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“The Third Rail” shows our band of dummies finally making proactive efforts to eliminate The Master, and while their mission is likely to fail (there are two episodes left in the season and at lest a second season of The Strain to look forward to), the episode does a surprisingly capable job at unfolding this particular storyline in a gripping way. Eph, Nora, Vasiliy and Setrakian venture into the subway tunnels where the vampires nest during the day seeking The Master’s headquarters so to speak, and the location (dark, bleak, constrictive) serves as the perfect backdrop for some truly horrifying and suspenseful encounters with the scary creatures. The episode develops an overwhelming sense of dread that becomes increasingly palpable as it goes on, particularly in the underground scenes as the group reaches their destination. The claustrophobic setting emphasizes the characters’ proximity to imminent danger and keeps us on our toes. Also, creepy-crawly vampires are seriously terrifying.
Despite Eph’s relentlessly unlikable and irritating demeanor, and some thematic shoehorning by the writers (Nora’s spiel about the objects “that defined these people” was cringe-worthy) the scenes flow in an agreeable manner. Eph’s antagonizing attitude towards Vasiliy is incredibly off-putting and does wear over time, especially since his apparent disdain for the man is entirely unnecessary. There is the suggestion that Eph and Visiliy might be developing a kind of brotherly dynamic, being competitive and one-upping each other all the time. Setrakian certainly comes across as a frustrated father disciplining his unruly boys when dealing with the two. If that is the case, then it is not working. Eph’s protestations are not serious enough to give him credibility and undermine Vasiliy’s authority, nor are they silly or lighthearted enough to work as banter. He is just petty and bitter, for no apparent reason.
Eph definitely holds on to the title of the show’s worst character (though Nora’s mother sure does give him a run for his money), continuing with his sanctimonious, self-righteous, arrogant ways, dour manner, and succumbing to The Master’s manipulations effectively diminishing the group’s chances of defeating the big bad. Sigh. However, despite the overbearing Eph-ness to some of the scenes, it isn’t as prevalent as in previous episodes and therefore does not bring the entire hour crashing down. It certainly helps that there are not many extended periods where we are forced to look at him and expected to feel sorry for him or sympathetic for his situation. The hour does a decent job in incorporating the ensemble for a change, a very welcome improvement over the latest episodes.
Scenes following Gus’ journey after escaping the police showcase the trauma of a man who has lost everything in an economical fashion and the impact of which is more effective than all the turmoil we’ve seen Eph go through. Gus has been another character built upon clichés, but the emotional beats of his story work well and the actor does a good job humanizing the character as opposed to merely relying on the hackneyed material (How many times have we seen the scene of a person encountering a loved one who has been turned? Beat by beat it is always the same). He doesn’t overplay the more emotional moments, while still communicating Gus’ grief appropriately. He also has become quite the vampire-killing badass. When is he teaming up with Setrakian? Gus, Vasiliy and Setrakian are a potential union I can get behind.
With these two story threads, “The Third Rail” composes a fun, thrilling, and engaging episode, had the writers left it at that this would have made an exceptional installment of The Strain and a great hour of television. But, of course, it wouldn’t be The Strain without a tacked on, needless subplot featuring annoying characters. Mini-Eph gets to have his own adventure too! And more screen time for Nora’s senile mother, that is what everyone wants, isn’t it? No, writers, it is not what we want to see. This whole storyline is pretty much useless in terms of narrative, however it does provide a good moment of horror when mini-Eph comes across a vampire in a store basement, he is able to escape and crosses paths with Gus on the way out, but one cool scene does not justify all the time wasted with him and Nora’s mother arguing about cigarettes.
Only two more episodes to go on The Strain’s first season, and while there have been standout episodes here and there, the show remains an uneven, largely mediocre endeavor. Can it recover sin its last moments and revel in the insanity of its premise or mire in its sea of inadequacy. What did you think?