Last week’s Z Nation raised the bar for both Syfy and zombie storytelling. This week’s episode dropped the bar on the ground and said, “Meh, just leave it there.”
When you love zombies, you’ve got to learn to take the good with the bad and understand that you’re only going to get 1 good story for every 10 you encounter. This week’s Z Nation proves this point. Last week’s episode was powerful. This week’s episode seems to have been written by Tina & Co. from Town of the Living Dead because there were so many dream sequences. That’s not an exaggeration: only about 3 minutes of the episode was not in a dream. And it wasn’t just any type of dream; the episode was a poor man’s Inception with numerous dream layers that were as pointless as they were annoying and repetitive. This episode should have just been a 30 second bit for a real episode where Generic McPlainwrap remembers with horror that she killed her zombie mom the first night of the zombie uprising1.
At the beginning of the dream episode, Generic McPlainwrap states out of the blue that she and Mack never had a chance as a couple. Mack tries to convince her that they truly love each other, but Generic is unswayed. She calmly explains that they are not a couple in love, they are just two people who found each other the first night of the uprising, have been protecting each other since then, and who have sex when they can. She says being alive is the only thing they have in common.
For all her annoying qualities, Generic has deftly hit the nail on the head here2. This is a storytelling theory that is not addressed often in survivalist/post-apocalyptic/zombie stories often: if two people become a couple after civilization has fallen, do they truly fall in love or are they just clinging to each other because of heightened levels of certain brain chemicals? Studies have shown how people in love develop brain chemistry akin to that of drug addicts3. Other studies have also found that increased physical activity as well as increased levels of fear lead to increased levels of attraction and attachment4.
So the question has to be asked: if two people “fall in love” in a world where every waking moment is lived in fear and live-or-die physical excursion is part of everyday life, is the couple in love or just constantly high on brain chemicals that fool them into thinking they are in love? It’s extremely difficult to say in most zombie stories, and most stories do not address this idea. It kind of makes you wonder if Glenn and Maggie on The Walking Dead, one of the most beloved couples in zombie lore, would have become a couple had they met in line at a Starbucks in suburban Atlanta before the zombies rose rather than in a zombie apocalypse that left a handful of people alive.
When it became clear that this was a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream episode, I was hoping the writers were going to wow us all once again with a twist that has not been fleshed out in zombie stories. There’s a shot of Mack examining water at the beginning of the episode, so I thought, “Oh man! Maybe they’re going old school and having a Salem witch trials thing where he’s hallucinating due to something he ingests!”5. No dice.
Once that theory didn’t seem to pan out, I got even more intrigued. I thought it was finally happening. Someone was going to address the elephant in the room no one ever talks about in zombie storytelling: untreated mental illness. For millions of Americans, living with mental illness in real life is completely manageable thanks to pharmaceuticals. You take your medicine everyday, and you are your normal self. But what would happen if those pharmaceuticals no longer existed6? What about mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, which often manifest in the early 20s7? Or what about someone reaching their mental limit and breaking from reality for good? All of these scenarios have been addressed in other genres of storytelling, but rarely ever appear in the zombie genre. Z Nation is no exception to this and decided to play it safe/dumb rather than tackle another complicated and realistic look at life without modern help.
I love you, Syfy
The lone zombie in the dream episode seemed to be an homage to Big Daddy from Land of the Dead, or at least, I needed to believe that to get through this terrible episode.
- although, seriously?! Who just forgets for 3 years that she stabbed her mom to death? ↵
- [note to self: find the “that’s what she said” joke lurking in that sentence before publishing] ↵
- In both cases, you’re rewarded with feel-good bran chemicals when you satisfy your cravings ↵
- Physical activity and fear release lots of powerful brain chemicals, such as adrenaline, which can mimic feelings of attraction, like when your heart starts racing ↵
- A theory was put forth in the 1970s, which has since been mostly discarded, that the Salem witch trials happened because people consumed rye that was contaminated with ergot, which is a type of fungus that can produce a lot of nasty physical symptoms, such as hallucinations. So, when the holy rollers of Salem thought people were bewitched, those poor “witches” were actually just people who were high as a kite. ↵
- and not just psychoactive medicine. What about people who need blood pressure medication, or insulin, or cholesterol medication? ↵
- which is the age range Mack is in ↵