The characters in FX's thriller "The Strain" have seemed a little thick-headed, frustratingly so, in the first three episodes of the Guillermo del Toro creature feature. Thankfully, they start to shed that well-worn dramatic trope and wise up this week.
In other words, the worm has turned. (Pun definitely intended.)
When viewers last saw him, the Centers for Disease Control's Dr. Ephraim Goodweather was bashing in the skull of a newly hatched vampire. He really had no choice, even though he'd promised the previously alive(ish) blood sucker — the surviving pilot of Regis Flight #753 — that he would find a cure for what ailed him.
That wasn't even close to happening anyway.
After the attack in a hospital basement and another attempt on Eph's life by an undead father-daughter tag team, the scientist has an ah-ha moment. Time to start annihilating before the monster contagion fans out all over New York.
Boy, does he ever wish he'd listened to that wacky old man with the sword-cane.
The episode, "It's Not for Everybody," gives viewers the assurance that the blinders are off as Eph joins with grizzled vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian to exterminate everyone from the ill-fated plane. Those travelers' entire families may have to go too to contain the plague. That will involve decapitations and gasoline, so ... not for the weak of stomach.
Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), a fellow CDC researcher, falls into that latter category, babbling something about "resources and protocols" while refusing to hunt down the infected predators. She'll probably change her mind. She and Eph have history.
Goodweather (Corey Stoll), who leads the CDC's "Canary Team" of first responders, does a fairly drastic about-face on the victims of the airline disaster. But he arms himself with medical evidence in the form of a hasty autopsy of the Regis pilot. "I just killed this thing," he says to Nora and CDC co-worker and turncoat Jim Kent. "I need to explain why I did it."
Each slice of the scalpel brings a new revelation, like a stinger the size of a python and an entire set of organs just to support that slimy projectile. Since Eph talks a lot of science, phrases like "rewriting biology" and "parasitic mechanism" get tossed around.
And speaking of revelations, Kent (Sean Astin) fesses up that he's responsible for the outbreak. He allowed a van, containing the king of all vamps' coffin, to escape the JFK security perimeter. He thought it was just a box of dirt. He sure is sorry that he accepted a bribe, which turned into a threat, which may lead to the total destruction of the city. But it is sad about his sick wife.
In addition to figuring out that those weren't actual fatalities on the flight, Eph now knows that there's a sinister plot in motion. This is no accidental infection but a carefully planned mass murder. He's horrified and realizes he needs to act immediately — find the old pawnbroker! — but he takes a minute to punch Kent square in the face. Can't blame him there.
"The Strain," based on a New York Times bestselling novel by Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, serves as the backbone of the cable series. But Del Toro and his showrunner, Carlton Cuse ("Lost," "Bates Motel"), have made it clear that the show will deviate from its source material. New characters, situations and scenes, different outcomes — anything's possible.
"We knew the books would be guidelines," Del Toro said during a recent panel at the Television Critics Association conference. "We'll hit the highlights."
But since he and his producers decided not to "film the pages of the book and turn them slowly," it won't be a truly faithful adaptation, he said.
There's an obvious area of divergence that takes up a good deal of space in this episode, and that's the misinformation campaign. Billionaire Eldritch Palmer, top dog of the multi-tentacled Stoneheart Group, is the mastermind of the coming vampocalypse.
To cover his tracks, Palmer acts as puppet master to the U.S. secretary of health and human services, who he's groomed and mentored. He plants a fake story with this government lackey about a lethal bio-agent that's responsible for the deaths aboard Flight #753. The military swiped the 206 bodies from the morgue to clean up the mess.
It seems that this bureaucrat's job now is to stick to the earlier fake story that carbon monoxide poisoning caused the deaths, with the finger of blame pointed at the airline and its now-dead CEO. At any rate, the secrets upon secrets mean one thing for sure: The public will get screwed.
Palmer, though sickly and weak, makes his money work hard for him, hiring an Internet hacker to crash cellphone towers, freeze corporate data and wreak digital havoc. The goal seems to be to throw the country into a tailspin. This development is unique to the series and either gives it a modern touch or unnecessarily distracts from the vamps, depending on viewers' perspectives.
Another difference between "The Strain" the book, which is the first in a trilogy, and the show is the gift of gab. Vampires don't have it in the novel, communicating mainly with glowering eyes and grunts. In the show, they can speak well-formed sentences, like when one of the plane-survivors-turned-vamp tells his wife to stay away from him. He's thoughtfully chained himself in the dog shed so he doesn't rip out her throat.
The literary wife never heard such an articulated explanation. But both versions choose the same solution when a nasty neighbor who once beat up the family dog comes to lodge a complaint about those howling sounds in the backyard. Just toss him right into the shed and let hubby set him straight.