The Strain: Master and Slave

It is rare for a TV show in the current environment featuring such now cliché tropes as vampires and an epidemic of the living dead to surprise its audiences, but The Strain is undoubtedly an example of such a surprise. Part conspiracy thriller, part outbreak saga, and part homage to genre classics, it tells the story of an outbreak of the supposedly real creatures behind the cultural mythology of vampires. The self-referential nature of this work, something not uncommon with fiction featuring vampires and zombies, is nonetheless a key interpretive lens through which to view its uniqueness. The Strain manages to present something unique in an overpopulated genre, while nonetheless maintaining strong connections to the very best genre material, from Bram Stoker himself to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954).

The story of the show’s production is itself indicative of several trends in the contemporary mass media. All of the heavy world-building was undertaken by Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labryinth and Hellboy fame. Del Toro took his idea of a contemporary version of a vampire plague (a concept which predates the idea of a zombie plague in the form of Richard Matheson’s masterpiece I Am Legend) to FX and attempted to develop the show in 2006. Attempting to capitalize on the commercial success of Shaun of the Dead (2004), the studio requested that del Toro turn his apocalyptic thriller into a comedy, which he rejected outright. Del Toro then approached Chuck Hogan to assist him in turning the story into a trilogy of novels as well as a comic book series.

Del Toro’s reasoning for teaming up with Hogan is best explained in his own words: “I’ve written short stories in Spanish and English. I’ve written screenplays. But I’m not good at forensic novels. I’m not good at hazmat language and that CSI-style precision. When Stoker wrote Dracula, it was very modern, a CSI sort of novel. I wanted to give The Strain a procedural feel, where everything seems real.” Most of his original work has been centered on variants of magical realism such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, so his leap into a more science fictional basis for the narrative represented something new in del Toro’s repertoire.

The books were an incredible success, and spawned a comic book adaptation in 2011. Finally, del Toro was able to get FX to produce the show as he had envisaged it alongside such other critically acclaimed horror dramas asAmerican Horror Story. Commercially speaking, The Strain represents another example of the winning formula of telling stories across multiple forms of media. Del Toro is pioneering this approach with his Pacific Rim franchise, which is aiming at a trilogy of films, an anime style television show, and a comic book series all at once.

The Strain on FX has replicated the success of the novels and comic books, and this is a consequence of its close relationship to the vision del Toro and Hogan had for the novels. The show has been renewed for a second season and is designed to follow the books by season, with the third book being split into 2-3 seasons in total. What has distinguished the show from other vampire fair is its careful blending of stylized cinematography and documentary style realism as it chronicles the process of spreading the disease across human society. The show follows several characters as New York City comes under the grip of the disease and the socio-political machinations of a conspiracy whose leaders aim at gaining immortality in the new vampire-led order.

Dr. “Eph” Goodweather, portrayed by Corey Stoll in a convincing performance, serves as the show’s main protagonist. Caught in a failed marriage brought on by his obsessive work for the CDC, “Eph” attempts to balance his public duties with his private life as the seriousness of the outbreak slowly dawns on him in the show’s pilot, “Night Zero.” Written by Chuck Hogan and directed by Guillermo del Toro himself, the pilot draws the audience in with its careful attention to detail and its thoughtful introduction of the main themes of the show. Rather than a straightforward viral plague, this vampire plague is spread by means of a conspiratorial elite with various motivations for bringing on the vampire apocalypse. Furthermore, the first introduction to the creatures is visually stunning, and one would not readily look at them as “vampires” per say given their morphology.

The enigmatic “Master” is the main villain pulling the strings of the entire horde of creatures. The imagery of the creature recalls Nosferatu (1922), a classic standard of vampire lore, and distinguishes the creature from its minion vampires, the strigoi. Furthermore, the Master travels to New York City by way of a coffin, recalling Stoker’s original story. Nonetheless, the vampire tropes are few and far between. The entire production presents itself as something other than a vampire thriller, and the term “vampire” is reserved for later episodes in the first season. Del Toro and Hogan’s ability to construct a narrative with a few well-placed homages to the vampire sub-genre without falling into a general campiness represents a step forward in a lore plagued by such underwhelming productions as the Twilight saga and True Blood.

