'The Strain': Carlton Cuse on That Massive, "Catalyzing" Season Finale Twist

Carlton Cuse breaks down the game-changing moment and the upcoming fourth and final season.
Michael Gibson/FX
'The Strain'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season finale of FX's The Strain.]

FX's The Strain has always been known for explosive episodes, often involving brutal character deaths. But heading into the third season finale, “The Fall,” it seemed as though any of the main characters could have bitten the dust during the ultimate fight for control of New York.

With the Elders blown to smithereens and Eichorst (Richard Sammel) full of silver bullets, it didn’t take long for The Master to locate Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) and take over his body, effectively setting a trap for Eph (Corey Stoll), Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Abraham (David Bradley). What The Master didn’t know was that Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) and Fet (Kevin Durand) were on standby with a trap of their own: a frequency that crippled The Master and put him back in his coffin following one big, final battle between good and evil.

Unfortunately, just as the gang was on their way to deposit the coffin in the middle of the ocean and Eph was back at Palmer’s stitching himself up, Kelly (Natalie Brown) and Zach (Max Charles) walked in. As Kelly attacked Eph it was do or die, and Zach watched his father unceremoniously kill his strigoi mother in order to save himself. And so Zach retaliated in the most epic way possible: by detonating the nuclear bomb The Master had trusted him with, effectively blowing up New York and staging an eclipse that allowed all of the remaining strigoi to take over the city streets.

To find out what the giant twist means for the fourth and final season, whether there’s any redemption for Zach and why Carlton Cuse picked this episode as his directorial debut, THR caught up with the showrunner.

Most directors start with easy episodes — you started with one containing a nuclear explosion. Why?

As we were working on the story and the end of the season was coming together I just got more and more excited about this episode. It just seemed like a fairly formidable challenge to try to pull this off on a basic cable show schedule and budget. The challenge of that excited me. It’s good to push yourself into a place where you’re both excited but also nervous about whether you’re going to be able to succeed and this episode fit both that criteria.

What kind of budget did you have for this episode compared to the rest?

There was definitely a larger budget for visual effects given the story, but we also had a couple of days of second unit shooting. It wasn’t drastically disproportional to other episodes of the show. The show in general is very cinematic and ambitious and this was bigger but not by a lot.

Did you always know that one day Eldritch was going to become The Master?

Certainly at the beginning of the season when we had this idea The Master would change identities and we wouldn’t know who it was, that was the first juicy idea. It is something we’ve been talking about for a while. It felt like Eldritch as a character was kind of running out of steam in his traditional role. He served as The Master’s human helper and we’d gotten to the point by season three where he had done everything he was meant to do. He had set up all the preconditions for The Master to take over the world. But we loved Jonathan Hyde as an actor and Palmer as a character so when we started talking about it, it seemed like the perfect evolution for this character to become the latest vessel for The Master.

What were the intricacies of crafting a fight scene with a lot of close-ups involving some of the older actors like David Bradley and Jonathan Hyde?

We had stunt doubles for everybody, but then when I was shooting it the actors were like, “No, I want to do this.” I was a little nervous. Like, oh geez. It’s going to look cool with these guys but I don’t want to hurt them or anything. Particularly Jonathan Hyde, he is super fit and limber and he was amazing. So we did a run-through with him and he was so capable and so gung ho that we ended up using very little work with the doubles in the sequence. It’s always tough because inherently the doubles often feel like doubles. We spent a lot of time working on the choreography so nobody was going to get hurt but they did it. It was pretty physically rigorous. Everybody was pretty sweaty and exhausted by the time we finished it. There were some big sequences that we accomplished. It was amazing. Our cast is incredibly gung ho, they love the show and everybody was up for all the challenges of this episode.

Is there any coming back for Zach at this point?

There’s a tendency in movies and television to make kids inherently good and to make old people inherently wise. We’ve tried to spin both of those stereotypes in our show. David Bradley is not the kindly, crinkly wise old guy. He is a badass strigoi hunter who is willing to make any compromise necessary to fulfill his mission and take The Master down. And Zach, as Palmer says, he has a dark heart. This kid has been through the worst things imaginable. First his mother is turned, then as a strigoi version of Kelly she becomes like a second mother to him and he has to watch his father kill her. It’s very hard to come back from that. He’s in a very dark place as a character and that felt like something we hadn’t seen before; a kid who really veers into territory that seems irredeemable. The moment in the script that I was so excited about was that I don’t think anybody is expecting Zach to push the button and detonate the nuke. This kid won’t start the destruction of the world at large … but he does!

How long would this eclipse hypothetically last?

Yes, there’s a temporary eclipse that occurs because the cloud from the atomic bomb blocks the sun. But what’s more important is what kind of repercussions does that have across the world? And there are profound ones. It was a catalyzing event, the shot that was heard around the world. Heading into the final season of the show it completely resets the stakes. What Zach did and that bomb going off completely upends the world and is in a way the fulfillment of The Master’s plan. Now our character are living in a radically different place as the final season of the show starts. 

When this show started out there was a three-season plan and now you’re wrapping with the fourth. What specifically were you able to pull out of that extra season?

One of the fun things about doing television is that it’s a very organic process and I’ve really learned to listen to the show. It’s the giant collaboration with a bunch of other writers and actors and the show takes on a life of its own. As you start getting into it, you start wondering what’s the natural course of this. Different shows have different paths. If you’re doing Grey’s Anatomy it can pretty much run forever. With The Strain it was a story with a beginning, middle and end — in fact we expected it to be a little bit shorter. But we had more ideas we wanted to expand. It was always a story that we saw with three parts: The first was the epidemiological spread of vampirism and the world becoming aware of it. The second part was humanity’s attempts to turn the tables and beat it back. The end of this season is the end of chapter two and the third part is that they basically failed to turn it back and now how does humanity survive in this new world order and what is ultimately the fate of mankind? That’s the question of the final season.

What does your ending look like now compared to what it looked like at the beginning of this show?

It was always anticipated that we’d use elements of the book but that the show would have its natural evolution. When you adapt a story to another medium you try to tell the best version of that story for the new medium. It’s not good to be constrained artificially by what worked in one medium when you tell the story in another. Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan and I always felt like the show was going to be its own thing and the final season has elements that are in the books, but it’s also wildly different than what’s in the books. In fact a lot of the ideas in the final season are really ideas not just from the books but from new ideas that came from me, the other writers and also from Guillermo and Chuck. Everybody’s really viewing this as its own story and it will have its own ending. If you’ve read the book and you think you know exactly what’s going to happen at the end, you don’t.

Given your penchant for killing off main characters, how worried should viewers be for fan favorites knowing this fourth season is the last?

Absolutely worried. The final season of the show, the stakes are no less than if humanity is going to survive. What is the state of humankind? One of the things that really excited me from the get-go about showrunning this project was the idea of getting to these really dramatic endpoints for these characters and knowing that it’s not a story where everybody lives happily ever after. That’s cool — it gives you the chance to do stuff as a storyteller and deliver a narrative that I think is really exciting.

The Strain returns for a fourth and final season in 2017 on FX. What did you think of the finale? Sound off below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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