The Strain creator picks the best and worst moments of making the series
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Spoiler Alert! Proceed with caution!
The Strain is over. It’s done, and The Master was finally defeated by the Professor’s gang of vampire hunters. Some of our heroes died, some lived, New York City was nuked again, the world was saved. And in the end, creator and executive producer Chuck Hogan is thrilled they didn’t “screw it up,” he told SYFY WIRE in an exclusive interview.
FX’s The Strain followed the nightmarish events that followed a powerful vampire called the Master unleashing a vampire virus on New York City. A small group of vampire hunters to battle were left to save the city and the world — and as you already know, they wound up doing the job, with a lot of collateral damage. The series, which ended a little over a week ago, ran four seasons on FX and was based on The Strain novel trilogy by Guillermo de Toro and Chuck Hogan.
Hogan broke down the series with SYFY WIRE telling us all about the good, the not-so-good, and about that decision to nuke New York City . twice.
What do you want to say to fans?
Chuck Hogan: Just a sincere thanks to all who watched . We’ve had such a loyal following of people who’ve been invested since Episode 1. I was really happy that we were given a chance to end the show the way we wanted to. And hopefully it in no way disappointed those people who have been so loyal to us.
I think the only disappointment I had was the Professor wasn’t around at the end. I got mad at you. Why did you kill off the Professor early?
David Bradley . we had a lot of secret weapons on the show. He was one of the biggest and very best. He did a lot of traveling back and forth, and he didn’t want to commit. We only had him for a certain number of episodes. We had to figure out how to use him as best we could given that. That’s just sort of an explanation. That gave us an organizing principle. I think a lot of people were very surprised. “I didn’t see that coming.” Which is good. It set people up for anything goes. Anything can happen.
You and Guillermo wrote a The Strain trilogy before the series. Did you follow the novels? How was the TV show different?
We didn’t follow the novels. We really just wanted the TV show to be its own kind of animal. So we mixed in new characters, some familiar characters, and went off on different tangents. Some people just love to see books that they love transferred in the way that they read them. I think other people like that, they had a great experience reading the book and they want to get back into that world with those characters, but have another fresh energetic experience. That’s the way I prefer it. And that’s the way that we went about it.
What has surprised you most in developing this series?
I guess what surprised me most was that when Guillermo and I were writing the book I thought we could block the TV show like the book and go chapter by chapter, scene by scene. But all of a sudden we were using up so much story just in the pilot alone that I knew that we would be creating lots of story and creating new characters for the show to get going and continue. And that was great. That was exciting to me.
I feel like in a way the TV show expanded the world of The Strain from the novels a bit. More characters and story, and more time with them. So that surprised me the most. I thought that due to convenience of necessity we would stay with the books. But it was evident from the first month that we were going to go way beyond that.
As you look back at the series now, what are some of your favorite moments?
Favorite moments . this actually came up a lot at Comic-Con, both from fans and from the cast and the producers, but Episode 8 of the first season, “Creatures of the Night,” was really where I felt everything really came together. It’s not that the first episodes were lacking, but that’s when Fet really joined our crew . and all of a sudden things kicked up a notch. That was the episode at the convenience store gas station. I was lucky to write that episode. I was on set producing it. We spent eight very, very cold nights in Toronto doing that.
A lot my best memories have to do with being on the set, just watching our actors do what they do. They really from the start stepped into the characters’ skin themselves and really took over in a great way. And that energized the writers, and it really went back and forth that way. It was a really good working situation. All good memories.
Were there any bad memories?
Bad memories, just the cold. We were doing a vampire show, meaning you shoot a lot at night, and we’re shooting it in Toronto over the winter. That’s a tough one. Our crew was great, but there were a lot of very dark, very cold nights.
It must have been great for you to see these terrific actors bring these characters that you’ve lived for so long with – through the novels and the series – to life.
Absolutely. It was a thrill. One of the first things we did together, we were in preproduction, and some of the actors wanted to go over the scripts. So I found myself sitting there with Corey Stoll and others. Not everyone was there, so I would have to take another character’s line. I’m reading through these scripts with these actors and watching them start to find their way into it. It was really exciting.
What didn’t work out so well, story-wise.
It’s hard to think back. There are characters who came and went and we’d hoped to get more from them. I’m thinking about Dutch’s girlfriend, Nikki, is one. The actor was great. It just one of those things where it didn’t have the effect that we’d hoped it would. But really they were few and far between.
Your heroes are so fascinating and flawed. But in the end they’re all willing to give their lives. No characters are more different than Eph and Fet, Eph being a once-respected CDC doctor and Fet a rat catcher. And yet they are both heroes who fought side by side and, in the end, have this Armageddon moment where Eph takes Fet’s place on the suicide mission to nuke the Master. Tell me about those two characters.
That was something that we wanted to get starting with in the books, the sense if something like this happens to the city, it wouldn’t be the people at the top who would save us. It would be the everyday heroes. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. So to have a rat exterminator rise and apply his skills to a new kind of extermination to try and rid the city of this infestation, this idea excited us right from the get go. And then Kevin Durand is fantastic. He completely stepped into the role, made it bigger. He was funny when he needed to be. He was heroic. He just totally embraced the character.