The strigoi’s biology is unique in that it combines the biology of parasitism with viral infections. The vector for the disease is a capillary worm that introduces a fast-acting virus that transforms the genetic code of its host. In the tenth episode, “Loved Ones,” audiences are treated to a compelling vision of the transformation of a host first hand. A kind of madness sets into the host as the disease courses through their veins, leading to a desire for the consumption of raw red meat and blood, and culminates in a drive to seek out loved ones in order to spread the disease. This element, the attraction of the diseased to their loved ones, represents a chilling improvement on the mere mindless, zombie-like spread of the disease.

In general, the work is broadly representative of the fantastic genre at its best. In a world structured by fantasies of ideology — from fantasies of fixed gender and racial identity, to the commodity fetishism underlying our very social order — fantastic fiction is at its best when it extricates elements of our world and projects them onto fantastic narratives so as to provide a clearer view of reality. Far from representing a vulgar escapism, many fantastic narratives—whether they be science fictional, high fantasy, or any other common sub-genre of what we might call speculative fiction—provide a poignant portrait of the very world we live in.

Stories of vampirism and zombification are particularly powerful in their ability to treat aspects of capitalist modernity. In his ground-breaking work, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, David McNally argues that these “literary creations harbor a poetic wisdom we can ill afford to squander” in our attempts to understand the culture of global capitalism (16). Even in Marx’s Capital itself, we find the story of capitalism told by way of the symbolism of vampiric exploitation and zombified labor processes. The genius of the under-utilized trope of the vampire plague is in its ability to link these two dialectical moments into one whole. Indeed, the use of plague metaphors is one of the most powerful ways that fantastic fiction has of demonstrating the structural nature of certain grotesque maladies.

For The Strain, the social malady that strikes at the heart of the Master’s targets is none other than the desperation of frightened, atomized individuals who have no means of coordinating with one another. Preying on people whose loved ones are in precarious states of dependence on expensive medical care, the conspirators manage to extract what they need from well-placed individuals in the federal government and across the society by a combination of clever extortion and blanket ignorance. Calling on the flaws of individuals such as a hacker who wants to become famous with their ability to disrupt internet service, the conspiracy manages to disrupt communications long enough to allow the social fabric of New York City to come undone in just two short days.

Certain individuals are attracted to the power of the Master, and these tend to be all too human individuals representing the banality of evil. These include a former Nazi and a hyper-wealthy, terminally-ill capitalist seeking immortality. In both cases, they retain aspects of their former selves lost on the masses of the strigoi, acting as a loyal satraps for the sadistic Master. If nothing else an attentive audience cannot fail to see the striking similarities this vampiric disease shares with our own culture of rampant neo-liberal capitalism, a social order that spreads by severing bonds of solidarity and promoting the self-interest of rapacious, atomized individuals by means of power and privilege.

Deception and extortion take their toll, preventing any kind of coordinated response against the conspiracy. In a world in which elections serve as cunning disguises for the raw exertion of social power in the hands of a near-oligarchy of capitalist interests, the imagery of cruel, manipulative white men in high places spreading panic, disorder, and anomie is particularly resonant. Vampirism has come to be a dominant mythic vehicle for expressing the social relations of capitalist culture, but few of these tales make the direct connection to social stratification asThe Strain does.

In short, The Strain provides entertaining and insightful drama all at once while simultaneously breathing new life into a cultural mythos that is perishing under the weight of over-saturation. Stories of tortured, abusive romances between glistening vampires and masochistic teenagers have turned the sub-genre into a self-parody for quite some time now, but del Toro’s vision has restored critical vigor and dignity to a cultural force that will have significant meaning for as long as capitalism persists as a social system. The knitting together of the zombie and vampire mythologies accomplished by The Strain represents a (albeit unconscious) narrative embrace of McNally’s own admonition in Monsters of the Market:

Capitalist market-society overflows with monsters. But no grotesque species so command the modern imagination as the vampire and the zombie. In fact, these two creatures need to be thought conjointly, as interconnected moments of the monstrous dialectic of modernity. Like Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, the vampire and the zombie are doubles, linked poles of the split society. If vampires are the dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants, zombies represent our haunted self-image, warning us that we might already be lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers.

Jase Short is a writer and activist from middle Tennessee. He studies philosophy, science fiction, and politics and maintains a blog called The Ansible.