The Last Strigoi for a While
Spoilers up to episode 12 of The Strain.
The Strain finale is tonight and I am going to miss it. This is one of those rare instances where I was completely enamored with a series when I initially had little interest. I started the first book in the trilogy a couple of weeks ago, after letting it languish on my shelf for the last three years in favor of things like Game of Thrones, which I'd had for far longer, re-reading Jurassic Park and The Lost World for the first time, Justin Cronin's perfectly-realized vampire apocalypse The Passage and The Twelve, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and a number of Stephen King books. (I think my greatest fear is I'll never catch up and that King will outlive me and keep cranking them out.) I made it through only half of The Strain before suddenly developing a need to start bingeing on the series. I watched a number of them last weekend. I then consumed as many print and video interviews as I could, finished the book, and I marathoned the last five episodes on Tuesday afternoon before I allowed myself to get back to work. Yeah, so I think I like this show, and by that I mean I absolutely love it.
Why the sudden interest? Well, every time I would start a new book, I would consider The Strain and then always go with something else. I just never seemed to be in the mood. But finally I was curious enough since it had made it to TV and I'd read on Twitter shortly after it started that Sean Astin was it. I was completely sold when I caught a glimpse of David Bradley in a commercial that before then I had barely payed attention to. Seeing him brought up a feeling I didn't realize I had for him. It shouldn't have surprised me, though. After all, he's popped up in some of my favorite things for quite a while now. If he looks familiar to you, you may have seen him this past decade plus as cat-loving Argus Filch in the Harry Potter series, as a thick-accented farmer with a ridiculous amount of weapons in Hot Fuzz and the hilarious Basil in The World's End, as the irretrievably evil Walder Frey in Game of Thrones, as the deteriorating William Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time, or as the tragic Jack Mashall in Broadchurch.
Of course, Bradley's body of work stretches back further, but I haven't seen it all. He just happened to start appearing in great projects in which I was interested, but now I have sought out something almost exclusively for him. I wanted to know if he would be playing a significant part in The Strain that would last more than a few episodes or if he would quickly succumb to circumstances. I was immediately hooked by his character, Abraham Setrakian, and I read the first book with both excitement and trepidation. It turned out that Setrakian, who at a glance looked to be the standard frail but wise older man, is more Hershel Green tough and resolute than I imagined. There have been a number of changes in adapting it so that the series keeps those who read the books from becoming too comfortable, but Setrakian continues to be defiant and determined. David Bradley is a perfect match for the role and has imbued him with a wounded but beating heart.
Why is Bradley so great? He's playing a person rather than a collection of words on a page. An example of that is when Setrakian breathes heavier in the presence of the vampires, best shown when facing Eichorst, his Nazi captor in World War II. It's seemingly a small thing, but it's important to show the anger and fear that he won't succeed. It wouldn't work without that kind of detail and the emotion behind it, and that's what a superb actor brings. Setrakian's fear is justified in having failed before. He is a lonely man with sad eyes and a well of anger, a man who keeps his wife's vampirized heart in a jar as a daily reminder of what he's up against and because he could not let go and face being truly alone. I've seen some comments not understanding it, saying that was a creepy thing to do, completely missing the point. In both mediums, it was apparent from the first that this had been someone very close to him, kept as a reminder and a motivator. That's when I fell in love with Setrakian in the book, because he's living for her, and Bradley showing affection for corrupted beauty was very telling. It was sad, not revolting (well, slightly).
So I know his story and want to just wrap him up in my arms, but others know only what he's told them about hunting. His main drive is vengeance, leading to callousness toward others and impetuousness when faced with an enemy who so hurt him. He sees things now as black and white because that's how he survived. He can be selfish; he gathered a ragtag group together to help him save the world, but he's going to do what needs to be done no matter the consequences, including running headlong into danger without regard for his life. Setrakian is the one with the most knowledge about the looming threat, but he is just as human and fallible as anyone, and that's why I love him. Maybe this makeshift family will wake him up to the fact that after decades alone he has new people to care about, who may come to mean as much as the mission.
