For the better part of the last year, Z Nation has been just sitting there, waiting for me to watch it. I’m a huge fan of zombies and all that accompanies the genre, so I didn’t outright dismiss the series, but I certainly put it on the back burner. This last week I finally found the time, and to my shock it’s actually pretty awesome.
The show is produced by the Asylum, a company that gave us things like Sharknado and Transmorphers. That last one is not a typo; Google it. To say that a large percentage of their film library is shit is putting it lightly. Not to say some half-decent ones weren’t made, but this is an exception to the rule kind of thing.
Making a shitty knock off of what’s currently popular is the Asylum’s entire business model. So when Z Nation came out, I figured it was a cheap knock off of The Walking Dead. It is cheap with a budget stretched impressively far, but it’s not a knock off: it is truly it’s own thing.
Not The Walking Dead, And Proud Of It
No show is going to out-zombie TWD, so Z Nation doesn’t even try. Oddly enough, this oftentimes results in it being just as thought-provoking and moving as its much better-funded big brother without even a fraction of the effort. I’m a big fan of TWD, but I can get annoyed at how contrived the plot can get.
Z Nation has no intent on taking itself seriously, so it’s allowed to be very loose with the suspense of disbelief. I have no problem believing an Army PFC hacker for the NSA in the Arctic Circle can hack into any device on the planet three years after the fall of civilization. I’m willing to ignore logic if the show is willing to admit it’s not logical.
The show is willing to make fun of itself, but it never falls into stupid, self-deprecating humor. I can tell when a movie or show is almost at war with its own existence, and Z Nation isn’t. It’s just happy to be here at all.
Viewers of the show seem to hate what I’d consider the one of the show’s best episodes. “Die Zombie Die… Again” is an absolutely genius episode, and what is strangely considered the show’s weakest moment.
The character Addison has been having continuous flashes of a memory that has been haunting her for several episodes. While her and Mack set up camp outside of an abandoned construction/industrial area, Mack begins to have a dream where he is chased and repeatedly killed by a massive zombie. Once he dies in the dream, he wakes up at the beginning of the dream and has to start over again.
I immediately wanted to say Groundhog’s Day, but as the episode played out, something else came to mind: Sisyphus.
In case you fell asleep during mythology, Sisyphus is the guy who has to push the rock up a hill, only for it to roll back down once he reaches the top. The particular interpretation of the story the episode employs is The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, which considers the hubris King an absurd hero.
The giant zombie chasing Mack is Death, a being Sisyphus fooled multiple times but is ultimately always caught by and dragged back down to Tartarus. Mack waking up again is his escape and next attempt to defy his fate. What truly ties this episode and Mack’s struggle to Sisyphus is his awareness of the absurdity.
Camus wrote in curiosity on what Sisyphus must have been thinking on the walk down the hill. He suggested Sisyphus determines his fate absolute, freeing him to acknowledge it and find some peace and even contentedness.
Eventually, Mack reaches a door that leads to stairs going down. Several cycles of the absurdity Mack hesitates to go down the stairs, this delay always ending in his death. This is Sisyphus, standing on top of the hill, and only after accepting his fate does he descend. Mack arrives at the bottom where he is attacked once more, making Addison lunge from her sleep. This wasn’t Mack’s dream, it was hers.
Addison’s memory was her repression of a traumatizing event that her subconscious had associated with Mack to deflect her responsibility toward the action. Her dreaming of Mack, dying again and again, is her blaming him so much for an act she committed she wishes him dead for it. However, the part of her mind that loves Mack and knows of his innocence fought back, even when the act seemed futile. This is Sisyphus, defying Death once more.
Surviving in the zombie apocalypse is a futile Sisyphean action. Sooner or later your luck will run out. A day in this world is pushing a boulder up a hill, and the moment you wake up and go out to face the world the next day the boulder rolls down. Understanding the absurdity allows the characters to enjoy the walk down, however brief it may be.
A Good Villain
I don’t particularly like any of the villains of TWD. They all had their moments, and the best one, Garret, wasn’t around long enough to be truly interesting. The villain in Z Nation isn’t the Zs, or any of the bad humans the group encounters. The villain is one of their own: Murphy.
Very rarely do I completely despise a character as much as I did Murphy. For how evil TWD villains are, there is always a point where I understand and admire them. Murphy has no redeeming value, and if not for him being the last hope for humanity someone would have put a bullet in him long before a zombie could get him.
You really feel for the group having to deal with this man who is simultaneously their mission and the greatest complication to their mission. His sense of self preservation and moral cowardice is absolutely repulsive.
Then something slowly develops with him. The more zombie he becomes directly correlates with a sliver of humanity forming. He seems to cancel out every good with an evil, like returning to save the group, but only after robbing a helpless mother and daugher of their supplies and not only leaving them to die, but literally holding the door open for the zombies.
Murphy’s development is a fascinating display and not at all what I expected from such a morally shallow character.
Alone With Your Thoughts
If I’m going to praise any actor on for their performance, never did I imagine it would be D.J. Qualls. It’s not even that’s he’s good because everyone is bad, because the cast is solid. D.J. Qualls truly does some phenomenal work here.
Being alone with nothing but your own thoughts to keep you company for several years takes a psychological toll. Qualls is fearless in this role, seamlessly going back and forth between sane and insane, sometimes within the same minute and never even batting an eyelash. I thought to myself, if I going to be stuck anywhere, in any situation, I’d take his in a heartbeat. Then the show suggested he was probably the worst off.
Living on the run isn’t much of a life, but you don’t have any downtime to think about why it sucks. You’ll see friends die, but you can’t grieve. There is no time to mourn.
Simon Cruller, or Citizen Z, is left alone to watch the world suffer. All he sees is pain, and agony, and still he cannot turn away from the screen. Not because of a morbid curiosity, but because his conscience won’t let him turn away when he has the capacity to help. This burden is horrifying, and if I had the choice to take his place, or be with a close knit group, I’d take my chances on the road just for a shoulder to lean on.
Season Two Soon
After much apprehension I finally watched this show, and it was an incredible experience. It has half the brains of TWD, but a bigger heart, and best of all, it’s completely unpretentious. The show’s only objective is to be entertaining, and somehow it found ways to be heartfelt, observant, powerful, and legitimately shocking, but not purely for shock value.
I was expecting it to be watchable, not brilliant. A ton of groundwork was laid for season two, and it’s going to be one hell of an apocalypse. Z-Nation is on Netflix, so check it out.