How tragic and heartbreaking it is to see a young Abraham Setrakian nearly track down his demonic adversary — the king of all vampires, the Master — only to realize he’s trapped underground in some godforsaken Albanian well, unable to protect his beloved wife.
That may be what fans of FX’s hit thriller “The Strain” think when they see the latest episode, dubbed “Last Rites.”
Or, in a hive mind reaction, they may shriek, “What the what is going on with that facial hair?”
This is not exactly the comic relief we need, dear producers, and it distracts from a truly devastating story arc. Honestly, get a load of those eyebrows! Who can stop staring at that community theater-level makeup job? Even though it’s not David Bradley in those scenes — he plays the present-day octogenarian Setrakian — the distinguished actor deserves a better look for his younger self.
But the soul-crushing facts do speak for themselves: Setrakian and his scruff, in a flashback to 1967, are hot on the Master’s trail when vengeance clouds his judgment. He’s trying to assassinate the monster responsible for sucking the life out of his fellow concentration camp prisoners and crushing his skilled-carpenter hands during World War II.
His wife, Miriam, supports the quest but reminds him to come home before sundown. Sure, sure, he says. Viewers know right then, or even at first glimpse of his lovely, disabled mate, that Miriam’s a goner. She’s helpless and he’s hell bent.
In an hour that’s all about victories and defeats, this has to be the worst loss. It does provide additional insight into Setrakian’s headspace and decades-long vampire hunt, though, and answers the question, “Say, why does he keep a worm-riddled heart in a jar?”
Also in the loss column: Mama Martinez falls to a vamp. Truth be told, she was working up to a case of inoperable lung cancer with all that chain smoking. But this is painful, especially when Nora decides to “release” her infected mother with Setrakian’s sword-cane.
Now, how about a win?
The renegade Scooby gang manages to slip away from uber villain Thomas Eichhorst and his pasty undead minions. That means Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, disgraced epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control, his son, Zack, Nora, Setrakian, pest control maven Vasiliy Fet and fake-Brit computer hacker Dutch live to fight another day.
They also learn that they can communicate with the still-living populace through the Emergency Alert System, and Dutch nominates “Dr. Serious” to straight talk the nation about the strigoi-fueled contagion. She coaches Eph not to bury his lead, and he sputters through a hasty speech about “this strain” that’s causing a “violent corruptive metamorphosis” in infected New Yorkers. Does anyone hear him? There’s no way to know yet.
At least Dutch is earning her way back into the group by putting her NSA-level cyberskills to work for good this time. She broke the Internet for a fat cash payout from evil billionaire Eldritch Palmer because she lost her way, she says, but she wants to make amends.
She just needs to keep her paws off Fet.
There’s another victory in Setrakian’s attitude adjustment in this episode after his total meltdown in the previous hour. Despite coming this close to hacking off the Master’s noggin in the tunnels below the World Trade Center — Fet made a Sophie’s choice to save Eph’s life — he now has his anger and frustration in check. He’s refreshed and ready to rumble, he tells his fighter pals, and he’s sorry he barked at everyone.
Remember those SWAT team vampire vigilantes that dropped into Episode 7 without explanation and quickly disappeared? They’re back, and that’s a definite win for the heroes. The paramilitary vamps descend on street thug Gus, who’s relieving a local kingpin of all his heavy ammo and drug money, and drag him away with a hood over his head.
It’s not a spoiler, especially for viewers who have read the books, to say that these rough-and-ready dudes will be important later. Still, where have they been all this time?
Another quick question: Why are there a bunch of vamps stuffed into shipping containers down at the docks? They’re packed for export?
Back to the victories. A whole episode with nary a mention of newly birthed bloodsucker Kelly Goodweather, Eph’s ex-wife and Zack’s mother? Win! Eichhorst rages back, looking no worse for the wear? That’s a win for the narrative and the overall creep-out value of the series.
Put this in the “draw” category, at least for now. It would seem that the Master has made good on his promise to grant everlasting life to the plague’s human benefactor, Palmer. The sickly top dog of the aptly named Stoneheart Group is near death when the Master finally visits his bedside and drips some goo from his talon into Palmer’s mouth.
But, take note: This is not a recognizable method of human-to-vamp transformation, per “The Strain” mythology. There’s no stinger involved, no surgical-grade incision to the throat, no disgusting capillary worms, no white blood. Did that deluded old man just fall for the ultimate trick?
It’s hard to say because the color immediately returns to Palmer’s face, and within minutes he’s outside dancing in a rainstorm. His fate will depend on how closely Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse intend to follow the bestselling trilogy on which the show is based. (They’ve strayed from it often in this first season).
Palmer may be the filthy rich sponsor of the vampocalypse, but the Master is still an unholy beast not to be trusted. We’ll see who comes out on top.