Since the first season ends tonight and I only very recently got into the show, I don't have time to say much about Ephraim and Nora, the CDC doctors reluctantly becoming killers as they realize they can't save the infected; Zach, Eph's courageous young son; Vasiliy, the exterminator who found where the vampires were hiding; or Dutch, the hacker who screwed up communications for a pay day. But I will respond to something I read elsewhere. I glaced at a review of one of the episodes that asked if Eph had a heart. I didn't bother reading more. I wasn't in the mood to argue with someone who missed something that significant. So it's inevitable they missed more, like Vasiliy being unsentimental as a way to protect himself, or Setrakian's anger toward Nora for asking about his special specimen because it was a touchy subject he wasn't ready to talk about, yet which he was obviously conflicted by, seeing as he uncovered it when others were around. Like everyone, Eph is doing his best caught in the middle of a vampire apocalypse. His friend, Jim, betrayed them and the world, unknowingly, but he tried to save him. He later admitted that it was one the worst moments of his life when he realized there was no way he could. And in another episode he discovered that his ex-wife had been turned and had a breakdown. The reviewer must have difficulty reading people and gets easily confused by emotion.
It's a dark show, but there is also a bit of levity with Vasiliy's personality, which is how I like it. Not every line has to be doom and gloom. It's okay to smile during the end of the world. That's how some people cope. I don't know if it was the same review that said it was B-movie type shock and gore rather than building psychological tension, which pointlessly denigrates it. Why must everything be stuffed into categories they don't quite fit into? There's gore, yes, and it can make you jump at times (which is fun!), but that's not much different than any of the more disturbing crime shows or The Walking Dead. There is a lot of tension that builds because of concern for these characters. If it was all about shock value then I certainly wouldn't care. What we have here is a story served by the characters. These people feel like people. If you see nothing good, poignant, or creepy fun then we have nothing to talk about on this subject.
It's not perfect, though, and I don't expect anything to be. A few times I've thought some dialogue could have been better, acting from some people a little more natural. I'm not sure about the addition of Dutch. I don't know yet if she was in the later books. But I like that she and Vasiliy are getting along, because his intense edges could do with a bit of smoothing. (I'm reminded of a Collider interview with Corey Stoll where he said Kevin Durand's heart is as big as his chest. Cue big awwwwww). I was also hoping that Nora's mother's role wouldn't end so abruptly, that she wasn't going to meet a simlar fate to a certain someone in Shaun of the Dead, giving a great deal of grief to a main character. At least it allowed for a flashback for Setrakian that was quite naturally set up as we finally got to see his wife and how he was tricked into leaving her alone. The reveal at the end was not surprising, but it was done with a sort of elegance, being the right time for it in the story. Now he has something terrible in common with Nora and may open up to her to try to comfort her in his way, which has up until then been direct and harsh. Also, I think the Master himself was less frightening when his face was revealed. He was very disturbing when he attacked his first victim off the plane, his face hidden, his presence imposing. Now he looks more like he belongs in Hellboy, a Del Toro movie I really liked, but the style seems out of place here and less realistic than this inhuman entity should be. I think it's mainly the Joker mouth that doesn't work for me.
But a few faults don't matter that much. If I love a show, then I love it and I get caught up in the story and the acting. This series is more interesting and emotional than I expected before I started reading. It's been worth every moment. Suddenly I have a new favorite series and book trilogy, depending how the others turn out. I'll know soon because I ordered them two nights ago. Most of the time, if I have a book that I don't get to before it's made into a series, I don't allow myself to read it because it's much more enjoyable to not know what's about to happen. But I need to know how Setrakian goes down so I can prepare for that inevitability when the series returns, possibly for another four seasons. I sure hope he'll be there until the end.
My Favorite Print Interview // The Strain Gives David Bradley a Rare Chance to Battle Evil
I love the doubts that make him human when he's talking to the heart and saying I don't know if I can do it again.
My Favorite Video Interview // Richard Sammel & David Bradley Interview - The Strain (FX)
Anybody seeing him on the street would have no idea what was in his heart or what he was planning.
If you read through this whole post and haven't caught up with the show yet, you probably shouldn't have ignored my spoiler warning. But if you're curious, the season is available on Amazon Instant Video, for pre-order on Blu-ray, or you could start with the trilogy.