The Strain: The Box review

The second episode of The Strain spends more time on the characters, but just as much on horror. Here's Marc's review...

The pilot episode of The Strain pretty much covered up to around page 250 of the 400 page Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan novel that the show is based on. So it should come as no surprise that this week’s episode, “The Box,” slows the plot down and does some needed character meditations so viewers will develop connections to the large cast of players. That’s not to say that the second episode doesn’t bring the scares. Carlton Cuse and company really cut loose on a few sequences bound to give viewers some sleepless nights. Take my hand, as we take our second journey into the world of The Strain and discover what makes some of our heroes tick and try to help each other survive some of the more trouser staining moments.

Let’s start with our main protagonist Eph. This week, Battlestar Galactica, Falling Skies, Alphas, and Defiance vets Bradley Thompson and David Weddle replace executive producers del Toro and Hogan on scripting chores and examine Eph’s past as a failed father, successful CDC agent, and alcoholic. Eph is totally in the Chief Brody role but instead of protecting Amity Island from a great white, he must protect the city that never sleeps from an evil that has just awoken.  

This week, viewers discover some very personal details about Eph during an AA confession and learn that the loving father is a dedicated man who is trying to live his life despite the fact that he has to witness his wife, whom he still loves, and his dear child shacking up in Eph’s old house with mom’s new too cool for the room BF. Eph is broken, his life a shambles, he desperately craves a drink, and he is about as imperfect a hero as one can be. There is almost nothing in his life that Eph has a handle on, except when he is in the lab. He is a science shaman, a modern day warrior against the unknown and he is New York’s only hope against the rising tide of bloodsuckers that recently landed in JFK. If the only thing this episode did was allow us to get to know our hero, it would have been successful, but it did so much more.

By far, the most gripping scene this series has presented thus far was a prison meeting between the elderly Van Helsing archetype Abraham Setrakian and the former Nazi vampire Thomas Eichorst. Now, vampires, especially the parasitic kind featured in The Strain, are vile, and Nazis are unquestionably the most evil creeps on the planet, but when you combine them, yikes! That’s Eichorst. Even his name screams evil undead Nazi, just say it out loud. Eichorst! Add that to the fact that Eichorst keeps referring to Setrakian as “Jew” or simply by his death camp tattoo numbers and you have one vampire we desperately need to see take a stake in the heart and soon.

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As Eichorst mocks Setrakian, as he forces the elderly vampire hunter to relive his imprisonment during the Holocaust, the hatred between the two is palpable. Richard Sammel as Eichorst and David Bradley as Setrakian just nail the drama of this scene. It’s just two men glaring at each other with a pane of glass between them, but the hatred between the two is like a force of nature. It’s a wonder that the glass didn’t shatter from the sheer gravitas and power of the two actors’ commitment to the scene. Everything one needs to know to understand the history between the Nazi and the Holocaust survivor is laid bare in this scene. Watch it, and then watch it again. The sequence also provided all the information about Eichorst’s plans and the pain that Setrakian has had the strength to endure during his long and challenging life. This scene exemplifies how to build drama and conflict and needs to be viewed and dissected by fans of horror, drama, or just darn good writing.

Moving on to Augustin ‘Gus’ Elizalde. Street criminal and mama’s boy Gus does exactly what he was told not to do last week, he takes a peek at the coffin he was asked to remove from JFK. When the evil box o’ dirt started to shake, Gus was outtie, but you can be sure that the plague he unwittingly helped to spread will come back to bite him in the ass. The episode further establishes Gus as a crook with a heart of gold as all his focus seemed to be on helping his beloved mama live a better life. Gus adds an interesting shade of grey to the proceedings, an outlaw on the fringe who could be on the frontlines against the vampire contagion. Gus may be bad, but he’s not Nazi vampire bad…that type of bad is reserved for Eichorst and his sect.

Speaking of shades of grey, we have the Marilyn Manson wannabe Gabriel Bolivar. Now the profound real world death of the music industry does not seem to extend to the world of The Strain as Bolivar parties like Vince Neil circa 1985. He certainly has that luscious Anne Rice vampiric quality to him, especially when he is in his wig and velvets, but this rock star is about as phony as Milli Vanilli (dated reference alert!). Bollivar is what the world perceives vampires to be, sexy, mysterious, otherworldly, and magical, so when the rock star transforms into an actual vampire thanks to his exposure to the vamp on the plane, the irony is not lost when all sensuality is drained from him. Lovers of vampire fiction are trained to see the bloodsuckers as almost angelic beings, but The Strain presented the newly transformed Bollivar licking blood off a filthy floor and crawling around like a rabid animal after biting the throat of one of his groupies, and not in a sensual way, as the point is further driven home that these vampires are about as sexy as a drug addict lapping up his spilt fix over a truck stop floor.

We covered protagonist, antagonist, vampire, vampire hunter, and mama’s boy street hustlers, so let us move onto some new character introductions this week. Specifically, Vasiliy Fet, who was originally supposed to be played by Ron Perlman. Instead, we have a dynamic performance by Kevin Durand who played psycho military heavy Martin Keamy on Lost (“I make really good eggs”) and the Blob in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Fet has the potential to be The Strain’s version of Daryl Dixon and not just because he’s named Fet, he truly has a kickass presence about him and when he unleashes some of his vermin hating fury on the vamps, look out!

Fet is a dedicated exterminator taxed with keeping the city safe from vermin. This episode, he shuts down a posh restaurant for a rat infestation by walking out into the dining area with a dead rodent. With a new and ancient infestation coming to New York City, Fet will be busier than ever and right in his element, and if his debut is any indication, it should be hella fun to watch.

We also get, sort of, treated to the debut of the Master who reveals himself to Eldritch Palmer. He’s big, disgusting, scary, and very Del Toro. I’m sure we will see more Master soon, but he looks way more badass than the punk Master who served as the easily dispatched big bad in Buffy Season 1. If the Master is the central figure of evil in The Strain, Eph, Setrakian, and the rest have their work cut out for them.

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I promised to tell you about the scare of the week in this episode that mostly focused on character study. Remember that little girl vamp who returned home to daddy last week? Yeah, it doesn’t go well for daddy. Daddy “Let the Wrong One In” and gets violently suctioned by his darling little girl. It’s sick, twisted, a little bit incestuous, and f’n disgusting. Just the sort of garnish to go with the near perfect horror smorgasbord served up by The Strain this week.

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4 out of 5