Z Nation: Season One Review And Finale Cliffhangers


Last night SyFy aired the season finale of The Asylum’s zombie apocalypse series Z Nation.  Despite the campy feel of the series and its somewhat comedic divergence from the drama found in zombie pop culture (i.e. The Walking Dead), Z Nation has developed a loyal fan base and plenty success that doesn’t seem to be slowing down.  After the airing of the first season finale, the show’s Twitter feed broke 10k followers, which is a number fans will appreciate.  Z Nation was also picked up for a second season about 3/4 of the way through the first.

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The story of Z Nation follows a group of hardened survivors three years after a zombie virus destroyed most of the world.  Their job is to escort inmate-turned-science-experiment Murphy from New York to California.  The survivors receive help from Citizen Z (DJ Qualls, Road Trip), a NSA tech guy with access to all sorts of fancy hacking tools, all mediums of electronic communication and video surveillance who is tucked away in an arctic military base.

If you go into this show expecting The Walking Dead you will be sorely let down.  However, Z Nation shouldn’t be dismissed for this but rather watched instead as an alternative portrayal of the world after a zombie apocalypse.  Both the road trip format and lighter tone of the show set it apart from being a character driven drama and provide viewers a much broader experience.  That is, something new and exciting with each episode.  This is quite admirable considering The Asylum, who have a history of ripping-off (for lack of a better word) mainstream entertainment, is at the helm.

The best way to describe the feel of the show for a new viewer is to imagine the Fallout video game series played along the path of the boardgame Candy Land with the weapons of the Dead Rising games.  Each episode brings the survivors to a new location in the United States full of its own quirky inhabitants, type of zombie, form of government/leadership and zombie-killing toys to play with.

We’ve seen zombies that are covered in oil, dressed as firemen, ejected from tornadoes, part of a massive migration, hopped up on speed or covered with radiation.  There are even zombie dogs and bears.  Yes, there is a zombie bear.  The survivors have met cannibals, doctors, insane military commanders, frontiersmen, resurrection cultist and an all-female commune.  They’ve killed zombies with hand mixers, golf balls, robots equipped with industrial lasers and the Liberty Bell; just to name a few.

The survivors are your standard cast of characters.  Aside from Citizen Z and Murphy, there is a special ops soldier, some National Guard members, a tag-team zombie-killing young power couple, an old “doctor,” a young sharpshooter and woman with a mysterious past.  One of the show’s failings is that most of these characters don’t receive a whole lot of development until the last minute.  A lot of time their backgrounds or circumstances are introduced out of the blue to serve an episode.  Some of the characters feel unnecessary as the season comes close to the end.  Rest assured, they all have a part to play, but could have been used better before their spotlight.  A character death or triumph is wasted if the viewer doesn’t care.

By now you should probably expect that this show doesn’t take itself (too) serious.  Sure there are dramatic and suspenseful moments and viewers have picked their favorite characters but occasionally the light tone and instances of sub-par acting can be disappointing.  A show that has the chance to be clever and witty shouldn’t resort to clichés, fart jokes and late night Cinemax-esque secondary characters.  Unfortunately, save for the finale, these aspects are ever-present.

Maybe it is just the growing pains of The Asylum but with a little work the show could easily be compared to The Walking Dead as you would Iron Man to Batman.  Aside from some of the episodic development issues, the main story arc (get the guy to California) is paced extremely well with enough mystery and revelation in each episode to make you wonder what will happen next.

So my overall verdict is to give this show a go.  You’ll have to get past trying to compare it to The Walking Dead, otherwise it just isn’t going to work for you.  But if you keep that comparison aside, Z Nation can certainly stand on its own in the world of prime-time entertainment.  If you invest yourself until the end of the season you will be rewarded with a lot of satisfying answers to the story’s mysteries, a lot of developed plot and more cliffhangers than you will know what to do with.

NOW, ABOUT THAT FINALE… ( spoilers! )

So, yeah.  According to the show’s Facebook feed, one of the characters was supposed to die in the “Sister’s of Mercy Episode.”  They lied.  But, we’ll get to that.

In the finale episode, what is left of the group gets rerouted to a medical facility in Colorado where they uncover a lot of the mystery surrounding the virus that has taken over the world.  It is there that they hope to meet Dr. Merch.  They instead find the bunker laid to waste and full of deadly experiments and hostile people.  After Murphy meets the man responsible for his sickness and not the woman who will create a cure, he sets in to motion a failsafe that may destroy the remaining infrastructure of the nation and kill everyone he knows.

