The Strain Season 2: A Review
Following up on my first review, I now turn to the second season of The Strain, an interesting mix of Dracula and Contagion. If the first season was the story of an outbreak, as a vampire-disease first comes to New York City and our main characters struggle first to identify it and then to simply accept what they have learned, the second season is the story of a full blown epidemic. Turned New Yorkers, or strigoi as Professor Setrakian, our modern day Jewish Van Hellsing, calls them, oam the streets at random attacking whenever the sun sets. The city has been quarantined. Everywhere we turn, people are on the verge of panic with no idea of what to do.
It is in this setting that The Strain begins to explore a very interesting question; what kind of person is needed when the stakes are their most dire. The protagonist of our show is one Ephraim Goodweather, the now disgraced former head of emergency containment at the Center for Disease Control. When Eph, as he is called, was introduced to us I will admit he immediately had my sympathy. The man is going through a nightmare divorce with his wife, who when we meet her gives the first impression of being a total shrew (yes your husband’s phone keeps ringing in therapy Kelly, but he works for the CDC, it’s probably important!), who has already begun dating a stereotypical frat boy douche and, of course, is demanding full custody of their son. Before the first scene is over Eph has us in his corner.
However, as the season progressed, I realized that the more I saw of Eph the more I disliked him. It’s highly implied that he’d been carrying on an affair with his colleague, Dr. Nora Martinez, though it is later clarified that while attracted to one another they only began a sexual relationship after Eph’s wife filed for divorce. We also realize in short order that while brilliant in his field, Eph is highly egotistical and very unwilling to either admit when he is wrong or consider a point of view other than his own. He also displays an incredibly ruthless streak, almost immediately coming around to Professor Setrakian’s view that the only way to contain the infection is to eliminate the infected, immediately and without mercy (the comparison he makes is to how the Chinese culled the bird population in response to Avian flu….remember this chap is a doctor). He also has sex with Nora, on the floor of his former bedroom, and then right in front of her, mere minutes later (when discovered by his old next door neighbor), begins proclaiming how he loves his ex-wife and would do anything to find her.
Essentially, for all his intelligence, Dr. Goodweather is an egotistical narcissist who never shows any real care or concern for another person other than his son, Zach, who seems to be the one person he seems to be able to show true selfless devotion to. Even when Nora is infected with the strigoi disease and commits suicide rather than be turned, Eph’s pleading for her to live basically boils down to him begging her not to “leave him alone”. I won’t say I become sympathetic towards his ex-wife, because I am sorry Kelly but your husband works for the Center for Disease Control and kind of has to answer his bloody phone when it’s ringing (yes that part really got to me), but I at least begin to understand why she wouldn’t have wanted to remain married to him.
In season two, however, Eph’s character takes a turn from merely personally dislikeable to being an outright horrible human being. As the strigoi-virus continues to spread through New York, and increasingly desperate measures at containment are implemented to try and stop it, Eph and Nora use their CDC background to come up with the interesting idea to develop a counter virus that will infect and kill the infected. Of course, this requires test subjects and in a scuffle with some strigoi at a storage unit facility our protagonists come across an infected elderly couple. Whatever do you think the outcome of this scenario will be?
Now, the couple does initially volunteer to allow themselves to be studied and experimented on in the name of the greater good. They know there’s no cure or treatment, and hope that by finding a way to stop the virus their as yet uninfected children might be kept safe. As the virus takes its course, however, they become notably less….enthusiastic. Understandably, Eph and Nora continue with their attempts to develop a strigoi-killing counter virus and their reactions are telling. Nora seems genuinely tortured by what she is doing. Oh she perseveres because the survival of humanity quite literally depends on it, but you can see that hates having to do so. Eph however shows no reaction. He’s not a sadist about it; we see no signs of joy or pleasure at the suffering of his test subjects from him. However we see no signs of guilt or even much empathy from him either. Finding a way to beat the strigoi virus is all he seems to care about and what happens to those around him just does not seem to register.
