Critic's Notebook: 'The Strain' Series Finale Ends With Both a Bang and a Whimper

Here's how a series that began as a Guillermo del Toro-branded presumptive blockbuster slipped away with an undiscussed finale airing opposite the Emmys.
Russ Martin/FX
'The Strain'

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for the series finale of FX's The Strain.]

Sunday night's TV offerings had a little something for everybody. Most eyeballs were probably focused on either the Emmys or Sunday Night Football, but the programming slate also included Fear the Walking Dead for zombie lovers, the premiere of The Vietnam War for documentary enthusiasts and Ballers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Sunday also marked the end of FX's The Strain, though if you're like me, you probably didn't see or hear much conversation about the conclusion of the vampire saga, which points to how easy it is for a show to go from buzzworthy to functionally irrelevant, while still lasting a reasonably successful four seasons, in a saturated TV climate.

It's become hard to remember, but when The Strain premiered in 2013, there was a lot of hype behind it. FX was hoping The Strain might be its version of The Walking Dead, an apocalyptic horror monster mash with blockbuster aspirations and also pretensions of quality. The Strain arrived with literary pedigree, coming from a decent series of books by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. As elevated and reliable as genre auteur as you could hope to find, del Toro was directing the pilot and Lost co-mastermind Carlton Cuse was serving as showrunner. Off his season of House of Cards and a couple movie roles, Corey Stoll was one of Hollywood's most in-demand leading men, and the supporting cast included actors bringing Alias (Mia Maestro), Lost (Kevin Durand), Game of Thrones (David Bradley) and Lord of the Rings (Sean Astin) credibility.

I really like the pilot for The Strain. It's slow-moving, but also mighty creepy and when the strigoi (as the show preferred to rebrand vampires) began attacking people with their phallic tongue/sucker things, there was a visceral response that felt much in keeping with del Toro's body of work.

The series inched along for most of its first season, picking off only a couple humans per episode and leaving some doubt on the strigoi's commitment to overwhelm New York City with sufficient speed, and, as it meandered, people kept being distracted by silly things instead of the show itself.

There was also Stoll's wig. It was not a good wig. It was not a purposeful wig. It was written off of the show in the second season amidst claims that they needed Stoll's Dr. Ephraim Goodweather to have a look that he could change when he became a wanted man in an increasingly vampire-friendly city. Still, the wig became a running joke and a narrative, something it probably wouldn't have become if the show had been hooking viewers in different ways.

There were the billboards. One of the series' best vampire-related conceits was the idea that the "strain" of vampirism was carried via white blood worms that, once loose, could crawl into your skin or, more primally, into your eyes. A series of billboards including blood worms crawling into an exposed eye became topics of controversy and conversation in Los Angeles, but maybe the grossness of the billboards kept people from talking about the similar grossness of the TV show?

Then there was Zach, son of Eph and quick-to-become-a-vampire Kelly (Natalie Brown). In no time, Zach became a poster boy for bad cable child characters, a pouting whelp who couldn't stop whining about his dad not playing catch with him, even as the world was ending. Ben Hyland, the original Zach, was not especially good and between the first and second season, he was replaced by Max Charles under the ostensible claim that they wanted an actor more able to track Zach's journey into darkness.

It didn't work, and I guess complaints about Zach are, unlike the wig and the billboards, complaints about the show. The writers got hung up on Zach being important to the series' endgame because he was important to the endgame of the books, but by the third season and especially into the fourth, the show had nothing to do with the books anymore and Zach had evolved not into a crucial piece of the narrative tapestry, but into one of the worst characters ever to be integral to an otherwise decent program. Things around Zach got darker and darker and Zach pouted more and more aggressively. Like really aggressively. How aggressively petulant did Zach get? He detonated a nuclear device in New York City in the third season finale because his dad wanted to kill his vampire mom. Now that's pouting. 

After reaching that crescendo, Zach's four-season plotline was basically: The Master, serving as a surrogate father to Zach, gave him a cute slave girl to clean his quarters. Zach fell in love with her, but she already had a boyfriend and so, having been put in the friend zone, Zach pouted and let her get eaten. I don't think I'm doing a good enough job explaining how bad this was as a multi-episode arc for a major character in what had already been announced as a show's final season.

Then, in the finale, Zach detonated another nuclear weapon, this time underground. The first detonation was out of pique, the second was out of love. My favorite hacky Twitter punchline is the one that goes, "In the end, the real [enter show/movie title] was love." And that's what The Strain went with for its series finale. The vampires thought they could use human connections and relationships to spread their "strain," but they failed to properly gauge that our human capacity for love would also be their undoing, because Zach was willing to choose his father over the vampires and blow them all up, safely beneath the city.

This had always been part of the show's DNA, so I'm only going to somewhat fault The Strain for this and for the repetitiveness of ending consecutive seasons with a bratty kid blowing up a nuke.

What can't be escaped and what caused the show to have such an unsatisfying finale is that it killed off its two best characters with weeks to go before the end. Anybody who lists favorite characters in The Strain without Setrakian (Bradley) and Eichhorst (Richard Sammel) in the top two positions (in either order) isn't trustworthy, and I get that their rivalry, dating back to the Holocaust, wasn't necessarily the endgame of the show and had to be completed early. But that meant we reached the finale and what we were left with was pouty Zach, wig-free Eph and an odd narrative reversion to pretend that the romance between strangely accented exterminator Vasiliy Fet (Durand) and sexually fluid hacker Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) was meaningful enough to be an endgame relationship. It really was not. We got to the last scenes of the finale and I guess I was pleased that Zach blew up The Master and the sun came back out, but a happily-ever-after for Fet and Dutch meant nothing. When we met Dutch, she had a girlfriend and then she was with Fet and then with Eph and then with Fet, even though Fet had been with some new character I didn't care about at all as recently as two or three episodes ago. And that's before we get into how I'm pretty sure Miguel Gomez's Gus only survived to the end because the writers kept forgetting he was there.

I guess it was an appropriate end in that, at its best, The Strain was a show that often featured great elements, but never knew what to do with any of them. That's the sort of thing that happens when you have a three-book series as a template and abandon the books and then go from a three-year plan to a five-year plan to a four-year plan. The last season had these spectacular conceptual ideas related to a society in which vampires treated humans as cattle, but other than some prematurely truncated material in a fertility clinic/blood farm, it ducked away from any complicated speculative fiction allegory or imagination and concentrated on a couple separate road trips in search of the bomb and associated parts, as well as Victorian England vampire flashbacks that were just an excuse to keep Rupert Penry-Jones' Quinlan around, while also letting him wear a bit less makeup for a few weeks.

The legacy of The Strain ends up being not a huge hit for FX, but also not an embarrassment the network should avoid discussing at parties. Instead, it was a show with some cool ideas, a couple great characters, one all-time awful character, some properly disturbing effects and no idea of how to bring it all together. And that's how you end up airing your series finale opposite the Emmys without anybody noticing.