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The Strain - Carlton Cuse & Chuck Hogan Interview: Finale Breakdown & Season 3 Preview

The season finale of “The Strain” brought us both shocking developments and great scenes as the core group of vampire hunters fought to keep New York (and themselves) safe. A major character was killed, and other characters found themselves face to face with The Master or his minions. Eldritch Palmer reaped devastating consequences after forcing his hand with The Master. Eph lost those closest to him. And Setrakian finally got what he wanted after a tense Occido Lumen auction. Plus Gus and Quinlan joined forces with some of the rest of the team, at least for now.

With so much going on, we were thrilled to talk about the latest advancements with “The Strain” executive producers Carlton Cuse and Chuck Hogan. (Cuse also serves as showrunner while Hogan is a head writer and co-author of the books on which the series is based). The two men broke down some of their decisions from the finale for us, and they also talked about what we can expect in season three.

Nora’s death shocked people. Can you talk about why you chose to kill off her character?

Carlton Cuse: It was a very hard decision because Mia Maestro is one of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet and a very fine actress. She was a really great part of the show. But I think on some level the audience needs to be told narratively that no one is safe. I think the same was true on “Lost.” We killed popular characters like Charlie and it was extremely painful, but it was necessary to make sure the show has a sense of danger and stakes. No one is safe. [In this case] we felt like [Nora’s death] was an event, a story that was necessary to move Eph into the place where he needed to be for season three. And we felt like the impact of it would be shocking and unexpected. It was a big tragic turn in our storytelling and I think the stakes have been raised. We did it on “Lost,” you see it on “Game of Thrones.” I think the reality of television storytelling is you have to be willing to do simple things in order to not have the audience feel like the narrative is predictable.

Where WILL we see Eph in season three? How will he react to Nora’s death and Zach’s disappearance?

Chuck Hogan: I feel like the events of the final episode are going to push him even further in season three. I’m really excited about where that’s going. One of my favorite things about season two was that Corey Stoll’s character, Eph, was really re-energized. Coming off [what happened to Nora and Zach], he is going to really be looking to anything he can for revenge and to find out what happened to his son. So he’s going to be on a terror in season three.

The events of the finale have to change things for Eldritch Palmer, too. Could he have a crisis of conscience at some point?

Cuse: That’s an extremely good question that, if we were to answer, would potentially spoil stuff that we’re planning to do. The whole Coco storyline was meant to pivot the character a little bit and force him to recognize the consequences of his actions on a very personal level. That’s all going to have consequences in season three.

Hogan: [Coco’s] relationship with Palmer served a really cool purpose – to show us another side of Palmer. Basically it’s about him becoming a human being, maybe for the first time. So I do think her death is going to spin him off yet again into another mindset. Don’t forget also, he’s relying on The White – vampire blood nutrient – to keep him healthy. So he’s stuck in a very interesting situation. That’s where he will be dramatically at the start of season three.

What else can we expect from season three?

Cuse: We are very excited to do more with the Justine Feraldo character, played by Samantha Mathis. She’s going to be a big part of season three. We really like the flashback stories. You’ll definitely see more of those. Also the Quinlan storyline is something which we’ll be seeing a lot of in season three. You saw one little bit of a flashback story for him last year. There is definitely more to tell there.

Hogan: He’s a really, really fun character to write. We’ve had a lot of fun teasing out the mystery. Certain questions will be answered and he’ll be an integral part of the story going ahead. We have the Occido Lumen. Setrakian has been working very hard to get that. So that opens up a lot of possibilities. At the same time, it’s going to have the potential to attract a lot of unwanted attention from the other side, too. We definitely won’t see our gang necessarily living and working out of the same place, at least at the start of the season – although we love Fet’s warehouse as a home base. The set is just incredible and you can do a lot of things with it. So we’re going to come up with some interesting things to do in that same structure. But I do think the feel of the show in season three is going to be different. Not radically different, but we are going to be advancing the story faster. And getting more of a world view. We are going to [see how this plague is affecting the world.] I think it will speed up the storytelling even more. There might be some more time jumps so we really get a sense of things falling in the world situation, going into a serious collapse.

Cuse: And we’re only doing 10 episodes for season three, which is also going to really add a lot of propulsion to the narrative.

Nora’s death was a big deviation from the books. Are you purposely trying to do things differently?

Hogan: It’s not something we were looking to do or felt we needed to do. This was really something that just came out of thinking big about the story and what would really energize things going ahead. We’ve deviated significantly from the books, but at the same time I think it’s been great to have the books there as a skeleton that we can hang different clothes on, so to speak.

Cuse: What we don’t want to do is just a literal retelling of the books. I think from early on, Guillermo (del Toro), Chuck and I all agreed that the show should take on a life of its own. That’s the wonderful thing about television is when you make a series, it comes to life. It has its own sort of organic quality. We listen to the show and the wonderful characters. Eichhorst is a much smaller presence in the books. There is no Dutch, there’s no Justine. Obviously the seismic events like the death of Nora don’t occur. [As opposed to the books, in the TV series] Setrakian is still alive, as is Palmer. There’s lots of things that we’ve done differently. So inevitably the conclusion of our series will be different than the books.

How do you decide what to change from the books?

