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Episode: 103
Airdate: September 26, 2014
Directed by: Michael Robison
Showrunner: Karl Schaefer
Written by: Eric Bernt, Craig Engler

While this could definitely have been a slice of “Philly Cheese Steak” based on how things have gone so far in the opening run of Z Nation, tonight’s episode may finally be showing hints of that thing the show has been lacking: a team-building episode that combines forgiveness, understanding, and a certain degree of kick-assedness that has, frankly, been missing so far. Is the show a contender with The Walking Dead? No, nor will it become one – but it might become something worth watching on its own merits, if the hints of promise here pan out. Click through for my full review.

<<Spoiler Alert: This review will discuss S01E03 of Z Nation, “Philly Feast,” including direct references to plot points and events in the episode.>>

Tonight finds our team (Delta X-Ray Delta, as Citizen Z [DJ Qualls] keeps calling them) entering into the not-so-friendly confines of the City of Brotherly Love. Cassandra is very hesitant about heading this way, but Garnett [Tom Everett Scott] and his partner Warren [Kellita Smith] are insistent – they hope to be able to find fuel and other resources in Philadelphia that will help them on their journey west.

We actually begin with a cold open. Cassandra – aka “Sunshine” – is in an RV, a young man offering her pills in barter for her sexual favors. They undress, Cassandra getting down to her bra and panties, before two men break up the tryst. One gets hit a few times by the would-be lover, but the second man tasers the lover, rendering him compliant. He then proceeds to taser Cassandra, who hasn’t performed up to his standards.

Jump to now, as we follow the team. Shortly after they arrive in the city, they come across a flatbed truck, carrying that most iconic of Philadelphia items – the Liberty Bell herself (I’m not sure if bells are gendered, but Liberty has always been a lady to me). Garnett figures that if they can get the truck moving, it’ll mean that they won’t have to have people hanging on the outside of the truck, giving them enough room to travel in a certain degree of comfort.

They get the truck started, and head off through the city. Naturally, this is when things start to go awry – you can’t have too much success in the zombie apocalypse. Turning a corner, another vehicle is careening toward them. They hit the breaks and slide sideways. In a move that I’m certain was born in a planning meeting somewhere in the Valley as they went over script rewrites, the Liberty Bell breaks its straps, goes flying off the flatbed, and proceeds to mow down a bunch of zombies, as well as one live person being feasted on by two of the undead. This leads to a wonderfully graphic moment, when Garnett gets out of the truck, looks at the carnage, and sees two legs, the body above missing north of the knees, as they slowly topple over. Yes, this was totally set up and planned, but it was a cool sequence nonetheless, despite effects that can’t quite stop reminding us that we’re watching a television show. The fact that the bell is able to travel what appears to be an entire city block kind of undermines credibility, as does Warren’s off-hand remark about the axle being broken on the truck – seriously, from stopping?

We cut to a very disturbing dinner scene. A tall, bearded man with a wonky eye is barbecuing. As the meat finished cooking, he brings it inside a small, gaudily decorated area with a dining table and crystal chandelier. Everything here is slightly askew of proper. My first thought when I saw him cooking: those ribs are a bit small for beef. What could they possibly be? Around the table, there are several people sat, and the cook gives thanks for the bounty they are about to receive – but everything he says is slightly off-center, slightly wrong. He talks about “Mother,” a woman sitting beside him who is obviously in a vegetative state, and then he share his good news: “Sunshine has been found – the circle will not be broken.” “Mother” turns out to be Tobias’s wife, her mind broken by his choice to turn to cannibalism during the Black Summer, when food was scarce and everyone was dying in Philadelphia.

Back with the team, Addy [Anastasia Baranova] suggests that they should get an operational radio, so that they can contact Citizen Z – she figures his help could be invaluable, as he has access to resources beyond their reach. She and Mack [Michael Welch] head off together to look for a radio, while Doc [Russell Hodgkinson] and 10k [Nat Zang] along with Cassandra [Pisay Pao] look for a satellite dish, and Garnett, Warren, and Murphy [Keith Allen] hang out at the trucks. Several things happen quite quickly, ramping up the danger for the team.