I have to say, I was amazed at the start of the finale episode.  The flashback to New York City opened up the production of the show a lot.  It didn’t feel so claustrophobic, like they were filming on a farm or in some abandoned warehouse.  We saw full city streets.  Cars.  I liked this a lot.  It was like watching a million-dollar budget movie.  Not something from The Asylum.

We were introduced to Dr. Kurian, who I presume is the Doctor of the Dead from the episodes title.  A lot of zombie movies and shows leave the whole Patient Zero thing a mystery and don’t concern themselves too much with how the outbreak started.  Although Citizen Z said at the end the Kurian created the virus,  it was apparent from the start that it was Kurian.  If not then, then after all the other flashbacks.

The genesis of the z-virus was handled in a clever way.  It called actual historical events into focus instead of relying on some genetically enhanced pig or bird.  The Doctor visited a krokodil addict, an Ebola patient, a Russian chemical-warfare munitions plant and a zombie-like survivor of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.  It seemed that his goal was to collect a brain fluid sample from near-dead victims in order to synthesize their respective skin, viral, transmission and animation/command properties into a virus that would create an easily controlled and near-immortal life-form.

This explains Murphy’s mind control powers.  This explains the zombies.  This explains the talking torso that was locked in a lab for three years.

In my Sisters of Mercy article, where I weighed the characters’ value to the show against who might be killed, I said that if Addy was removed from the group, Cassandra’s character was going to have to quickly become a killing machine.  The injury that put Cassandra on death’s door happened between episodes and like other points in the story wasn’t introduced with much grace.  Still, that this injury was present in three episodes is great tension building.  Why Murphy had to bite her face to transmit his disease to her is beyond me, though.  Maybe it was just for the visual.  But now she’s become a killing machine like Alice from Resident Evil.  Cassandra is going to be interesting to watch in the next season, if she makes it out of the facility.

Like I said above in the season review, I think that this episode answered a lot of questions while bringing up even more in cliffhangers.  Hands down, “Doctor of the Dead,” is the best episode of the season and was executed with a precision that was absent from all of the earlier episodes.  There isn’t one cliffhanger to this episode.  There are a lot.  This variety means that every viewer is dying to know the outcome to at least one of them.

So, here comes a volley ICBM nukes and…

First, after Murphy escaped the facility we only saw him in silhouette.  As the group escapes they find his shredded skin on the lift.  What has Murphy become and what powers has he discovered?  What about his baby back at the commune?

Next, Dr. Kurian also escaped the facility.  Will the group catch him?  Will season two be a manhunt?  Or did Kurian lie when he said Dr. Merch didn’t make it?  Will the group have to brave the “dead zone,” and find their way to her in California while being hunted by the Doctor?

Third, Cassandra transformed in to something incredible, useful and quite possibly exploitative by Murphy.  She did not escape the facility.  Will she be able to make it to safety before the nuke hits?  Sure would be a waste if she didn’t.

Fourth, Doc took a round to the chest and it is unclear if he will make it.  Will the survivors find help for him?  If they can, where?

Fifth, as the missiles soared overhead we saw Mack look up.  This brings up the lie on the Z Nation Facebook page.  Perhaps the ending of “Sisters of Mercy,” wasn’t intended to be so ambiguous and was supposed to make viewers think Mack went down in a gunfire.  Maybe the Facebook post was an attempt to make up for the accidental ambiguity.  Still, what happened to Mack and where is he now?

Sixth, Addy looked up at the missile, too.  She was wearing a floral shirt similar to the women in the Sisters of Mercy commune.  Will she escape?  Will she reunite with Mack or the group?  Will she feed the commune leader to the zombie bear?

Seventh, all those nukes.  Those missiles are going all over the place but perhaps the most important one is headed for Camp Northern Light.  If Citizen Z’s base of operations gets taken down or damaged where is he going to go and how will he continue to communicate with the survivors?  This is an excellent development because it is going to turn the premise of the show on its head and make season two dramatically different from season one.

As much as it pains me to say so, I am looking forward to what happens in season two of Z Nation much more than The Walking Dead when it returns from its midseason break.  I think the writers, actors and producers may have stumbled along the way of making this first season but they’ve shown that they are capable of creating and relieving dramatic suspense.  I have high hopes and expectations for season two of Z Nation and I think this break will give them a chance to iron out the kinks and deliver a solid round of episodes.

I’ve included a poll below asking which cliffhanger you are most anxious about.  Feel free to leave a comment alongside your vote.  Or add your opinion about season one and/or the finale.  We’ve got plenty of time for a discussion.