Having finally developed his strigoi-killing bioweapon, Eph then secretly travels to Washington to try and secure mass development and deployment of it. On the train taking him there he randomly encounters his old boss from the CDC, Dr. Barnes, who has since become a pawn of the strigoi (though to be fair his interactions with them have largely been through their human partner Eldritch Palmer and we are left in the dark as to how much he knows of the virus’s true nature and the intent of its purveyors). Go back and watch this scene. From the first moment Eph sees Barnes his reaction is obvious. The expression on his face clearly says “Oh shit, I have to kill this man”, and he does. The first second he can he attacks Barnes, wrestles him to the train door, and throws him to his death. He doesn’t hesitate. He shows no real emotional conflict over it, he simply kills him with cold, precise resolve. Again, looking at the situation logically, there was no real other choice for him. What is so horrifying is not that Eph does what he does but that he seems completely unaffected by it.
That is the fascinating angle that The Strain’s second season explores: how terrible times call for truly terrible people. The very things that make Eph such a deplorable human being are also what make him exactly what is needed in the situation he finds himself facing. His narcissism, lack of concern for other people, and determination to win simply to validate his own egotistic view of himself give him to drive to carry on and do whatever it takes to prevail. The struggle between himself and the strigoi is almost personal; he’ll defeat them simply to validate his belief that he is the better man, that humanity is also saved in the process seems to be an afterthought.
Indeed, this is a recurring trend amongst the show’s characters. Whether it’s Gus, the former Latino gang member whose streetwise nature leads to him being recruited by “the Ancients” (an enigmatic trio of strigoi that seem to be bent on stopping the spread of the virus for some reason) or Fet, a public pest exterminator who joins the cause largely because he likes killing things (and whose professional background makes him very good at it), again and again we see the trend of The Strain highlighting how tendencies and traits that objectively are considered to be reprehensible are actually assets in the vampire apocalypse scenario of the show.
One area where this goes a bit too far is in the storyline of Justine Feraldo, a councilwoman from Staten Island. Brash, belligerent, and with no time for PC balderdash, in her very first scene Feraldo declares that she’s going to take back her ward street by street and immediately precedes to do so (announcing it in a press conference where she unveils several beheaded Strigoi corpses). Amazed by her success, the city of New York begs her extend her efforts to the city as a whole. The only person not impressed by the plucky councilwoman is Professor Setrakian, who observes upon seeing one of her posters imploring New Yorkers to “fight for their homeland” that when people start invoking that phrase it always is a precursor to horrible deeds. Now, had The Strain kept it at that I’d actually find it to be quite understandable. As a survivor of the Holocaust I completely get how Setrakian would take the view he does (given my family history I tend to have a similar reaction at times myself), but the show keeps going. We see citizen volunteers patrolling New York dressed in black and wearing red armbands with black biohazard symbols on them (really, I mean really?). When the mayor expresses his discomfort with Feraldo’s tactics he’s mysteriously murdered, and while it’s made clear Feraldo didn’t order it the implication is that one of her supporters did it of their own volition. As she begins to gain mounting successes against the strigoi we see adoring crowds of cheering New Yorkers applaud her actions, and again the expression on her face clearly says “Oh my, this is power”. The New York City council even passes a bill giving her powers to fight the epidemic called the Enabling Act for crying out loud. Where all these analogies of course fall apart is that the Jews were innocent scapegoats of Nazi Germany and the Strigoi are a real threat to the existence of humanity. The Nazis killed out of savagery and racism. Feraldo does so to stop a disease from destroying the world.
Nevertheless, The Strain deserves credit exploring the dynamic of how terrible times call for terrible people. We can see this throughout history. The founder of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, brought about its creation (very much to the horror of his sovereign) out of an egotistical desire to validate his own perception of his greatness. Winston Churchill, the greatest Prime Minister ever of Britain, had the fortitude to lead Britain through World War Two largely because of his preconceived notion that as a superior being he was destined to save the Empire in its time of need. Tsar Peter the Great dragged Russia into modernity through his utter disgust with its backward ways and his willingness to do anything to eradicate them. The Strain’s second season does not hesitate from showing us that in truly despicable times the most despicable of people are the ones needed to lead us out from them. The parallels to today could not be more clear.