Finding a police car, Addy manages to contact Citizen Z, but only communicates with him for a second before she is suddenly attacked. Seems that Cassandra’s old family is about, and they want to take Addy as a new sister to add to the fold. The leader has sent two of his brethren out, and now Addy is in their claws. Mack shows up shortly after, and is told by Citizen Z that he doesn’t think Zs have taken her – he heard human voices.

In her new “home,” Addy is forced to dress in new clothing, saying that, “I look like a post-apocalyptic stripper. Jesus.” She is not impressed. One of the women who has dressed her corrects her, saying she looks like “Bait.” She’s sat at the dinner table with the cult leader, Tobias Campbell [Rick Rivera] who is, frankly, a bit of a step back in the acting quality on the show. He plays “Mr. over-the-top cult leader” with just a little too much over-zealousness. But he does have wonky eyes, so that goes in his favor. He tries to get her to eat, but she resists. One of the ways he tries to manipulate Addy is by telling her that “Mother” likes her – but she has to eat or “Mother” will be unhappy. However, she still won’t eat, and this turns out to be a good choice, as we soon find out. Wandering around the cult compound, Addy sees a tunnel with canvas drapes blocking it off. It’s the “kitchen” – she goes inside to see what’s on the menu. Seeing a form under a sheet, she says, “I hope we’re not eating dog,” and moves the sheet – only to find a human leg, the other leg cut off just below the knee. She moves the sheet off the whole way, and sees that the legs’ owner is still alive, his mouth stitched shut so he can’t scream. She moves deeper into the tunnel, and finds a half dozen other people, all still alive, hanging from the ceiling, missing all of their limbs. Tobias and his “family” are eating living people, one arm or leg at a time.

Trying to find out what happened to his would-be girlfriend, Mack takes a little GoPro that Addy was using, and sees the men taking her, recognizing one as the second biker (along with the now-deceased Travis) that Cassandra seems to have some connection with. There’s lots of guns pointed at heads – mostly Cassandra’s – and Garnett intervenes, preventing Mack from going Rambo on her, but then backs up as Warren also threatens Cassandra. Cassandra, for her part, refuses to give up what she knows, and takes off at a run. She’s cornered by Warren and Garnett, and immediately gives up everything she knows. This scene felt a little easy – the team should have had to fight for this knowledge, especially based on Cassandra’s eagerness to run rather than speak, and the fact that she did not speak either of the two times she had guns pointed at her head just moments before. For ease of transition, the writers chose to have her speak at this moment, but I can’t help but feel that this is a lost opportunity for character development.

Once the team knows what’s what, Garnett approaches the cult, and asks for Addy’s release. They resist, so 10K takes out one of their guards with a clean headshot. Tobieas brings Addy out, a knife to her throat. He teaches Garnett the two rules of negotions: one, the person with the least to lose wins; and two, the guy with the .50 caliber machine gun wins. One of his followers unloads on the team, conveniently missing everyone.

Cassandra’s seen enough. She comes out of hiding, and offers herself in trade for Addy. This is both pretty cool, and pretty unlikely. She’s just spent the past ten minutes repeating her mantra, “I can’t go back” over and over again. And yet here she is, volunteering to head back into Tobias’ unwelcome embrace.

Garnett is ready to head on out after this unfortunate encounter, but Addy is having none of it – she insists they go back to save Cassandra. Mack tells her they’ll talk about it – once they’re on the road and out of Philly. Addy gets a sudden and somewhat unexpected ally: the usually pragmatic Warren goes to bat for her, agreeing that they can’t let Cassandra stay behind.

While this sudden camaraderie between the women on the team could come across as forced, I find that Cassandra’s selfless act in trading herself for Addy is enough to explain the sudden selflessness. The fact that the men are all on board with leaving kind of forces the women together as well.

There really isn’t much of a plan. Addy contacts Citizen Z and asks him to play music that will attract the Zees. In this case, it’s Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” a rousing piece. Doc goes undercover, a mark for Cassandra/Sunshine in her newly renewed job as bait/prostitute for the Family. She’s shocked to see him but quickly plays along. The two of them rock the RV, moaning loudly, mimicking sexual sounds. After a few moments, Tobias tells his thug it’s time, and the two enter the RV. Doc shoots the thug in the face, and then is overpowered by Tobias – who is then hit with a taser to the neck by Cassandra. He tries to plead with her, calling her Sunshine. She then tasers him in the mouth, shouting, “My name is Cassandra!”

