What are we in for? All I know is that I want the horrifying eyeball worms the billboards have promised me.
The pilot episode of Guillermo del Toro’s new series ‘The Strain’ kicks off with a voice over rumination on the power of hunger over an aerial shot of city lights. Establishing credits inform us that we are watching the 20th hour of February 8th, Night Zero. A plane is about to land at New York’s JFK airport. Onboard, the flight attendants are preparing for landing, and the captain wants to thank everyone for flying Regis Air. A flight attendant receives a call from a colleague in another part of the plane. He’s alarmed about something (probably eyeball worms) and asks her to come back and help him (get the worms out of his eyeballs.) He has a sense of urgency that she does not share. She moseys back, and when I say mosey I mean mosey, because she makes several stops along the way:
-First, she tells a guy who looks like Peter Steel from Type O Negative to power off his device. He needs to let her know that he doesn’t like the euphemistic language of police officers, but he does like vodka, and also he is a rock star. She calls him ‘sir’ but she really means ‘asshole’ (that’s the euphemistic cop language.)
-Second, she tells a lady who looks like Amy Irving to bring her seat back to its full, upright position for landing. This lady needs to let the flight attendant know that she is impatient and dismissive.
-Third, she tells a little French girl that she is so adorable. She tells the girl to turn her music off but she doesn’t call her sir.
As she arrives to the back of the plane, she’s still not so concerned about impending eyeball worms. The service area is a mess! Her colleague Peter is so busy examining his eyeballs for worms that he hasn’t bothered to do his job!
“There’s something alive the cargo hold!” Peter says. “Something really, really big.”
She argues with him that there are no animals on the manifest, and surely he is mistaken, and maybe he is having the vapors, but he convinces her to put her hands on the cargo door but there’s nothing. She opens the door, but there’s nothing. She closes it again and sure enough, it starts up a terrible banging. There is something perfectly huge in there and it’s pretty anxious to get out. It’s way too big to be an eyeball worm. It strains at the door, popping all the bolts, and bursts out. Oh my god it’s a . . . HUGE CGI MONSTER OF INDETERMINATE DIMENSIONS!!!!
Meanwhile at the Kennedy control tower, a dude in glasses swilling Pepsi and tossing back amphetamines like they’re candy is alarmed to find that he’s lost all contact with Regis Air 753. He calls over a superior, Bishop (nod to ALIENS, eh?) Bishop, what can you make of this? Well, I could make a hat, or a brooch, or a pterodactyl. Seriously though, the plane is stopped on the service apron. It just went dark! Crazy. How many people are on board? 210 souls. Glasses Dude and Bishop go to the service apron (sidebar: I want to know why it’s called an apron, and why we don’t regularly use the word apron for things other than the item of clothing) to see just what in tarnation is going on here. It’s probably terrorists! Or eyeball worms! It’s probably not a huge CGI monster though, because that’s just silly.
On and/or in the apron, the plane sits dark and cold. “Like a dead animal,” remarks Bishop. “Like a building with wings,” remarks Glasses Dude. They note that all of the shades are drawn . . . EXCEPT ONE. Emergency services begin to arrive, sirens a wailing, lights a flashing. Bishop gets hip to the idea that he might want to keep a lid on this random cold, dead plane at JFK until they have even the vaguest idea of what they might be dealing with, and instructs glasses dude to call in the CDC, Homeland Security, absolutely everyone, but do not call the media and do not call home. Right. That’s obviously going to work out.
Meanwhile, at 35 minutes past the 20th hour of the 8th of February in Astoria Queens, (Unhelpful tip: C&L's John Amato is from Astoria, Queens) a douchebag in a right hand drive Jeep parks in front of a fire hydrant. What if there’s a fire, dude? He puts a placard that says ‘CDC OFFICIAL BUSINESS’ under his windshield wiper, but I think we can all guess by his moseying demeanor that he’s not here to deal with an outbreak of eyeball worms. He’s not fooling a bystander either, who helpfully informs him that he can’t park there, there’s a fire hydrant. It’s a medical emergency, he lies, fiddling with a tie that he just can’t seem to get the hang of tying. He asks the bystander to help him with the tie. Then he asks the bystander to watch his car, over his shoulder as he opens a door marked ‘Family Counseling Services.’ I have no idea why this guy would be in family counseling. He’s obviously got his shit together. He’s fashionably late to his appointment.
