Welcome to The Strain, yet another installment in the very, very long cultural obsession with vampires. This one is from Guillermo del Toro, though, so it probably doesn't suck (pun intended). I can't say this with authority, because I haven't read the novel this series is based on, but so far no one has sparkled so I'm cautiously optimistic.
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February 8th, 20:00
The Strain's series premiere, "Night Zero," begins with a seemingly trite voiceover musing about how love is the greatest power of them all. We then join a flight from Berlin as it lands at JFK. The show introduces us to the spectrum of doomed people you meet in the horror genre: the one you root for (an over-worked flight attendant), the one you can't believe they're going to kill (a cute little French girl) and the one whose death you are actively excited about (a goth jackass). The flight attendant is called to the back of the plane by her co-worker, who is hearing ominous noises from the cargo hold. The noises escalate, a scary silhouette emerges from the hatch and that's the end of that workday.
Meanwhile, the radio tower at JFK is attempting to communicate with the recently-landed flight, but they're getting radio silence. The more experienced tower official looks at the plane, gives it a quick pat to find it cold and immediately calls the CDC. This man has seen some stuff in his life, people.
New York City, 20:35
A CDC higher-up, Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather, has not yet learned about the impending doom waiting at JFK. Right now, he's dealing with the impending doom of court-appointed custody hearings. Here, we learn that he is a control freak who loves his wife and son, but also loves his work. His wife, Kelly, is the one pushing for divorce, since she has a new boyfriend, but overall there isn't a lot of animosity between them. Eph's case is undermined a bit by his phone continually going off through the meeting, but he ignores it until the ringing is accompanied by ominous music.
When he gets to the tarmac, he learns that there have been no calls or texts made from the plane, which in the 21st century is confirmation that everyone is dead. They haven't been able to gather too much data on the plane, except that ominous swooping sounds are coming from it and it's really just creeping everybody out. There is a brief struggle for jurisdiction, which Eph wins by invoking all my OCD nightmares and describing the spread and strength of communicable disease. The other departments leave, presumably to purchase some hand sanitizer.
Over in another part of New York, an elderly man in fetchingly old-timey clothes is running his pawn shop. Weevil Navarro
and another hooligan come in and try to steal from him. Rookie mistake! For this is not the old man's first rodeo, and he easily dissuades the men by threatening their carotid arteries. Having filled his bad-ass quota for the day, he sees the news reporting on the mysterious plane from Berlin, which is not mysterious to him at all.
He goes through a secret wall door, because what self-respecting pawn shop owner doesn't have one, into a lair with all kinds of medieval-looking weapons. There is also a living heart in a jar, to which he pours out his doubts and concerns. Having told the heart that "He's back" and essentially that he's too old for this crap, the man cuts his finger and feeds the heart with his blood. You know, everyday stuff.
Eph and his coworker Nora suit up to board the plane and casually let us know that they have slept together at some point. When they're done with that, they enter the cabin and find that everyone on board is dead for no apparent reason. There is a total lack of evidence, except for the smell of ammonia, until they turn on their UV lights and find biological patterns covering everything. They separate and go off into places they shouldn't, because this wouldn't be horror if they didn't, and four passengers suddenly jump up. They are presumed to be the only survivors, and are taken into quarantine.
Simultaneously, a creepy German guy enters a luxurious penthouse. The penthouse's owner, Eldritch Palmer, is having something expensive done to his kidneys, which in the world of science fiction means that he's dying. The German man, Thomas Eichorst, tells Palmer that the deed is done. Given that Eichorst casually mentions that he doesn't breathe, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he has whatever is infecting people and Palmer wants to spread it so that he won't die. That always seems to be the motive for rich people with kidney problems.
We now get to meet the survivors from the plane, who are not too pleased with being quarantined. There's an attorney with an overinflated sense of self-importance; the pilot, who remembers nothing after landing the plane; a very neurotic man who apparently has an equally neurotic wife; and the goth jerk from before, who turns out to be just a regular guy hoping to score with groupies. That Hot Topic wig was fooling no one.
When the cargo hold is investigated, a massive, ancient box is found. It's covered in creepy engravings, is generally coffin-shaped and isn't on the manifest. Armed with this foreboding knowledge, Eph and his team decide to open it, without masks, gloves or any other kind of protective gear. Inside, they find soil and a latch, which they continue to touch without gloves. If any of them die, they deserve it.
