Chris Claremont, the writer who transformed The X-Men into a sales-chart-crushing publishing empire from the 1970s to the 1990s, liked to give his characters breaks. Under Claremont’s guidance, The X-Men would go on adventures so long-running that they could take more than year’s worth of comics to wrap up. But when the fight was fought, when they were back home at Prof. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, Claremont let them have fun. It become common that for one issue, after the end of one storyline and before the beginning of the next, The X-Men would have a quieter moment, a time to have fun and relax (which often came in the form of mutant-inflected baseball games), a chance to focus on characters and their relationships instead of world-threatening action.
Coming after last week’s exciting and violent episode, “The Disappeared” feels like one of Claremont’s trademark character-focused interludes, spending its running time almost entirely focused on The Strain’s key relationships. The problem is that The Strain isn’t The X-Men, and its writers aren’t Chris Claremont.
At the end of the last episode, Goodweather, Setrakian, and the heroes drove off into the night in the stolen bread delivery truck. This episode opens with them heading for Goodweather’s house to secure his ex-wife and son. When they arrive they find Zach being menaced by Matt, Goodweather’s ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who’s become a vampire. Goodweather kills him, of course, which is a kind of grim fun: on The Strain you get to decapitate the guy sleeping with your ex with a shovel—and you’re the hero for doing it.
The Goodweather household becomes the scene of much of the rest of the episode (with some time spent also at Setrakian’s pawn shop and Dutch Velders’ apartment). Scene after scene is intended to build characters (Setrakian explains the hard rules of life to Zach), complicate relationships (Goodweather and Martinez have sex, just before he declares his love for his wife), establish new alliances (Fet and Setrakian vs. The Master; Fet and Velders vs. the missing laptop), and revisit the most groan-inducing element of the series (more concentration camp flashbacks!).
In another series, I think I’d applaud what the show is trying to do. I love the idea of developing characters more deeply or complicating their lives and their worlds. Except this series has been so bereft of action that it’s been boring—the last episode was the first time the blood really got pumping—and I don’t care about these characters. Maybe that’s what made the last episode so good: it wasn’t about the bland, too-familiar characters.
The strange thing that keeps happening with The Strain, though, is that the character we’re supposed to find most loathsome continues to be the most interesting. At the end of this episode, Eichorst—last seen scrambling up off the subway tracks with a silver bullet in his leg—reappears at his apartment and extracts the bullet. He then leaves his house, heads into the snowy night, and trudges through the woods to a bulkhead. He opens the bulkhead and descends the stairs into an underground chamber that holds The Master’s ornate coffin. There, something surprising happens.
Instead of violence or scares, threats or plotting, Eichorst simply breaks down crying, inconsolable. Think about that: one of the chief villains, certainly the one who’s seen the most screen time so far, showing this tremendous vulnerability, something I can’t recall seeing another villain do. Even more, he’s crying because he’s gripped in a crisis of confidence, feels abandoned by The Master (“Why have you forsaken me,” he pleads. Which: come on, Del Toro. The Christian parallel of that question, and following scene, are far from subtle). How rarely we get to see this aspect of our villains. How little do we see the kind of vulnerability that humanizes them, makes them almost sympathetic.
Eichorst was no doubt a terrible person—he ran a concentration camp, after all—and is now a horrible monster, but he’s also the most interesting character on The Strain. And, after an ending in which The Master (revealed to be a noseless giant decked out in mitten-like clown hands) infects Eichorst with a worm from his body, presumably pushing Eichorst to the next stage in his evolution, he seems likely to only get more interesting.