An army of the undead has taken over most of planet Earth, leaving the scattered survivors to try and figure out a way forward in a world that has turned totally upside-down. If that sounds like The Walking Dead, it certainly makes sense. But what if I told you there is another show that takes that broad premise and does a little more with it than run in season-long circles over and over again?
As it begins its fourth and final season this Sunday night on FX, The Strain has followed its nightmarish premise — an ancient race of vampires have made their way to New York bent on infecting the whole world — all the way to its logical (but not very comforting) conclusion: the vampires, called the Strigoi, have infected the whole world, have totally upended the world order, and subjugated the humans who remain with a simple bargain: keep donating blood regularly so that the Strigoi may eat, and in turn the Strigoi will not kill you.
I confess, I had not watched The Strain before I was sent the first few episodes of season 4. I stayed away largely because horror shows are not really my thing, and because I felt that the show looked like a pale (pale! ha!) imitation of The Walking Dead, which hasn’t felt fresh since Obama’s first term. But having ended season 3 with a nuclear blast that allowed the Strigoi to come out of hiding (because nuclear winter has obscured the sun) and make short work of humanity provides the show with a chance for a reset and an easy entry point for a newbie like myself, and I found myself far more interested and far less lost in the details than I expected.
In the wake of “Illumination Day” — the nuclear blast that Dr. Ephraim Goodweather’s 10-year-old son Zach, who Goodweather had spent the entire series trying to save from turning Strigoi, set off in a fit of childish pique when Goodweather was forced to kill the kid’s Strigoi-infected mother — the show fast-forwards 9 months and catches up with all the characters. Goodweather is living alone in Strigoi-occupied Philadelphia, dispensing medical care for booze; Fet and Quinlan are in the midwest, searching for another nuclear weapon to destroy the Master; The Master has taken Palmer, his longtime human patsy who’d been aiding The Master’s efforts in exchange for immortality, as his new host and continues to hold Zach in sway with the aid of ‘the white,’ his life-replenishing essence in liquid form; Dutch is in custody in a medical facility with other women identified as having type B-positive blood (the Strigoi’s favorite); and Creem and Gus are adapting to the new economy.
That new economy is based on the uneasy detente between the humans and the Strigoi, and in an interesting turn, involves a great deal of propagandistic messaging on television (alternating with old episodes of The Bob Newhart Show) and on posters all over the place promising cooperating humans will get “Your Fair Share.” Naturally, all of our main characters are chafing against that bargain, and if one were so inclined, it would be easy to see the whole thing as an anti-Socialist allegory, where parasites feed on the work of the industrious, except here, the parasites are also the elites, so the actual political message here, if there is one, is muted at best.
Despite my misgivings going in, I fully intend to watch this show to its conclusion. It’s taken much bigger narrative chances than that other Sunday-night horror drama (or that other other Sunday-night horror drama) has and as a result the stakes feel much higher and the plot far more engaging. And holy hell, the Strigoi, with their scrambling crab-walking and befanged tongue-tentacles, are scarier than any walker could ever hope to be.
Season 4 of The Strain premieres at 9pm ET Sunday on FX; new episodes will be available next-day on-demand.