On a sidenote, for anyone who played arcade games back in the 1980s, they may remember Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from the Bally/Midway game Satan’s Hollow – it played in the background as players used their shooting tridents to try to take out gargoyles and devils. Good times, and oddly post-apocalyptic in their tenor. More iconic than this, however, is the famous helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, with the helicopters blasting “Ride” as they swoop down over the ocean and into a Vietcong village.

They drive the truck, blasting Wagner all over the place, and crash the fence, while Tobias sends one of his men to man the .50 cal. The gunner focuses on the zombies attracted by the classical piece, and 10K focuses on him, taking him out in a shot that we follow right through the gunman’s mouth, and through to a propane tank behind him. Not quite the effects we saw in Wanted, but certainly the same idea. We don’t get to follow the bullet on-screen (a la Wanted), but the swiftly travelling camera is still a good effect.

Tobias, realizing that he’s beaten, retreats to the “kitchen.” There, his food overwhelms him – the hanging torsos use what little motive force the have to smother him between them, as zombies pile into the tunnel, intent on live flesh. We hear a scream, as the camera focuses on “Mother” – but it’s all off-camera. Is Tobias really gone? Or might he show up again in a later episode?

All of this is not to forget that there is a second narrative happening in back of all of this. We see Citizen Z several times, beginning with a scene wherein he’s cooking T-Bone steaks for the dog and himself. Again, he mentions that they have a lot of food – literally a ton of T-Bones alone – so we know that he’ll be there throughout the series, whether it runs one or ten years. His role here is twofold: support for the DXD team running Operation Bitemark; and commentary, for those of us tuning into the apocalypse from a different timeline. He sets things up for the team, speaking with Addy and Mack to find out what’s happening with Murphy, and playing DJ to give them the right tunes to lure zombies into cult-central.

Overall, the episode had good focus, and the team-building was an important direction taken. The ease with which Cassandra was brought into the group in episode 1 was addressed, showing concerns and doubts among the team members. The reveal of Tobias and the Family was well done, although I’m sorry to see them dealt with so quickly. While I felt the Governor storyline in The Walking Dead was stretched out over too many episodes, here I felt that an antagonist that could have supplied tension over multiple weeks was dealt with too easily. Of course, he might not be dead yet, but the indication was pretty clear.

The acting was on a par with the second episode tonight. The actors appear to be sliding into their roles, and the interactions between them felt just a little bit more natural this week than last. The only downside was the acting of Rick Rivera as Tobias: he seemed to feel a need to go over the top. For the second week in a row, both Warren and Doc did exactly what was needed, without going too far.

Special effects are always going to be an issue in a program that doesn’t have a huge budget, but there were some decent moments tonight, especially the bullet-cam when 10K took out the .50 cal gunner, and when we saw the zombie legs falling after the rest of the zombie body was taken out by the Liberty Bell.

Tonight served to work on team-building – an essential act, when you consider that two of the members are literally Johnny-come-latelies, in the form of Cassandra and Murphy. Murphy had some good moments tonight, but the episode clearly belonged to Cassandra. Her character is spelled out for all of us now, so look to see character exposition going in a different direction next week.

There were a ton of cheesy lines tonight – it’s almost as if the writers were paying attention to the critiques of this show, or something, and deciding to go with what they know best, a la Sharknado – except that they seem to be wanting to be taken seriously. In no particular order:

  • “Supper’s ready!” – said by Tobias, as he holds a panicking Addy after she has seen what the cult keeps in its kitchen.
  • “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, man. Sorry, wrong word choice – it’s more of a zombie-eat-man world.” Citizen Z, speaking to his dog.
  • “10000? Good to know kids these days still got some goals.” Murphy, after accidentally calling 10K 2000.
  • “I miss the old days before Edward Snowden…and zombies. We were such badasses.” Citizen Z, lamenting his current lack of cool and NSA cred.