[As for Eph,] we thought of him as a flawed family man and flawed father, but with good intentions, but all of of a sudden he’s faced with the ultimate custody battle of all time. And he has to figure it out.
The Master was such a wonderful villain who took over different characters throughout the series. Each actor brought an interesting dynamic to the character, I thought. And yet it was fun to see him ultimately end up in Eldritch Palmer.
I remember very clearly the moment where we were in the room and we were thinking about where the story was going and the Master had jumped bodies a couple of times. And it was suggested by someone that he might go into Eldritch Palmer, and that got us very excited. Because Jonathan, I just knew that he would take that opportunity and run with it.
So that became a fun element of the show that we were careful not to overuse. But I liked that the Master wound up residing in his human partner’s body for just about all of season four. It was fun to watch Jonathan do what he does.
You nuked New York twice. Why go there?
That’s a good question. I was definitely expecting to nuke it at least once, but I’m not sure if you told me when we started making the show that it would happen twice I probably would have asked why. But it was absolutely the right thing to do. Yeah, we nuked New York twice. Once didn’t quite do the job. We had to come back and tidy that up.
It was a really interesting story element. When the first nuke goes off and the sun gets blocked out and everyone knows what that means, it was a great story point.
In the writers’ room we thought viewers would think, “They’re not going to go there. Zach’s not going push the button.” There’s no way they’ll do that and blow up the show. And that’s exactly what we did. Those kind of risky maneuvers are really energizing. But then you have to wait almost a year before that plays out. People and the viewers react, so that’s the only hard part is waiting.
Yeah, you guys should have just done all four seasons all at the same time. I’m sure that wouldn’t have killed you.
(Laughs) Your right. Next time.
As you go into season four, you’ve got The Partnership and all this other stuff going on with the Master’s sham that the humans and vampires are co-existing. Developing that story to get to that end point where you nuke the Master underground, what was involved in putting together the final episodes?
There was a lot involved. I was not as day-to-day involved in season four as I was in previous seasons for family reasons. I had to spend more time at home. But I was there to get them started and I definitely came back again towards the end where it was actually pretty tricky. It’s a privilege and opportunity to be able to end a television series the way you want to, but at the same time you don’t want to screw it up. That was a real challenge, especially figuring out the last three to four episodes and how we wanted those dominoes to fall. So it’s one of those things where you get the great opportunity. You get to end things the way you want and you have to figure out what you want and how you want to end it, and when and where.
And don’t screw it up.
Yeah, that’s it (laughs). That’s really it. You get what you want. But I feel that we landed the plane safely there.
What has this series meant to you as a writer and a producer?
It’s been hard. Literally I never stepped foot in TV writers’ room or anything before this. So for me the learning curve was super steep. It was a fantastic experience. It was great to work with Guillermo again, and great to work with Carlton Cuse. You can imagine how much I learned from him. When we wrapped in April, it was sad but it didn’t feel like it was over yet. We were at Comic Con and the cast and crew all came together. It really felt like one last time. It’s really a great group of people. Corey Stall set the tone for everyone else.
For those who’ve never seen The Strain, why should they watch the series now?
Chuck Hogan tells us all about the good, the not so good and that decision to nuke New York City… twice.
The Strain was supposed to be FX’s Walking Dead. What happened?
The show has worm vampires and breeding camps and blood. But it forgot one important thing.
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Dutch finds herself held in a breeding camp as the final season of The Strain debuts. FX
Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 23 through 29 is “The Blood Tax,” the second episode of the fourth and final season of FX’s The Strain.
What gives a dystopian scenario resonance? We’ve always loved fantasizing about the end of the world — especially in the past 70-plus years, as the invention of the atomic bomb actually gave us the means to bring that end about. But some apocalypses are more popular than others.
The Walking Dead, for instance. Why was that such a massive hit when so many other apocalyptic series over the last several years have fallen flat? Or think about The Handmaid’s Tale, which has hit a cultural nerve. Why that show? Why not another?
The flip side of this question works, too. Certainly FX’s vampire-infested The Strain has been successful on some level. It’s lasted four seasons, after all, and will get to come to its planned conclusion. Indeed, at its very beginning, its creators said they saw the series as running “three to five seasons,” and this is right in line with that.
But it’s hard to argue the series has made any larger cultural impact. I love its brazen stupidity and campy sense of self, but at Comic-Con, I sat in on a panel and when the series’ star Richard Sammel entered the room to implore everyone to watch The Strain, you could hear the wheels turning in the audience members’ heads. The Strain? they seemed to think. What’s that?
At one time, FX saw The Strain as its answer to The Walking Dead. Now, it’s ending in a fashion where its last season premiere was scheduled on the same night as the seventh season premiere of Game of Thrones, underlining how little attention it’s expected to draw from the general viewing public. What happened here?
On some level, the most popular dystopian fiction is about feeling a little bit smug
Some humans, like Sanjay Desai, collaborate with the vampires. FX
Let me hasten to remind you that I do, on some level, enjoy The Strain. It’s trashy TV, but it’s fun. It generally knows how stupid it is, and it can build dramatic stakes when it really wants to. The height of this approach came at the end of season three, when the show’s worst character (whiny child Zack) blew up the Statue of Liberty with an atomic bomb — something that apparently triggered a global nuclear war somehow. (Don’t think about it too much, is my advice.)