Welcome to subplot #1! Douchebag’s name is Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, but he goes by Eph, his estranged wife is Kelly, his son is Zach, and this is the last of his court appointed custody counseling sessions. Eph is an epidemiologist (this explains the social skills) and a workaholic (also possibly an alcoholic.) He ignores his family because he’s too busy fighting eyeball worms, and Kelly’s had enough of it, she has a new boyfriend who’s around more and whose phone isn’t constantly ringing ringing ringing. During the entire counseling session Eph’s phone is buzzing, and he dramatically ignores it—until his second phone starts ringing too. “This is the problem, Eph. This is who you are,” his wife says. On the phone, there’s news of the dead plane at JFK. The counseling session has to be cut short, which is a huge surprise to everyone.
At JFK, Eph meets up with his partner in epidemiology, Nora, and Sean Astin, who has quit showbiz to go work for the CDC. Eph likes milk now that he doesn’t booze it up all the time. At least three lines of dialogue are devoted to milk, so I thought I should mention it here. No passengers on the plane have attempted any contact with the outside world, and the plane is totally silent (except for a growly sound from the cargo hold, but whatever.) Eph has to argue for the right to be the first person to look it over, but he wins that one pretty quick just by dropping some factoids about how often people touch their own faces and then touch other people. It’s a lot.
At 21:28 in Harlem, Walder Frey dresses like a proper grandfather and runs the Knickerbocker, a pawn and loan. A pair of thugs want to sell a crappy, obviously stolen silver watch. Walder Frey is always in need of good silver, but he lowballs the thugs. Turns out the watch is a shoddily made fake and not worth much. Bummed, the thugs attempt to rob Walder Frey but Walder Frey is actually a ninja, and knows lots of science about arteries. He out thugs the thugs in a stunning display of badassery and they scurry away (stealing a clock on the way out in a petulant gesture of thwarted thuggery.) On one of the TVs at the Knickerbocker, there is a news account of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Regis Air 753. Walder Frey seems especially interested to note that the plane originated in Berlin. He shuts himself into a secret basement apartment, where he stashes stuff like a sword with what looks like a wolf’s head on a snake on the haft and a heart in a jar. You know, normal stuff. “He’s back,” he tells the heart in the jar. “Can I do it again? This time I cannot fail.” The heart flutters, moves. He asks it if it’s hungry, and it doesn’t answer in words, but seems to grow more agitated. He cuts himself with a tiny pocket scalpel (what, you don’t have one of those?) and lets the blood drip into the jar. Excited little whipworms come out from the heart to drink the blood. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want those worms in my eye.
Back at JFK, Eph and Nora strip down to don their special CDC space suits. Nora seems pretty familiar with Eph’s family problems. At first, I thought they were hinting at intimacy to come between Nora and Eph, but turns out the intimacy has already occurred, and Eph doesn’t think his wife needs to know about it. “You know nothing about women,” observes Nora. He also knows nothing about tie knots, but let’s just move on to the stuff he does know about, like epidemics and taking charge.
Back on/in the apron, Sean Astin has brought Eph another carton of milk, which is great to know, because it does a body good. Eph and Nora enter the plane to find that everyone on board is absolutely, totally, beyond a doubt, dead. They are all peaceful and stock-still in their seats. There are no signs of struggle, no bruising, nothing. The adorable little French girl is especially dead and it looks like she never turned her music off. Nora and Eph notice an ammonia smell, as well as splashes of a substance that glows under UV. They note the exploded cargo door. Nora notices that the door to the cockpit is open. The cockpit! What is it? It’s the little room at the front of the plane . . . Sorry. Inside, all is quiet UNTIL! The co pilot stirs. We have survivors! Nora and Eph round up four survivors altogether: the Type O Negative singer look-alike, who’s named Bolivar, the impatient lady, who’s named Joan Luss, and a skinny guy with glasses. Eph calls for paramedics, which is a great idea because none of these people look very well.
Hour 22 of Night Zero finds us at the office of ‘The Stoneheart Group,’ in midtown Manhattan. A cuddly bunch, no doubt. On an elevator within we catch our first glimpse of the show’s big bad: a German man named Herr Eichorst with an improbable tan and an occasional, strangely reptilian flicker in his eyes. He is visiting the head of Stoneheart, a Mr. Palmer, who is very sick. “The cargo has arrived safely, and all four survivors have been found,” Herr Eichorst tells Mr. Palmer. Mr. Palmer is used to being a smarmy businessman, but has the idea that perhaps the destruction of New York City in the service of feeding his desire for immortality might be a whole new game. However, he doesn’t seem particularly sorry. Palmer remarks that Herr Eichorst doesn’t need to breathe; he does not respirate, at all. Herr Eichorst is something other than human, and the inference is that Mr. Palmer hopes to be like him.
