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‘The Strain’ Season 4 Review: Going out with a Bang

by Haleigh Foutch July 14, 2017

Just in time for the end, The Strain is the best it’s ever been. After three seasons of build up and more than a little stalling, FX’s pulpy vampire drama has finally arrived at the promised post-apocalypse thanks to Zack’s (Max Charles) nuclear tantrum in the Season 3 finale. Lord knows Zack is the worst, but we should all be thanking the little monster-in-the-making because that tragic act of selfishness is exactly what the series needed to climb out of the narrative rut it’s been stuck in for the last two seasons and deliver exciting new locations, relationships, character development.

Season 4 picks up nine months after Zack pulled the trigger, unleashing a nuclear winter that allows the Strigoi to walk by day, finally fulfilling the series’ ongoing Holocaust parallels with the vision of a world reborn to serve the Master and his bloodsucking ilk. Humanity is forced into “The Partnership,” a one-sided union with the Strigoi in which the humans regularly donate blood in return for food and medical help, trudging terrified through the streets with identifying badges wrapped around their arms while armed Strigoi guards hiss and sneer from the sidewalk. Naturally, the food and medical aid are only enough to keep the walking Happy Meals pumping nourished blood, but the remnants of humanity are in no position to argue. The Justines of the world are gone, there is no Staten Island safe haven and no government support on the way, and the laws of nature have forsaken humanity without the sun to offer them respite from the Strigoi assault.

But there are those who fight. Another clever Season 4 shake up finds our remaining heroes — Setrakian, Fet, Dutch, and Eph — split up and working with new allies. Fet (Kevin Durand) and Setrakian (David Bradley) are in North Dakota, on the hunt for a nuclear bomb that can kill the Master once and for all, along with Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Fet’s new lady love. Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas) has been captured by the Strigoi and shipped off to a (gulp) breeding center, where she and her fellow fertile women are being impregnated under mysterious circumstances in a sort of post-apocalyptic Handmaid’s Tale scenario where they are valued solely for the contents of their womb. It’s Dutch, so obviously she’s fighting back in her own ways.

As for Eph (Corey Stoll), where do you go after you watch your son nuke New York? Apparently, Philidelphia, where Dr. Goodweather has been leaning into his bitterness, trading his medical skills for booze, and just generally being the kind of curmudgeon we’ve all come to know and love. But after seasons of watching him be insufferable for no good reason, Eph’s bad attitude is thoroughly earned at this point — I mean, fuck it, he raised the kid who ended the world — and unlike his chaffing demeanor in previous seasons, it’s actually quite delightful to watch him grumble and smirk around in the post-apocalypse, utterly unphased but still a genius with a fighter’s spirit.

On the evil side of things, The Master looks the best he has since Season 1. Inhabiting the frail body of Eldritch Palmer, he has a whiff of Nosferatu about him and the wonderful design work from the prosthetics department is matched by the performance from Jonathan Hyde, who gives the Master more menace and range than we’ve seen from the character before. Though Eichorst has fairly little to do in the three episodes that were screened for critics, Richard Sammel continues to steal every scene he’s in with a wink and a smile.

Then there’s Zack. What a fine and infuriating villain he has become. There are villains you love to hate and then there is Zack, who you just hate. The collective rage the character invites could fuel a thousand suns, and it’s not easy to conjure that level of acrid distaste in an audience. This kid has reached Joffrey levels of loathsome, and he continues to be a self-serving little shit in Season 4, in which the Master is grooming the young man to become a proper villain. And Zack’s right around that age, so now he’s got an eye for the ladies, a development that grants the character a new kind level of despicable self-satisfaction.

This is what it’s like to see The Strain firing on all cylinders, finally. In the past, The Strain‘s action has often felt circuitous, a series of false beats that ultimately led back to the same place. The search for the Lumen, Eph’s fight for his family, repeat repeat repeat, without a narrative forward momentum that allowed the characters or the world to grow in interesting ways. After two seasons of hurry up and wait, the final episodes of Season 3 blasted out a path for progress, and Season 4 follows through on that promise. For the first time since the series’ strong start in 2014, The Strain delivers propulsive drama and world building. In the final season, the talented cast, the gorgeous effects, and the singular cinematographic aesthetic are matched bold narrative moves and satisfying character beats. The pieces have clicked together at last, and it’s bittersweet to finally watch the show live up to its potential, just before it comes to a close.

★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television

The Strain‘s final season premieres Sunday, July 16th on FX.

'The Strain' says goodbye with a strong finish. Haleigh Foutch reviews the fourth and final season of FX's post-apocalyptic vampire series.

The Strain: Season 4 Review

The entire world faces the Night Eternal.

Season 4 never quite captured the intensity promised in those final moments of “The Fall” last year. Probably it was too much to expect for the show to maintain that level of dread and unease for 10 episodes straight. Even so, this season was able to give the series and nits main characters the closure they deserved.