The Strain is best when it embraces its own stupidity. Season 3 was about killing a worm.
But there’s always been something a little weightless about The Strain, no matter how hard it tried to make itself matter. It would do storylines set in World War II concentration camps, or try to compare and contrast its vampire threat with the Nazis, and it all felt too pulpy to really hit home. Why did the show struggle so much to land with audiences?
The more I think about this, the more I think that The Strain suffers from being insufficiently connected to real world events. It’s trying here in season four, God bless it, but it’s too little too late.
Most of the truly lasting dystopian stories function, on some level, as warnings, often of a political stripe. The Handmaid’s Tale is an obvious example. Nobody genuinely thinks Donald Trump is going to create a throwback theocracy, but the fear that he doesn’t respect women one iota (outside of maybe his daughter) is omnipresent. Similarly, as I’ve written about here, The Walking Dead is, on some level, a story about the assault on small-town values by an endless horde of outside influences. I don’t think this means it’s an anti-Obama tale — but I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Trump campaign targeted Walking Dead viewers in particular back in 2016.
This means that the dystopias we typically care about are ones that let us be a little smug about the correctness of our way of life. That can’t be all they offer — good storytelling and compelling characters and interesting filmmaking will always win the day — but The Walking Dead worked because it was (perhaps accidentally) about something people were actually worried about, right now in the 2010s, while The Strain is stuck trying to turn its vampiric world into a metaphor for past atrocities.
The irony in this, of course, is that Nazis might have seemed like cornball villains when the show launched in 2014, but they feel very present in 2017 — yet the show has mostly moved past them. The weird thing about the show is that its metaphorical collapse of society is all about affluent urban areas suddenly finding themselves under assault from unlikely foes, then cracking under the pressure. That, at least theoretically, could play to more people in our post-Trump world.
But just as the world has seemingly caught up to make The Strain accidentally relevant, it’s pivoted to become about something else entirely.
#Resist (the vampires)
Dutch is now the show’s sole major woman character. FX
The Strain has never, ever known what to do with the women in its cast, having killed off one after the other in a variety of ways meant to motivate its various men. The sole exception has been Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas), who was introduced in a throwaway part as a computer hacker, then gradually came to be one of the show’s few important women, simply by virtue of compelling screen presence. She’s been everything from a vampire hunter to one point in a needlessly bland love triangle, and at every turn, the show has utilized the character poorly, but Gedmintas keeps giving it her all.
After leaving Dutch out of the fourth season premiere, “The Blood Tax” catches up with her. She’s being held in a forced breeding camp, which is at once worth an eye roll (the show sent its one woman off to a bland Handmaid’s Tale riff?) and worth some interest, because Gedmintas gets a lot to do and handles all of it with aplomb. You can see where she might be a genuine TV star once she’s off this show and allowed to let in a little more light.
I don’t precisely know when The Strain shot this season — probably in early 2017 — but it’s been deeply apparent that the show is hoping to capitalize on some sort of tie to the hashtag-Resistance. (At one point in “The Blood Tax,” elderly vampire hunter Setrakian says, “We want to believe that progress is lasting, universal. We want to believe this so badly that we let down our guard, and our own evil crept back into us.”) And because it’s pretty clearly set up its vampires in the past as a metaphor for fascism, there’s room to maneuver within this basic setup.
But for the most part, The Strain’s vampire-ruled world seems like a riff on what might happen if the worst possible elements of socially liberal vulture capitalism took over the world (even more than they already have). The season even opens with an ominous fake ad for “The Partnership” — between the ruling vampires and collaborationist humans — that emphasizes the harmony and diversity of accepting all walks of life, as it tries to gloss over the fact that the vampires are attempting to bump humanity one step down the food chain.
There’s something potent in the idea of corporate doublespeak infecting this universe, of companies saying the right things in order to cover up their own horrible actions. And it’s not as if our world doesn’t have a fair amount of that as well. But it’s constantly at odds with the show’s desire to simultaneously play itself up as part of the Resistance against Trump, without really being sure what it’s trying to #Resist within the universe of The Strain (beyond the idea that vampires are probably bad news). It’s a whole bunch of metaphors, at odds with each other, unable to coalesce around a single, central point.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The show is more tightly plotted — in its own agreeably idiotic way — than ever before, and when, say, Dutch nearly breaks free of the breeding center, only to go back on that possibility to save a newfound friend, there’s some legitimate tension.
But if I’m asking why The Strain didn’t break through in the way FX clearly hoped it would, that metaphorical confusion has to come front and center. The Strain so desperately wanted to be about something from the very first that it tried to be about everything. Better to blunder into relevance as The Walking Dead did than throw yourself heedlessly after every new political resonance that comes along.
The Strain airs Sundays on FX at 10 pm Eastern. Previous seasons are available on Hulu.
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The show has worm vampires and breeding camps and blood. But it forgot one important thing.