On foot and in hostile territory, the Z NATION gang, this week, hooked up with a MAD-MAX-ed-out motorized caravan of survivors and took a trip up "Zombie Road."
"Can't expect to travel through a valley without an ambush," muses Murphy, chewing on a piece of straw like some hayseed. "Didn't nobody ever watch Westerns growing up?" Custer, the subtly-named leader of the caravan, looks as if he may have seen one or two but how much ever John Wayne, Marshall Dillon or RAWHIDE he may have imbibed as a tyke, he kicks off the story by driving his people right into a trap set in a valley by a gang of bushwhackers. Our heroes, taking in the action from a hill above, come to the rescue.
Custer, it turns out, is hauling a group of survivors of the recent nuclear mini-holocaust. His destination: Edmonton, where perhaps there's peace and tranquility but where there's definitely damn cold weather to keep away the Zs. Pleased by the save, he asks Warren and co. to join him and, essentially stranded in these badlands, they do.
These are particularly bad badlands, Custer explains, because they're "blaster" country. "Blasters" is his name for those killed by the nukes. Altered by radiation, they reanimate as a peculiar, mutant breed of the creature. As the story progresses, they're shown to be faster than ordinary zombies, they exhibit quite strange and unpredictable behavior, hunt in packs, only eat brains and Murphy, the burgeoning lord of the dead, learns he can't control them at all. As events proceed, they become a menace that overwhelms everything in their path.
But a lot happens before things get that bad. In the caravan is Custer's nephew, a dimwit known only as Wrecking Ball. "The cheese slid off that cracker a long time ago," as Custer tells it. He pulls Doc and Murphy aside for some momentary chemical amusement; they puff away at a joint full of what he describes as "z-weed." Supposed to come from some facility in Minneapolis that uses zombies as compost in growing it. Those running the place are also, Wrecking Ball says, supposed to be working on some herbal cure for the zombie virus. Murphy perks up at the mention of this. Later, he shares some of the z-weed with Cassandra, who is still quite animalistic in her behavior. It seems to make her more lucid and she wants more. All set-up for episodes to come--by the end, Wrecking Ball, Murphy and Cassandra have boosted Custer's vintage Charger and are heading for Minneapolis.
This is the second of the more auteurist approach with which ZN's creators have been experimenting this season and the results are definitely a continued argument for the soundness of this way of doing business. Dan Merchant, the writer of record on three previous ZN eps, handled the writing chores here then stepped behind the camera as a director for the first time. He delivers an action-packed tale, though he doesn't go for the same pace and intensity as the previous "White Light." All the great ZN bits are here, the quirky humor, great dialogue, subtle character interactions, suspenseful atmosphere. As the ill-fated Custer, William Sadler--rock-solid as always--makes for another of ZN's great guest-shots.
On the other side of the ledger, the script does cough up a clinker line or two, some of the scenes of the characters shooting at blasters from the moving caravan seem rather random and pointless and some of the MAD MAX homage was a bit more on-the-nose than I would have necessarily preferred.
I wouldn't want to overstate any of that though; this was a very good episode. On Twitter, Craig Engler, ZN's co-creator, just announced that ZN's ratings increased with this ep and were, as he puts it, "higher than I expected." Good job, ZN gang. Can't wait 'til Friday.
A Note: For those who have asked, I was late in getting this piece written because I was working on another project this weekend, a short film I hope to have ready very soon.