‘The Strain: Season 2’ Has More Monsters, More Metaphors

The Strain connects its vampiric mayhem to political and melodramatic themes, all nestled in with the gory action for which the series is best known.

“This place is a maze.” Ephraim (Corey Stoll) is looking around a storage facility in Chelsea. He’s come along with Abraham (David Bradley), who means to find something, something he hasn’t quite identified. “It’s here,” says Abe, the shaky camera panning rows and rows of tin siding and red doors. “You don’t remember which unit?” asks Eph. “I know it by sight, not by number,” says the old man, whose exit from the frame leaves behind his three fellow vampire killers, Eph, Nora (Mía Maestro), and Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), all looking skeptical yet unsurprised.

The moment reminds you of essential dynamics among this core group in The Strain. While each of the younger members brings expertise to the epic battle against the vampire virus that has descended on New York City — Eph and Nora are epidemiologists and Vas is a rat exterminator — Abe, also known as “the Jew,” brings history, lots of history, combining Nazis and contagions. His younger teammates’ concerns are less mythic and more immediate, but equally urgent, for the vampires, or more precisely, the Master (Robert Maillet), has come up with an elaborate scheme to take over the planet, involving corporate, military, and vaguely educational elements.

That this scheme starts with a virus (transmitted by yucky worms) means that Nora and Eph’s skills are especially useful if, indeed, they can imagine a way to combat the plague in ways more sophisticated than decimating every individual instance of it (which is where Vasily comes in, being excellent at decimating). As the new season of The Strain begins on 12 July, Eph and Nora are conjuring their own scheme, written so helpfully on their Brooklyn lab windows with colored markers: they can’t cure the virus and they can’t contain it, exactly, so they mean to find a counter-virus, one that will kill the original in its victims.

Of course there will be complications, as the vampires are pretty quickly spreading their virus and themselves across the city, despite the heroic efforts of Councilwoman Feraldo (Samantha Mathis), who is advancing her political career by militarizing Staten Island and instructing her cops to leave vampire heads hanging on fences in order to declare hers a “plague-free zone.” It’s an effective PR strategy, as crowds cheer and the mayor (Ron Canada) grants her the power to do the same for the rest of the city. In exchange for complete control of the wholesale brutality she means to wreak, she gives him co-credit for this ultimate police state.

Yes, this sounds a lot like a primer on how politics get done in the United States circa 2015: displays of closed borders, harsh retributions, and definitive race differences. (If collateral damage is done, well, too bad.) And so The Strain reifies its connections between political and melodramatic themes with the gory action for which the series is best known — the monsters’ neck-piercing six-foot tongues, the silver bullets’ exploding effects — in kitschy evidence during the battle against that takes up the bulk of the storage facility scene.

But something else happens at the end to this scene, a decision that reshapes — or perhaps refines — Eph’s moral trajectory. In need of a human subject on whom to experiment while he pursues a counter-contagion, Eph resolves to keep alive an elderly man and woman who’ve been nicked by a vampire’s tongue. Convincing them to serve the public good, Eph and Nora go on to endure their awful transitions in the lab, where they might be stuck with the needles and watch each other suffer.

It’s a decision that costs Ephraim and Nora differently (he starts drinking again), and one that’s driven at least in part by Eph’s own emotional muddle over how to appease his son Zach (Max Charles), still sulking that dad tried to kill mom (Natalie Brown) after she was turned last season. “Bullshit,” Zach exhorts after Eph once again tries to re-explain the problem, “You’re a doctor, right dad? So save her, find a cure.” It’s an ongoing and increasingly uninteresting tension, inspiring Eph’s return to drinking and Zach effort to run away. As Nora (whom you’ll remember was Eph’s lover when he was breaking up with his wife) puts it at the end of this season’s third episode, “You’ll never win with your son when it comes to his mother, it’s that simple.”

Of course it’s that simple. For one thing, mom is newly granted some particular extra super power by the Master, in order to precisely go after Eph, who, of all humans doing their best to not become vampires or vampire food, has captured the Master’s attention. That is, she’s got a voice (she can say Zach’s name) and a pack of kidnapped blind schoolchildren turned into extra-sensitive, lithe, and gnarly vampires. A bizarre and rather grim metaphor for Eph and Kelly’s divorce, this evolving contest makes you think twice about how much Eph and the other humans lose every day they try so hard to stay human.

No surprise, Eph’s complications echo those that have shaped Abe’s post-World War II career as a vampire chaser, his compromises and cheats, his rages and his rationales. (Again, flashbacks to Abe’s past interactions with Nazis explain part of this, and so does a story he heard as a child about an unsuccessful vampire hunter.) By contrast, Eph and Nora tend to remain in the present, re-seeing it as they struggle to survive it.

The lab provides an apposite location for these reflections, another sort of maze, layers of windows separating them in space but not in frame. You can see both, as well as Zach and their experiments, while they don’t need to acknowledge one another, being in separate rooms. More creepily, near the end of the new third episode, Eph looks into the eyes of one of the elderly victims, now a monster Eph has created and restrained. “The Master can see through all you things, huh? Are you watching me now?” he asks, then goes on to threaten and posture, insisting he’ll get even for the loss of his wife.

That the monster isn’t even looking at him, but instead past him at Zach, only makes Eph madder. You know what he probably doesn’t, though; all this anger and craving for vengeance are steps toward making him a monster too.

RATING 7 / 10