'The Strain' season 1, episode 2 review: 'The Box'

By Will Ashton,

With co-creator Guillermo Del Toro stepping away from the director's chair for its second episode and handing the reigns to TV director David Semel, the show moves away from the plot building elements of the story and instead moves its attention to the characters themselves.

As one would expect, this makes the show better and worse. By actually building on these characters, the show can take a breath and make these people feel more like actual people and not just building block characters. The most notable character lifting here goes to Eph (Corey Stoll) and, thankfully, to Gus (Miguel Gomez). The latter no longer just feels like an awkward stereotype and now—somewhat—feels like a real human being. Instead, it appears that the stereotyping has been redirected to a random French chef who only appears for about two or three minutes.

The show clearly has a great appreciation for character. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the show is juggling one too many for its own good and that these interactions often drag the overarching conflicts down to a screeching halt. These moments aren't necessarily bad, they just screw up the show's pacing in a significant way.

When the show is effective, it is most definitely effective. At its heart, this show is a horror-thriller, and when it remembers that, it makes good use of its promises. The final scene in this episode is among the most efficiently creepy and well-executed uses of suspense that I have seen in some time, television or not. The fact that it uses the cheap trick of a young girl and the overplayed location of a bathtub can understandably be point-reducing for some, but it works and it does exactly what it needs to for a final scene: it makes you want to see more.

Speaking of this scene, it should be mentioned that The Strain has an unusually sublime way of mismatching lighthearted songs with horrific acts of violence. From last week's use of "Sweet Caroline" to this week's background inclusion of "This Old Man" in the final scene, this showcases a wonderfully odd sense of dark humor the show has. Hopefully this is going to be a running trend in the show, for it is easily one of the show's best features.

The biggest disappointment about this new episode is the lack of Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) this time around. As mentioned last time, this is clearly the show's best character, and Bradley brings a wonderful mix of mystery and mystique to his performance. Although he does have one pretty special scene with Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel)—a character that really shows his worth in this episode and anchors a particularly great performance from Sammel—it is not enough. This is definitely a character that should be front and center in the series, not on the sidelines. Hopefully, he will have a much bigger impact in the episodes to come.

As mentioned last week, this is definitely a show that has a lot of promise for it, and it does seem to understand the importance of build up. But that sense of build up can only be effective for so many episodes. Hopefully, there will be more moments like the final scene here than earlier scenes in the episode where they force a love interaction between Eph and Nora (Mia Maestro). Those kind of scenes can be seen from a hundred miles away, and cause for grunts of wanting the creators to move away from them and focus on the mythos of the series.

For the moment, it appears that this is just a pretty good show that makes good of fixing some of its problems, but still carries or adds more along the way. Eph is a much better character this time around, but the show still needs to get a few of these characters and supporting storylines out of the way. Because they often add little to nothing to the overaching story, and just seem to add story so that the fact that this is a series and not a movie is justified.

Having not read any of the source material—either the original novels or the comic book versions that would come out in due time—I cannot speak for how well this show respects the novel(s) in times like these. Considering that authors Del Toro and Chuck Hogan are the show's creators as well, it would seem that they know what they are doing. So, with that in mind, perhaps it is just best to sit back and wait and see what they are going to pull out of their hats next week. It looks like it is going to be something pretty cool.

Image courtesy of Peter West/ACE Pictures

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