Problems – lots, but these were the most egregious:

  • The acting – Rick Rivera played Tobias as an over-the-top baddie, instead of developing him into something a bit more real and relevant. And the rest of the team seems to be going out of their way to play as stereotypes, although which stereotypes exactly is hard to say. Garnett is not believable as a leader – he lacks natural charisma – and Warren just plays everything angry. Her sudden agreement with Addy, going against Garnett, played false.
  • The format – find a major hurdle, spend the episode overcoming it. This has been the formula for two weeks running. They should shake things up a bit to make things more interesting.
  • Direction – what kind of show is this trying to be? Serious? Cheesy? A comedy? I think the producers are going for serious, but the actors, writing, and special effects budget are just not adequate to the task. The show could be successful as a sort of Sharknado for zombies.
  • Concept – the whole Tobias as cult leader storyline was lifted wholesale as a kind of Governor-lite. But why would they be living in RVs and a Quonset hut? Doesn’t Philly have a ton of defensible buildings still? Likely a set choice, as opposed to a well-reasoned logical choice, which again comes back to budget.
  • Cannibals! This choice, to have Tobias and his “family” be cannibals, is a blatant attempt to say, “Hey, we did it first!” when Season 5 of The Walking Dead starts up next month – speculation is rife that the group at Terminus are cannibals. But TWD did do it first, if that’s the course Terminus takes (as in Main Course…), due to the set-up having aired in the season finale.
  • Cassandra – speaking of cannibals, the group is offended by their very existence, yet when it comes to Cassandra, Addy defends her, saying “She did what she had to!” No logic here at all; yes, Cassandra has just sacrificed herself for Addy, but that didn’t make much sense either, considering she was willing to run away from the group just moments before to avoid the same fate.
  • Mechanism – how do people get infected? It’s unclear (apparently being covered in blood, including on the eyes and in the mouth, doesn’t do it). In Cassandra’s explanation of how the “Family” eats their victims, she mentions that they keep them alive so that they don’t get diseased meat. This makes no sense whatsoever. So, when you die, you become a zombie, meaning that the disease is already in your system (per TWD lore). But if you cut slabs of meat off of still living beings, somehow the disease doesn’t transfer – even though the meat you’ve just sliced has no way of “knowing” if its source is living or dead – the meat is, after all, dead by necessity. And then there’s the problem involving animals, which they’ve been eating all along – shouldn’t they all just be zombies by now, based on this logic?
  • Convenient Survivors – whenever it seems we haven’t had a shock for more than a few moments, the group inevitably sees some poor, screaming, still-living bastard being eaten by a group of zombies. The thing is, it’s been three years since the zombie apocalypse started. Those that have managed to survive this long aren’t a) going to be falling to small groups of one, two or three zombies, and b) they aren’t going to be common background scenery literally everywhere the group goes. At the rate we see them getting chomped, there must still be a ton of survivors out there, something that isn’t borne out by how the rest of the show plays. Merely done for shock value, it actually becomes a sort of schlock value instead.

Positives:

  • For both the previous episodes I have seen, I held out hope for their use of special effects to situate the viewer within the Z Nation universe. Tonight had some good moments and, like last week, didn’t overdo what it had to cover (save for the scene when the Liberty Bell went rolling down the street – the mushy messes left behind were over-the-top bad.
  • Murphy had very few speaking moments tonight, but was used effectively as comic relief where he did show up.

Steve’s Grade: C
My grades seem to be stagnating around average, but so is the quality of Z Nation. I don’t see the show becoming much more than a second tier team in a league dominated by The Walking Dead, but it does have the ability to surprise from time to time – a show that might be worth watching over the next few weeks to see if it goes anywhere.

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Comments
  1. Dennis says:

    Only one small quibble with your review: the classical piece by Richard Wagner that they played to lead the Z’s into the camp was “Ride of the Valkyries.” Flight of the Valkyries is the annual metal fest. But overall, I like your review.

    • Man, you’re right! Thanks for the head’s up – I’ll correct it in the body as well. I appreciate it when readers catch these errors. (I’ve also added a bit referring to the iconic scene from Apocalypse Now – might be more memorable than an old arcade game.)

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