Hogan: I think we learned a lot just airing the first couple of episodes, both watching it ourselves and getting a little feedback. You start to see what’s working and what really seems to be clicking in terms of story, and then you write to that. Also the actors came on. Everyone on the show is really, really strong. But what was great is how quickly they made the characters their own. And that informed our writing. We sort of gave up a little bit of control in that sense, seeing where they were going and then following that path. Something as seismic as Nora’s death is not something you just arrive at and decide “That’s what we’re going to do.” We literally went back and forth a lot as we were writing the season. Can we save her? Is she going to go? And it really comes down to what we feel is best for the story overall going ahead. And that’s very much a “touch,” a “feel” sort of situation. There’s no right or wrong necessarily, except for what the story is telling you and what the series seems to need.

What is the plan for Zach going forward?

Cuse: If you read the books, his role is pretty interesting and significant. He has a fairly complicated relationship with The Master and what exactly is going on there is one of the big dramatic questions in the books. We’re doing our own version of that in the series. Obviously Zach has kind of gone into a very dark place and that’s interesting storytelling as far as we’re concerned.

Why is it so hard for Zach to see that his mom isn’t the same person she used to be?

Hogan: I think he’s totally aware of that. At the beginning of the season, he was kind of clinging to the hope that she was just sick and she might get better. Then he had experiences where he realized that’s not the case. So I think he is aware of it. But at the same time, she’s not dead, she’s not gone – she’s still there. And I think he sees a glimmer of his mother inside the creature. I think for an 11, 12-year-old, that’s a really powerful force. So I think he’s caught in a hard place. It’s going to be interesting in season three to see what happens. I definitely can’t say any more about that. But we’ve left him in a really interesting place and I think it’s going to be good.

The auction with Setrakian and Eichhorst was a highlight of the finale. What was it like writing and filming that scene?

Hogan: Richard Sammel, who plays Thomas Eichhorst, has really taken on a much, much larger role in the television show than in the books: a) because the character really works, and b) because Richard is phenomenal and he’s “all in” on the character. So that was a really fun scene to write and definitely something that we were building towards and looking forward to because of the dynamic between David Bradley’s character and Richard Sammel. David Bradley – he’s just gold all the time, everything he does. So having those two guys go head-to-head was really fun. The only difficult part was figuring out how to stage it and how to ring the maximum drama out of it. And I am definitely happy with the way it came out and then the fallout afterwards. It’s great to know those two will continue to go toe-to-toe in the series going forward.

Cuse: It’s always great when you can put your protagonist and antagonist together in a scene. And we really felt like we wanted to give the audience one big final emotional showdown between those two characters before the season was over. We talked before about this issue of [having] to be willing to take chances and kill characters, but you can’t kill everybody off. So you have this challenge of basically wanting your characters to confront each other – but you still have to leave them to fight another day. That was kind of what we were trying to do there. They were also setting up some stuff for season three in that scene and with that confrontation. We were pretty conscious of that when we wrote it. We just wanted to give the audience a big showdown between them because ultimately those two characters, on a human level, are in a lot of ways kind of the core of the drama – those two guys and their history and their antagonism. It was fun to write and fun to figure out a construct in which we could put them together.

Fet has been such a fan favorite. Where do you see his character going next year?

Cuse: We see him being at least 6’10’’ next year. (Laughs) You know, we love the fact that in the world as it existed before our “Strain” spread, he was a lowly rat catcher. But in this new world order, he possesses an incredibly valuable set of skills. He started this warrior chieftain [attitude] and that’s something that expands in season three. We love the character and we’re definitely going to see more of him. We’re going to learn more about his history and his backstory. I think you’ll be happy. Fet is really central to our storytelling.

What are you proud of from season two?

Cuse: One of the things that we tried to do this season, and I think we did successfully, was kind of lighten up Corey Stoll’s character. His tone became, I think, more compelling and more irreverent. We felt like it was interesting. Also we clearly didn’t want him to descend into an identical form of alcoholism as we saw him do with Peter Russo in “House of Cards.” He’s done that. So this idea that he becomes kind of a lively, engaging drunk was something we talked with Corey about a lot, just figuring out how to spin that in a way that was different from what he had done previously, and that was also interesting and compelling. That tone that we found for him as a character is something that we hope reflects out onto the show, so that even in the middle of these dire circumstances – and the show does get very dark – it doesn’t mean the characters can’t find humor and humanity.

What are you most excited about for next season?

Cuse: For me it would be the ongoing evolution of our strigoi. The older they get, the more confident they are. As time goes on they become more effective and more deadly. I think one of the problems we dealt with is we’ve done two seasons and 26 episodes across a few years of television time, when in fact, really, we’re only a couple of weeks into this vampire apocalypse. So I think there’s a sense that we’re much further down the road than we are, when this really is kind of a newly evolving phenomenon. We’re going to drop a little deeper into that this year. So, to me, that kind of changes up the forces of antagonism in ways that I think are going to be super cool.

Hogan: As difficult as it was, I feel like the death of Nora has kind of emboldened us. And I think what I’m most excited about looking at next season is that everything is really up for grabs. I would say there’s no reason to assume that you would need to wait until the last episode of the season for something really big to happen. So I’m excited for the surprises to come.

“The Strain” returns to FX for season three in the summer of 2016. Now, if we can just learn to wait!

What did you love about the finale? What did you think of the decision to kill off Nora? What sounds most exciting to you about the third season? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author - Tonya Papanikolas
Tonya Papanikolas is an online, print and broadcast journalist who loves covering entertainment and television. She spent more than 10 years as a broadcast news anchor and reporter. Now she does everything from hosting to writing. She especially loves writing TV articles and reviews for SpoilerTV.