Episode: 102
Airdate: September 19, 2014
Directed by: John Hyams
Showrunner: Karl Schaefer
Written by: Michael Cassutt, Jennifer Derwingson (executive story editor)

Z Nation did not impress me in its debut last week on Syfy. I gave it a generous grade of “D” with the caveat that, if things didn’t improve dramatically in the next week, I wouldn’t be reviewing it past the second episode. So here I am, having just watched this week’s follow-up, and the question is: will I be reviewing this one still in week three? Click through after the break to find out.

<<Spoiler Alert: This review will discuss S01E02 of Z Nation, “Fracking Zombies,” including direct references to events in the episode.>>

The answer is a tentative yes. Tentative because, while this episode was a considerable improvement over the pilot, it was still full of niggling issues and a hint that this may only be a temporary reprieve. The only difference between this week and last is that there was a different writer for the episode. This may explain the dialogue (it wasn’t nearly as hokey), but it doesn’t explain some of the other changes, many of which would normally be attributable to directorial choices – but John Hyams directed both episodes we’ve seen so far. Before I get into the nits and picks, I’ll give a brief summary of the night’s action.

Tonight finds the group really beginning their journey west. They head over the Tappan Zee bridge and down the I-287 into New Jersey; it isn’t long, however, before they begin to run out of gas. There’s also smoke coming out of the wheel well of the rear truck, driven by Doc [Russell Hodgkinson]. Warren [Kellita Smith] figures it’s a flat, although there’s no real evidence of that. As they begin to take the tire off, a pair of bikers approach. They slow down, eye up the crew, and then continue on down the road; in a bit of foreshadowing, Cassandra [Pisay Pao] looks particularly uncomfortable as the men pass. Once Doc and Warren get the tire off the truck, they find the problem – a zombie, still active, is stuck up inside the wheel well, where she has been on a slow burn due to friction from the wheel. They dispatch her, and go looking for fuel.

They head to a nearby mall, and aren’t having any luck finding gas, when one of the bikers comes out from a hiding place among the parked cars. He claims he’s been abandoned by his partner, and offers to guide the group to a nearby refinery where they’re certain to find gas. The fact that they’re willing to go with him is problematic, but I suspect it’s because they have numbers; however, they put him in the back of the cab of a truck driven by Garnett [Tom Everett Scott] with Warren up front – no one sits with the newcomer nor keeps a weapon trained on him, so if he’s leading them into a trap, they’re guaranteed not to get the drop.

There are a number of problems at the refinery, and the group splits up to take care of various issues. Addy [Anastasia Baranova] and Mack [Michael Welch] head up a gantry to try to stop something making noise that’s attracting zombies; Cassandra and the biker go elsewhere to attract the zombies away from the gasoline hoses – she tells the group that zombies are attracted to high pitched music, and she has a hand-wound music box with her; Garnett and Warren go to a tanker, ready to fill it and drive it across America; and Doc stays with Murphy [Keith Allan] to keep him safe, while the sniper [Nat Zang] (we’ve learned his name is “Ten Thousand” (I’ll abbreviate that to 10k from here on out) – the number of zombies he intends to kill) goes off on his own.

Much mayhem ensues, but the most important piece of information is that we find out a little about Cassandra’s past. Cassandra, or “Sunshine” as the biker calls her, appears to have belonged to some kind of cult. She knows the biker, calling him Travis, and informs him that there’s no way she’s coming back to the “Family.” Sounds pretty ominous. They play cat and mouse as they climb up another gantry, dodging zombies that she consistently throws back in Travis’s face, as he tells her all about how she has no choice but to go back, because “he” won’t take no for an answer. Who exactly “he” is is never mentioned, but I suspect we’ll be finding out soon enough.

By the end of the episode, we’ve learned a bit about Cassandra, Murphy has managed to piss pretty much everyone off, Addy loses – then regains – her favorite spiked baseball bat, Garnett and Warren manage to fill a truck with gas – only to watch it explode, and 10k has managed to get his current number up to 1063 zombies killed. Travis also bites it, after trying to taze Cassandra into submission. As she fights off his attack, she grimaces and says, “You forget. I’m used to it.” She then kicks him in the chest, knocking him off the gantry and breaking his leg. Zombies fall upon him and begin to feast.

Meanwhile, up at Northern Light base, Citizen Z [DJ Qualls] is beginning to feel a bit lonely. He watches as the Mt. Wilson laboratory – the location in California he’s directing Garnett’s team to go to – gets overwhelmed by a zombie infestation. The feed goes dead, and he isn’t able to rouse anyone else – not Delta X-Ray Delta, the team supposed to take Murphy west in Operation Bitemark (clever play on a lack of imagination in military code names, or just plain lack of imagination?), nor Garnett or his team. Just as he hits his nadir, a visitor appears: a solitary figure with a dog sleigh. He goes out, only to find the man frozen solid and turned, so he shoots him in the forehead to be certain. He hears a whine – one of the dogs is still alive. He takes it inside, and does his best to warm it up and care for it.