Rather than shifting the setting to subterranean New York, as “The Fall” suggested, Season 4 expanded the scope of The Strain by scattering its main cast across the country. Those early episodes certainly offered a change of pace, shifting away from the familiar New York setting and showcasing the rapid breakdown of civilization throughout the country. Maybe we never got to see some of the more dramatic events that unfolded off camera in between seasons (such as the outbreak of war and the onset of nuclear winter), but the general aesthetic of the show became bleaker and more foreboding. Fet’s storyline in particular was great about setting the mood. The constantly overcast skies and cold, barren fields really created a sense that the world had moved on.

The downside to that change in scenery, however, is that it took some time for the season to rebuild the show’s momentum. The first half of the season was largely devoted to getting the whole gang back together and paving the way for that true final conflict. At some point you have to question the purpose of breaking them apart in the first place. Still, that slow buildup did make the eventual reunion feel more meaningful. There was a lot of emotional baggage leading into those final few episode, with Eph mourning the loss of his family and Fet still harboring resentment towards Eph and Dutch thanks to their short-lived love triangle. There was a certain satisfaction in seeing these character finally start to put aside their differences for the common good.

The show literally became darker this season.

That ties into another thing the writers handled very well this season. From the beginning, it was clear just how much the writers were using the strigoi conflict as a metaphor for the current political unrest in America. It’s impressive how easily the show was able to pivot and tackle a post-election US head-on. The rise of the Master clearly paralleled the unexpected victory of a certain real-world political figure. Not that the series was blatantly political in its messaging this year. It was more focused on posing the same question to its characters in different ways – “Will you keep your head down, or raise your voice and take action against the injustice you see in the world?” One way or another, the heroes of the Strain chose the latter, and that made for a more emotionally resonant finish.

Nowhere was this struggle better personified than with Eph himself. He’s a character prone to wallowing in his own alcohol-soaked misery, and he began the season at quite possibly his lowest ebb. That’s what made his arc this year so compelling. Eph had to find his courage and his will to resist all over again. And when the final battle loomed, Eph had to weigh the needs of the many against his all-encompassing desire to save his misguided son. Stoll was given a lot to work with this year, and he really made the most of the material.

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Zach proved a more troublesome case. Already the show’s most unlikable character by a mile, Season 4 really doubled down on all of Zach’s worst qualities. As if setting off a bomb and killing thousands just to spite his father wasn’t bad enough, Season 4’s Zach descended ever further into creepy psycho stalker territory. As has been the case since Season 2, the combination of lousy writing and Charles’ one-note performance really works against a character who should be the focal point of the entire series. The good news is that Zach did find some measure of redemption by the end. Not enough to justify the character’s questionable portrayal all these years, but enough to at least give his arc the conclusion it needed.

In general, most of the recurring characters were given fitting conclusions to their stories. Yes, there were some that deserved more screen time than they received. I was especially disappointed not to see more emphasis on the rivalry between the former Eldritch Palmer and his minion, Herr Eichorst (Richard Sammel). And for the most part, the new characters introduced this season – Alex Green (Angel Parker), Raul (Michael Reventar), Roman (K.C. Collins) and Abby (Jocelyn Hudon) – were fairly underutilized. But all the major players enjoyed some big moments and, pretty much without fail, received the endings they deserved. That was certainly true for Fet, who alone among the cast proved to be the unwavering hero over the course of these four seasons. Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones) also had a great final year, with the show digging even deeper into the character’s tragic back-story.

To draw another comparison between Lost and The Strain, whatever the finale might have lacked on a plot level, it made up for by delivering an emotionally satisfying conclusion to this ongoing story. No, “The Last Stand” wasn’t as epic in scope as it could have been. In that sense, it fell short of the standard set by “The Fall” a year previous. But the finale did ensure that pretty much every character was given the closure they deserved. It wrapped up the show’s loose ends neatly while still leaving a bit of room for a sequel, should the need ever arise.

Fet and Quinlan found some unlikely new allies this year.

Spoilers for The Strain: Season 4 follow!

The series finale was anything but precious with its surviving cast of characters. The biggest surprise was that both Eph and Zach perished in their final confrontation with the Master. But is there any way Zach’s story could have ended? He had a great deal to atone for given his actions since the end of Season 3. Nothing short of sacrificing his own life and setting off a second bomb that saved New York was going to get the job done.

In many ways, the season really peaked several episodes earlier during the final showdown between Setrakian and Eichorst. It’s become a running gag on the show that these two characters constantly clash, only for Eichorst to always escape and live to fight another day. More than anything, I was looking forward to seeing the cycle finally end this season. And their clash in the appropriately named “Ouroboros” didn’t disappoint. Setrakian proved that, even weakened and nearing death’s door, he’s not an opponent to be underestimated. That confrontation offered a fitting end for this decades-old rivalry and a great sendoff for the tenacious Setrakian.

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Verdict

While fairly slow starting out, The Strain’s fourth season eventually built to a satisfying conclusion as it rearranged the playing field and explored the far-reaching effects of the Master’s rise to power. Whatever this season might have lacked in sheer scope, it made up for in solid character drama. Pretty much every character was given the conclusion they deserved, even the perpetually troublesome Zach. Season 4 gave this show the closure it needed.

We look back at The Strain's fourth and final season and how it gave the series the strong finish it needed.