounding ahead with new characters and increasingly fantastic situations that, frankly, would have felt less palatable had the show not gradually built up to them. That concluded in Sunday’s action-laden finale, which neatly laid out countless possibilities looking forward to a second season.
That the show concluded its season a week before “The Walking Dead” returns represents an odd form of symmetry, since in many ways, “The Strain” plays like the natural companion to AMC’s runaway hit. If ever a case could be made for networks engineering baseball-like trades – “We’ll give you ‘Halt and Catch Fire,’ and two players to be named later” – this would be it.
Once again in the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), the hardy band of vampire fighters sought to find, corner and kill The Master, the shadowy, towering vampire responsible for the virus-like outbreak of murder and mayhem erupting across an amusingly oblivious New York. Yet in one of those twists that nicely underscored how much the series has tinkered with vampire lore, the creature actually escaped his foes by scurrying away in broad daylight, an option that certainly wasn’t available to Frank Langella or Jack Palance in their versions of “Dracula.”
That left even the intrepid leader of the vampire hunters, Setrakian (the brilliant David Bradley), looking befuddled and speechless, and the group back at square one. Meanwhile, a separate plot involving a rival contingent of the undead has gradually begun to reveal itself, setting up the prospect of a high-stakes (heh heh) war that, hopefully, won’t wind up becoming as ridiculous as the alien-vs.-alien conflict on “Falling Skies.”
In a way, the FX program – under the guidance of showrunner Carlton Cuse – has engaged in a clever bit of misdirection. Having begun with a doomed flight and the Center for Disease Control scientists (Corey Stoll, Mia Maestro) tasked with deciphering what happened, it gradually began to feature Bradley’s character, whose history with The Master and his Nazi henchman (Richard Sammel, also terrific) dates back to a World War II concentration camp, lending considerable gravitas to the story.
The ostensibly overmatched saviors of humanity also acquired some much-needed muscle and welcome comic relief in the exterminator played by Kevin Durand. At the same time, the series exhibited an appropriate willingness to sacrifice key players, such as Sean Astin’s compromised CDC employee, along the way.
Admittedly, this sort of serialized cat-and-mouse game has its limits, and the humans can’t simply go charging into nests of vampires every week. Still, the first batch of episodes has steadily added enough moving parts to sustain what’s become an extremely entertaining series, especially if you don’t spend too much time fretting about the details. (On that last front, “The Strain” has something in common with Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” another escapist flight of fancy.)
Given Cuse’s involvement, it’s also interesting to note the parallel tracks along which he and former “Lost” collaborator Damon Lindelof, overseer of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” have traveled this summer. While both shows are adapted from other sources and deal with an apocalyptic event, “The Strain” leaves open a ray of hope for thwarting existential disaster, while Lindelof’s project is preoccupied with the grief, depression and disorientation created by its aftermath – a bleakness as apt to describe the mood instilled in its viewers as those within the show.
The best science fiction has always tapped into present-day concerns, and the contagion aspect of “The Strain” — starting with those eye-opening billboards — coupled with the notion of not knowing who to trust (down to the “You hurt the ones you love” thread) certainly play on that level, and prey upon those apprehensions.
Ultimately, though, one needn’t go plumbing for deeper meaning to enjoy the series, with the finale merely reinforcing its status as a show that has managed to take those darting tongues and deftly carve out its own place amid a crowded field of movie and TV vampires –thus emerging as one of the summer’s most pleasantly unexpected addictions.