Of course, things are never that simple in the zombie apocalypse, and little fluffy has a demonic brother (or sister) that has come back as a zombie dog. This opens a whole can of worms – if dogs can come back as zombies, this suggests that other animals can too. Clearly, the virus that causes the transformation is cross-special, so why is the world not absolutely crawling with zombie deer, rats, birds, etc.? It does lead to a rather tense stand off, as Citizen Z tries to kill the zombie dog while avoiding accidentally shooting the healthy one, as they play cat and mouse (man and dog?) in a dark warehouse filled with wooden crates. He runs out of bullets, but still manages to take on the undead beast.

How were my feelings about this episode? I didn’t have very high expectations going in, based on the rather awful pilot last week. However, many of the main problems I had with that episode – bad dialogue/writing, bad acting, poor directorial choices, absurd actions and reactions – were actually mitigated somewhat by a slower pace and approach tonight. I’m not sure where this came from, but I suspect it might have something to do with the production team spending a goodly portion of their special effects budget to try to gain traction in the premiere. This meant that they had to rely on a more human approach tonight. Sure, there were plenty of zombies, but there were no Chuckie babies, no machine gun-fests, and only one biggish explosion. Most of the time was spent on exposition, and one-on-one human/zombie fighting, usually while dialogue happened in the background. This worked surprisingly well, and with the pressure of the fast-paced action and character backstory not an issue, the actors did a much better job in tonight’s episode. This was especially notable in the case of Kellita Smith’s Warren, who was rather enjoyable tonight, and looks to be molding her character into a kind of wry commentator on the events happening around the group.

There were some good lines as well. The top three, in reverse order:

  • Doc, who explains to 10k that “The apocalypse is a lot like rehab, kid. Just take it a day at a time.”
  • 10k, when Doc asked him what he was going to call himself after he bagged his ten thousandth zombie – suggesting “Twenty Thousand?”, 10k responded, “No. Jeff.”
  • And the best line was reserved for Citizen Z who, upon seeing that he’d managed to put a shard of wood through the dog’s skull, quipped, “Take that, Cujo.”

Despite being a marked improvement over the premiere, there were still some problems with this episode:

  • The zombies, sprintersĀ a la 28 Days Later in the premiere, suddenly can’t run anymore. This makes no sense, no characters comment on it, and it allows the team to survive several situations that they otherwise would be killed in. Doc even treats the zombies as no particular threat in one scene, trying to show Murphy that they’re not all that dangerous, a marked change from last week.
  • The effects are still lacking, especially the distance shots of the Northern Lights base – they should avoid these short scene-change markers, as they only serve to show that they can’t afford a very realistic looking model maker.
  • While the acting was decidedly better tonight, there were times the actors looked a little confused. Murphy was particularly egregious with his over-the-top panic attack.

Positive aspects:

  • Both Warren and Doc were on their A game tonight, Garnett pulled things together, and Addy and Mack got work on the sexual tension between them.
  • DJ Qualls shows he’s got the chops to act with no foil, but the dog should help him balance his emoting.
  • The idea that Cassandra has a sinister backstory adds an element of depth that was missing in the first episode.

I didn’t think I’d find myself saying this, but it just might be that the early removal of arguably the most accomplished actor from the group – Harold Perrineau – might actually be a good thing. Without him to gauge everyone else’s acting against, they looked just that much better than they were.

Will the show continue to improve? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. If it can maintain this level of quality, it should be able to maintain an audience, and then who knows? If it becomes popular, it just might get that budget injection it needs.

Steve’s Grade: C+
A marked improvement in almost all areas over the tepid premiere. Still not a real contender for The Walking Dead‘s zombie crown, but this could be an interesting diversion for those slow Friday nights.

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  1. Susan says:

    I think the speed was explained…As best as any Sci Fi show could – only the recently turned are fast…basically letting the director/writers allowing them to be fast or slow zombies. The smarter zombie seems to have disappeared. My daughter’s were cracking up in the beginning when the recently bit zombie knocked politely on the door to get into the lab.

    • That makes sense – did they make mention of it, or was it implied? I’ll go back over the two episodes to check! My son is a huge zombie fan (Plants vs. Zombies is one of his favorite games), but he’s only four – guess I’ll have to wait until he’s a bit older to see how he’ll react to this show.

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