Speaking of which, the experienced flight tower official from before begins to hear a humming noise, just like the neurotic survivor said he was experiencing. He goes off alone, because he has apparently never seen a horror movie. Maybe the humming is some kind of a siren song, because he ends up wandering right up to a pile of black cloth. This pile quickly shifts into the form of the monster we briefly saw attacking the flight attendants, which shoots a giant tube out of its face and impales the official's neck. After drinking all of his blood, the creature smashes the official's head into a pulp and swoops away.
Creepy German zombie Eichorst has left his rich sociopath friend and found his way to Harlem. Here, he approaches a man named Gus, who he has apparently worked with before. Gus is to transport something for him (spoiler: it's the coffin), following three strict rules: he can't show any curiosity, he can't make any stops and he has to get his cargo over the bridge before daylight. Gus isn't too keen on this, since he's a criminal and doesn't want to get busted again, but Eichorst has arranged for his mother and brother to have their own legal problems alleviated if Gus completes his task. What could go wrong?
The badass pawn shop owner, who is revealed to be named Setrakian, comes to the airport to warn the CDC about what they're dealing with. Eph isn't exactly in the mood, since he's just told the press and the passengers' families that almost everyone on the plane is dead for no apparent reason. Once you've been slapped by a dead girl's father, the rest of the day kind of goes to hell.
Setrakian tells him that he must destroy all of the passengers, dead and alive, by decapitating them and burning their bodies, and that the coffin must not cross the river. Nora starts to believe him when he mentions the coffin, since he had no way of knowing about it, but Eph is not here for any of it. He has Setrakian arrested, and in jail he's revealed to have numbers tattooed on his arm. Who would have though the beating heart in a jar would be the least traumatizing part of his backstory?
Now that Setrakian is gone, Eph and Nora get back to work exploring the plane. In it, they find a horrifying parasitic worm, which they suspect is the carrier of the virus. They also find some soil with more worms in it, and realize that the carriers came from the coffin. But when they go back to investigate the coffin further, they find that it's gone. An unaltered security tape shows a blurry dark figure stealing the coffin with almost instantaneous speed.
By this point, Gus has arrived and found a van with the coffin waiting for him. His exit is complicated, however, by the fact that Eph has ordered a lockdown of the entire airport. Gus gets stopped, but before he can dig himself into a hole, Eph's assistant, Jim, comes over and lets him through. Jim is then revealed to be working with Eichorst, though neither he nor Gus seem to have any real idea what's going on. Soon, Gus is driving over the bridge, and we learn that
Weevil the hooligan from earlier is his brother, Crispin. It would be a sweet family moment if it wasn't for, you know, the crime and transporting of supernatural plagues and whatnot.
There's one more figure in this investigation that needs mentioning. In any mass casualty event, there must be a medical examiner, and this is no exception. This examiner has been providing Eph and Nora with clues throughout their investigation, such as the facts that all the bodies from the plane have identical puncture wounds to the neck and are generally not decomposing normally. He's also found growths within the bodies that resemble organs.
While alone in his lab -- because he too has not heard of the buddy system -- one of these growths begins to move. It sprouts worms like the ones found on the plane, and one of them begins to burrow into the examiner's hand. He managed to get it out, but by the time he's done, he is no longer alone. All of the corpses, some in the middle of being autopsied, have reawaken, and they converge on the examiner with ravenous hunger.
Having come full circle back to the themes of hunger and love from the opening voiceover, another one begins. This time, though, we realize that the power of love is not about love, concurring plagues or rescuing people from eternal damnation. The power of love won't undue the plague; it's what will spread it. The reanimated corpses are powered by hunger and love, and will thus go out into the city to seek the ones they love. I have to say, I was not expecting that. I assumed the opening voiceover was the setup for a cheesy morality tale, but this is a pleasantly surprising twist on the cliche.
We see this in action with the little French girl and her father. He has just begun to properly grieve when she finds her way home, and they embrace. The girl is very clearly not right, but the father doesn't care. He doesn't see what he has just let into his home.
The Strain airs Sundays at 10pm on FX.