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“Loved Ones” is another in a string of episodes that insists we care about the emotional strife and well being of the characters in The Strain. To be more specific, Eph’s emotional turmoil and family drama, which couldn’t be any less impactful. Like last week’s episode, it spends a lot of its time exploring character stories that are way less interesting than whatever else is going on in the narrative and fails to effectively engage the audience.
Let’s face it, Eph is the least compelling character in the series, we are meant to believe he is a confident and capable professional who cares deeply for those in his life, a logical and pragmatic person whose love for his son softens him and humanizes him, yet he has consistently come across as an arrogant and irritating figure. The pilot episode established him as our potential hero and dressed him up in a coat of clichés: work-obsessed divorcee; loving, but neglectful father; cocksure professional; alcoholic; etc. and there hasn’t been any more shading to that characterization since. With all the struggles and personal ordeals we have followed Eph on, there has been little to no character development. Isn’t that what character stories are supposed to do?
Writers put their characters in difficult, emotionally engaging situations in order to communicate something new about the person, to explore a side of that human being that hasn’t yet been delved into, or to expand on a characteristic or detail that is relevant to the story. However every time we have followed Eph through his difficulties (searching for Kelly, his interactions with Nora, his relationship with his son, teaming up with Setrakian), each hardship is used to reinforce what we already learned about him previously.
Instead of taking the opportunity to add nuance to the character, to uncover something about him, or show an arc, these stories serve to magnify how one-note the character is. There is just nothing more to him. Which makes it incredibly difficult to invest in him as a person and his relationship to the people close to him. Why bother if all the Eph stories are essentially identical and he barely operates like a real human being? There is no implication that these huge events have or will affect him in significant ways (at least not personally) rendering them meaningless. The writers do the absolute minimum hoping that viewers will latch on to something in his experience but don’t bother to do the actual work of portraying a believable, identifiable character, reducing it all to an empty exercise. As a result, the time we spent with Eph and Nora in this episode feels like filler.
All this would be semi-acceptable if at least Eph were a fun character, despite clichés and imperfections, like Vasiliy or Setrakian. He isn’t. Therefore, it’s just not a particularly engaging story, we don’t care about Eph. And the vampire transformation body-horror, though effective and disturbing, has been exhausted by the show’s earlier episodes. That close-up, eye shot was creepy and frightening, I’ll give them that, nonetheless, Kelly’s perspective isn’t exactly prime narrative material. Not until the final moments of the episode in which we see her follow The Master’s calling and find herself before him, which is a fun place to leave her. And despite the superfluous nature of most of her scenes, she has never been a more interesting figure in the story.
It is kind of sad that the character has become much more likable and intriguing now that she is full-on vampire, but I’m looking forward to what the show has in store for her. The episode implies that The Master will perhaps make her like Eichorst, a vampire that retains her memories and a sense of self and free will (not completely zombified like the other vamps), which could be used against Eph and Setrakian. That could be quite interesting. Knowing how slowly the narrative unfolds on The Strain it’s likely we won’t find out exactly what Kelly’s fate will be next week, seeing as we are still waiting to see what the deal was with those “good” vampires and what happened to Gus after he escaped custody.
“Loved Ones” does have other things going for it aside from the Goodweather family drama. Much like last week, whenever the episode shifts from the Eph-centric material, its actually kind of a decent show. Visiliy and lady hacker continue to share nice chemistry together and despite the idiocy of their plan to infiltrate Stoneheart, at least they are being somewhat proactive in this battle against the vampires. And even if their brief excursion yields no concrete rewards, we get some intriguing stuff from it. Lady hacker’s meeting with Mr. Plamer is not earth-shatteringly illuminating, but there is a more sinister mood emanating rom the ailing man that we had not necessarily seen before.
We’ve known he has been in cahoots with Eichorst and The Master all along, but this is the first time we get any explanation or justification for his motivation. Which is incredibly flawed, but human. All this for a rich dude’s desire for immortality? In his desperate attempt to avoid his own death, he has brought down death upon the human race. What is the point of eternal life if life as one knows it will cease to exist? This is obviously problematic thinking, and it would be nice, now that we are privy to The Master’s plan and Palmer’s motivation, if the show explored some of these ideas. Palmer was a more central figure to the story in the beginning now would be a good time tor revisit his point of view and explore his reasoning and relationship with The Master. His story would prove to be more engaging as a tool to delay story progression than another Eph-centric episode.
Because while we can accept that the pacing of the show’s narrative will continue to be this achingly slow and deliberate, we cannot accept the dullness of the stories being told. The Strain doesn’t have to have a relentless narrative to be good, but there has to be fun tension and conflict coming from an interesting angle, not just from Eph’s personal issues. This is where the show completely drops the ball, insisting that we invest in Eph’s story when there are more interesting characters that the writers keep neglecting.
What did you think?