At JFK, the bodies of the 206 dead are lined up in triple sealed body bags and the survivors are pushed into quarantine. They’re all protesting the quarantine, particularly the impatient Joan Luss, who needs to tell everyone that she’s an attorney, and Bolivar, who needs to tell everyone he doesn’t believe in Satan, actually he doesn’t believe in anything except the pursuit of, um, sexual congress with ladies. The glasses guy has a wife who’s going to be worried sick. None of them remember what happened before the incident on the plane, but they’re complaining about noises in their heads, and again, none of them look very well.
In the cargo area among the contents of the plane they’ve found a nine-foot tall rectangular wooden container carved with skeletons and what appears to be the Grim Reaper. It probably belongs to Bolivar? Nope, it’s not on the plane’s manifest. It’s old, hand carved. When they decide to open it, they’re surprised to find nothing but soil. I would realize we were dealing with Dracula at that point, but evidently they were all too busy studying eyeball worms to delve into the works of Bram Stoker or even Francis Ford Coppola. The box latches on the inside. Isn’t that curious? Seriously, none of them can mention Dracula right now?
Chez Kelly/Zach/and new arrival Matt, the TV is on. News of Regis Air 753 is spreading like a . . . wait for it . . . virus. Matt, obviously pandering, pours wine for himself and Kelly and dismisses the report: “Terrorists. Has to be.” Good to know you know everything. Zach says, “Whatever it is, my dad will handle it. So please just sit here and drink wine and be an ordinary, useless human.” OK, he doesn’t say that last line, but the subtext was rather elephantine, wasn’t it? Zach and Eph exchange worried/reassuring texts. Back JFK, Eph is once again attempting to wear a tie, and Nora confirms his evident belief that there will always be someone to tie it for him by tying it for him. This is enabling, Nora. Throw all your ties out and be self-sufficient, Eph. Kill the tie gimmick once and for all, everyone.
Back in the cargo hold they’re wrapping the box in Saran Wrap, known to be impenetrable to eyeball worms. Bishop is speaking some mean German on the phone, trying to figure out how this box got on the plane. He notices a ringing in his head, very like what the survivors complained of. Leaving the CDC to their Saran Wrap, he walks into what looks like an intensely creepy and little used part of the cargo area, where he finds a rustling pile of fabric on the ground. The pile seems to wake, stir, and then draw itself up to a horrifying, giant CGI monster in a Grim Reaper outfit. We’re treated to a view of the mechanics of its feeding: a snakelike appendage shoots out from under its hood and fastens on Bishop’s throat, where a single fang pierces Bishop’s carotid artery and glug glug glugs Bishop’s blood. When satiated, the creature throws Bishop to the ground and pounds Bishop’s head into an actual pile of goo with its fists. You wanted a gross-out? You got one.
Back in Harlem, a new pair of thugs are thugging it up, play fighting. Herr Eichorst steps out of the shadows and approaches the loudest thug, Gus. Gus buttons only the top button of his plaid shirt, indicating his disregard for societal rules. It’s a timeless look. Anyway, Gus tries to tell Herr Eichorst that he doesn’t want to do any work for him, but Herr Eichorst is very persuasive: he wants Gus to drive a van out of the airport, and in return not only will he pay Gus, but he’ll sort out Gus’s mother’s immigration issues and Gus’s brother’s legal issues. Under duress, Gus agrees, but is extremely skeptical that he’ll be able to get out of the airport undetected. Herr Eichorst hands him a business card and tells him that card will get him anywhere.
Terminal 4 is overrun with screaming Bolivar fans, who are giving all people with gothic aesthetics a bad name. I don’t know why that important social issue is glossed over, but fine, let’s move on. Walder Frey has made his way to the airport, and by feigning pitiful old mannishness, manages to get Sean Astin’s attention to request an audience with ‘the person in charge.’
In another part of the airport, Eph is preparing to give a statement to the next of kin. Surprise, it’s overrun with press. LIKE A VIRUS. They crowd forward with tape recorders and boom mikes. Rewatchers, I need you to please pay attention to the actor in the front on the right wearing a tie. Admire his facial expressions. Eph gives a statement indicating that everyone except those lucky four are dead, but that any further information won’t be available for some time. Outraged, a tall man with curly hair who’s clutching a framed photo of the darling little French girl smacks Eph in the face. Kelly, watching this on a tablet in Queens, winces. The man is deranged with grief, and says he just wants his daughter Emma back, dead or alive. 48 hours, Eph promises.
Nora and Eph have a video call with the ME. He’s noted a very precise incision at the carotid arteries of all the dead. It’s so precise it can’t have been done with any instrument they know of. Also, the bodies of the dead weep a white fluid when the ME makes incisions. They’re not decomposing normally, at all.
