Monday, July 21, 2014

The Strain – S01, E02 – 'The Box'

For as much as people joke about teenage sex and the basement as leading causes of horror death, there's something to be said for the body counts racked up by ignoring the lone field expert's warnings.

The final shots of this episode serve as a great example. Following up on last week's closing shots of bereaved father Gary Arnot (Steven McCarthy) being reunited with his mobile - but still quite dead daughter Emma (Isabelle Nélisse.) This week, we close out as he attempts to resume life as it once was. When young Emma mentions she's hungry, still completely unaware of what for - he offers to feed her. This oddly tender scene then meets its quick, blunt, and rather brutal payoff: without a shred of recognition, Emma latches onto her father's throat. The man doesn't even have the time to fully register this as his face, locked in dead surprise splashes into the bath, bleeding out. It's a well-executed, well shot sequence that- like last week- closes out on a rather chilling single shot: a heads-up shot of Emma in the bath, a faint trail of her father's blood leading to her mouth.

Cue credits, aaaaaaaand good night, kids!

A fitting ending, as much of the episode focuses on Eph’s desperate attempts to maintain quarantine- efforts are undermined by forces human and otherwise- and the consequences of last week’s events are felt . The airplane's dead have now taken to the streets (Following their entree of coroner),  Setrakian is confronted by a ghost from his past, and the mysterious Master is finally face to face with those who secured his passage.
As the stories come together, the blood starts to flow.


Everyone gets a bit of attention this week, both for good and ill. Though he only has one scene, Abraham is once again the high point of this episode. Still in jail, he has a visit from the Stoneheart Group's Eichorst (a coldblooded Richard Sammel.) For being a scene of just two people talking, this has enough of an air of dread about it to easily the episode's best scene and further build tension for things to come. The Stoneheart Group actually provided for some of the better scenes this week, after a vague introduction last week. Though Johnathan Hyde's Eldritch Palmer is sometimes written as an almost Monty Burns-style evil old rich man (his first scene in this episode has an aide discussing harvesting organs from someone to sustain him if his current gambit fails,) it makes up for it in acting and payoff. While Hyde wasn't exactly how I first pictured of Palmer reading the books, he has carried the role off in such a way as to counterbalance some of the more cartoonish aspects of his villainy. His follow-up scene, where we finally meet the Master (Robert Maillet) properly, is another standout scene in the episode. As much as last week gave us that good shock when the Master made short work of a victim, it's his appearance this week that I find more unsettling. All he has to do here is unveil himself and speak (voice by Robin Atkin Downes) and the presence the character has, even when only seen from the back, is appropriately unnerving.

"He got my letter!

Unfortunately, the storyline of the Master's bloodthirsty progeny is something of a series of ups and downs. In the first look at the living survivors, I just want to eschew professionalism for a moment to say – my God, those four get annoying. Granted, this is intended – we're meant to share in Eph's frustration at the fact his investigation is being undermined at every turn. Still, it's hard not to yell at the screen 'WHAT PART OF CDC QUARANTINE ISN'T SINKING IN?' I'll concede this is partially thanks to the Stoneheart Group's poisoning the news with cover stories, but even then, these guys just act like a group of miserable ingrates. I honestly have a hard time feeling any sort of pity for what they have coming to them.  Pushing their release in the first place, Leslie Hope's Joan Luss is trying to stay on top of the situation legally, but mostly just comes across as obnoxious (again, somewhat on purpose, but doesn't mean I have to like it.) After her, Johnathan Potts as Captain Redfern is probably the one sympathetic member of the survivors, stewing in guilt knowing his airline is streamlining the process to avoid a scandal. It's a storyline that one can tell isn't likely to be around long, but it's a nice touch and Potts plays it well. Most prominent is Jack Kesey as goth rocker Gabriel Bolivar. He's still obnoxious (as he's supposed to be) but by having him more entrenched with other people, it's less of an annoyance this week. The fact his time this week ends with him starting to develop a taste for human blood means his storyline is going to get interesting from here.

The CDC end of the narration is off to a bit of a slow start for the first half. Like Eph, it's hard not to be frustrated at seeing the number of ways people and money are used to undermine attempts to stop a burgeoning epidemic. My only real issue with this story right now – remember that coroner who died horribly last week (in probably one of the best scenes of the pilot?) We're three-quarters of the way into this episode before anyone thinks to check up on him. I realize there's a lot going on, but it does seem weird from a viewer's perspective to leave that hanging as long as they do. Fortunately, they make up for it in the aftermath as Eph and Nora (Mía Maestro) rush to try and find their runaway corpses before a bad situation becomes even worse. I still can't really feel much investment in Eph's personal life, but his professional life is at least providing some entertainment this week.

Unfortunately, we see further into the personal lives of Eph and Gus. I hate to say it, but once again, these are the weakest storylines of the episode. It's a mix of a couple of factors here, really – first is the fact that we have a series where a vampiric outbreak stands poised to turn New York into a feeding frenzy. In a setting like that, things like Eph's divorce and Gus's concerns over his mother and brother really feel like small potatoes. Making matters worse, the show never really tries to make an effort to get us to care about them despite that. It's mostly just two very cliche storylines that are so poorly integrated and developed, they may as well be in a whole other series.

The old 'Dead Rat' gamble. For when you just don't want to wait 30 minutes for a table.

On a plus side, however, this episode does also introduce us to the character Vasiliy Fet. As of now, his storyline is more of a side note in the story, but it makes sense to establish him early. After his intro, writers David Weddle and Bradley Thompson weave his plot through scenes of the airline survivors, which makes for a decent segue as his investigation ties into a restaraunt where survivors Luss and Bolivar discuss suing the airline (and have to backburner the plan when Fet shuts the place down.) For what little he's got so far, I have to admit he's off to a good start. He doesn't get much here, but he's entertaining enough to make his time worth bearing with for now. It's worth noting that del Toro has admitted, in the original writing, the character was first envisioned with Ron Perlman as an inspiration. Durand channels this inspiration in his performance well. This is particularly evident in his later scenes of the episode, when he confronts a restaurant about a rat infestation. Durand's imitating Perlman, but he has a similar air in how he conducts himself  that fits the part well. I look forward to seeing how he handles future events when his plot becomes more closely tied to the coming storm.

As a follow-up, The Box is showing some signs of improvement on Night Zero. The dialogue's not perfect, but there are less clunky moments. The cliche elements, the family drama aside, are all at least given more effort in their execution. Durand's a welcome new addition to the cast, and while he's not poised to oust Bradley as the cast's MVP, he's already got me looking forward to more from him in the future. Like last week, this week's episode finds its best strength in its direction. Stepping in in place of del Toro this week, David Semmel shows a good sense for the horror moments – which are fast poised to be the show's weekly highlights. In particular, he has a knack for the slow burn style. His direction during Abraham's conversation with Eichorst - the camera work slowly becoming tighter with each new cut as their conversation builds - as well as the build up in the final scenes with Emma both carry a strong sense of impending doom.
Once again, that ominous final shot is a great note to close things on. Following up last week's end with a sign of greater danger still ahead.

So the escalation has begun. The show feels like it's finding its footing, which is always a good sign. Even disregarding book knowledge, this episode just gives a better sense of direction compared to the pilot. A bit less ambitious, but it makes up for it in focus.

With that, two film reviews will be coming in the next few days. Also, keep an eye out on next Monday for the write-up on the next episode – Gone Smooth.

Till then.

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