Sean Astin has brought Walder Frey to Eph and Nora. We learn Walder Frey’s name on this show: Abraham Setrakian. Eph is reluctant to even stop and listen to what Setrakian has to say, and you can see right away that Eph and Nora will play Mulder and Scully here. Sure enough, when Setrakian begins to hint at a mastermind behind this ‘disease’ and then urges them to ‘destroy the bodies,’ Eph has him arrested. Nora is about to dismiss Setrakian as he’s raving about destroying the bodies (and Sean Astin is noticing Setrakian cool snake-hafted sword) but as she’s walking away, Setrakian mentions the coffin they found in the cargo and she’s a believer. Nonetheless off-put by his idea that they should decapitate 206 dead people and 4 survivors, she allows Setrakian to be carried off by police. Poor Van Helsing.
Nora and Eph, back in their space suits, explore the cargo hold of the plane. Nora’s arguing Setrakian’s case—he knew about the coffin. The cabinet, Eph corrects her, and dismisses Setrakian again, just to annoy all of us with his skepticism. They find little whipworms like the kind we saw in Setrakian’s jarred heart or in eyeballs on numerous billboards. The worm is diving at their fingertips, “looking for a host,” Eph notes. They’ve found the source of the problem, they think. Nora finds a clump of soil, with more worms squirming on it. They stare at each other, both realizing they need to take another look at the coffin, excuse me, cabinet. Suddenly back in their street clothes, they run through JFK’s cargo hangar (apron?) only to find that the coffin/cabinet is gone. Time-stamped video surveillance footage shows a shadowy figure and then the coffin lifting up and disappearing. Seems legit. Eph points out that the coffin/cabinet weighs 500 pounds. Nora gestures at the shadowy figure on the screen: “The old man said if you still have the coffin you still have him. HIM.”
Eph puts out a bulletin to seal off all the exits of the airport, which is inconvenient to our man Gus, who has arrived to carry out his chore for Herr Eichort. The van he’s instructed to drive has CDC placards and a big wad of cash in the center console. Both will probably be helpful for exiting the airport despite the blockages. Gus is stopped at the exit, and not even his get out of the airport free business card is getting him out. It seems like he might even need to use that gun he’s got his right hand on, but Sean Astin comes over to see what’s going on and when he sees the business card, voila, Gus is cleared to exit. This means Sean Astin is corrupt! He’s in league with the bad guys! Scandalous.
Back at the ME’s office, the ME is digging on some “Sweet Caroline” while he continues to examine the bodies of the survivors. Things go horribly awry with the arrival of our friends, the worms. The ME finds them all over a heart, very like Setrakian’s jarred heart, and one of them plunges into the palm of his hand. While he’s distracted cutting the parasite out with a scalpel (ew) the corpses reanimate, despite their open Y-incisions, exposed brains (ew) and nudity (sideboob), to surround and attack him.
Back at the airport Sean Astin is feigning sadness about not being able to stop the coffin getting out of the airport. Eph, now somewhat more of a believer, calls the coffin a coffin.
A police officer walks Setrakian to the barred room he’ll be staying in for the next little while. Setrakian is an Armenian name, which is where Mr., Setrakian was once from. In the holding cell, one of Setrakian’s fellow inmates notes his snappy attire and his concentration camp tattoo. In case you didn’t get all that: Setrakian is Armenian by birth, a Jewish concentration camp survivor, and a dandy.
At the Stoneheart building, Herr Eichort assures Mr., Palmer that love is what will spread the worms. (Cf. the discussion of syphilis in the beginning of Coppola’s Dracula.) Palmer mentions that an old man with a sword was arrested at the airport. “The Jew,” remarks Eichort. He’s not too worried. Then he says he savors the purity that is to come, which should basically go in a time capsule as an example of popular depictions of blue-eyes Germans in the 20th century.
The last few minutes of the show are devoted to an exploration of love. Chez Thug, we find that the thug with the facial tattoos who tried to rip off Setrakian is none other than Gus’s brother, he of the legal problems. Gus is calling home to assure his mother that he’ll be back soon, and that their problems are nearing their end. He loves his mother. It’s obviously his weak spot. His brother loves beer, which may be his weak spot.
The voice over from the beginning continues to ruminate on love. It’s Setrakian’s voice. We see Emma’s father returning home to his empty house, obviously still nearly mad from grief over the loss of his daughter. He sits, weeping. At the back door, Emma knocks. He looks up. She knocks again. She is terribly pale, in her red dress, still clutching the ball she held on the plane. J’ai froid, Papa, she says. I’m very cold. He hugs her tight. Her face is very still.
“Love is our downfall,” the voice over ends.