Photo: Daniel Sawyer Schaefer/Go2 Z 4/Syfy

If you’re going to begin the fourth season of your post-apocalyptic zombie show with a title card reading, “Two years later...things have gotten worse,” then you’d better have a very good reason for doing so. Credit where credit’s due: Z Nation pulled it off.

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This time-jump and hard reset, story-wise, was exactly the narrative jolt in the arm Z Nation needed. After the creative bounce of season two, last year found the show awkwardly stuck between two modes of storytelling, toggling back and forth from weightless caper-of-the-week silliness to the ambitious advances of its emotionally stirring season-long plot involving Murphy’s insurrection. It saw the core group ripped apart and scattered, turning on each other as Murphy set out to create a harmonious society of human/Z blends, people who had taken a dose of his blood and become a combination of the two. Of course, it also placed them under his mental thrall, leading to a showdown between competing ideologies of freedom and peril versus safety and servitude. The finale basically punted on everything, a literal cliffhanger that served as a weak get-out-of-jail-free card for all the unresolved issues and wobbly pacing of the season as a whole. The show needed new conceptual blood, or else it, too, was in danger of of becoming like Murphy, slowly succumbing to the zombified tendencies it was trying to resist.

“Warren’s Dream” breathes new life into the show, giving us a split reality between the unsettling “utopia” of Zona and the increasingly dangerous world outside. When Addy and Lucy fell off that cliff, it also ended our core group, as its seems no one has been in touch for the past two years. The world, we hear, has become progressively worse, with the Zs getting more frantic and signs of hope ever more scarce. Of course, the world always seemed that way—outside of the optimistic radio broadcasts of Citizen Z, there was rarely any chance of safety, no matter the odd helicopter from Asia or submarine from Zona. And even those ended up more threat than promise. But now, we have a brand-new world: The supposedly safe enclave of Zona, zombie-free and enjoying an odd existence that plays like a cross between Pleasantville and The Island Of Dr. Moreau. This is exciting stuff, and the show knows it. You can practically hear the rush of adrenaline from both cast and creators at the possibilities opened up by this decision.

Screenshot: Syfy

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First, there’s Roberta Warren, newly-awakened resident of Zona. (Not a citizen yet, it seems; Warren lacks the wrist barcode apparently necessary for safe passage throughout the town.) She rises from her coma, and soon is being roused by Murphy, now a beloved fixture in Zona, the human safe haven having been made stable by their application of his blood as a vaccine—or so he claims. One of the best parts of this reset is how it finally puts Murphy and Warren on the same side, even with her suspicions. Kellita Smith and Keith Allan always had excellent chemistry, but casting aside their endless bickering allows the two characters to finally lean into the affection they once revealed only begrudgingly. Murphy is genuinely happy to see Roberta, and to show her this paradise in which they can reside. Yes, he misses the old team every day—“Even 10k,” he wryly admits—but this was what they were all searching for, a place to finally live free from Zs, and in his mind, they owe it to themselves and their absent friends to enjoy it to the fullest.

But all is not as it seems, and the meeting with the Founder only confirms that. Charming horror icon Michael Berryman (best known for the original The Hills Have Eyes) gives his leader just the right amount of kindly-old-man harmlessness, undercut by the well of creepiness in offhand comments like, “We’ll want you in the gene pool.” Then there’s the strange behavior of his fellow one percenters (sorry, “zero point zero zero one percenters”) at the dinner party, clapping in rising intensity along with the Founder, as though under a mind-control thrall of their own. Finally, there’s the worrying announcement of “The Reset,” which promises a clean sweep of the outside world, and which is presumably demonstrated at episode’s end, when the bespectacled weirdo conducts the test in which a severed zombie hand is burned up by a mysterious gas.

Photo: Daniel Sawyer Schaefer/Go2 Z 4/Syfy

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Yet the nightmarish imagery of Roberta Warren’s visions is what adds a layer of intrigue to all this setup. It provides a haunting, mystical element to the story, as her strange dream of Zs and humans alike burning up in a nightmarish hellscape seems to be given all-too-real shape by that gas test. It works because Warren was always the hard-bitten realist, the one delivering tough-talk speeches about the need to keep together and keep moving, pragmatism above all else. Even when she lost her way last season, it was because she had become too single-minded in her rationalizations, not because she was prone to flights of fancy. “Something’s wrong,” she says, and it’s not just Zona she’s talking about. It’s herself; the dependable soldier suddenly can’t trust her own eyes, or even mind, as it abruptly plunges her into her dream-world during moments of heightened intensity. Sure, she escapes Murphy’s car, cuts her dress and straps on some boots, all to discover Zona is set on some remote island, but those attempts to regain her badass persona can’t fix these hallucinations.

Then, there’s the rest of our protagonists, scattered throughout the wasteland of the real world, but seemingly not too far from one another, at least for now. Doc, in full-on Rip Van Winkle beard, stumbles upon 10k and Red, living in a treehouse and making a life for themselves. He tells them about NewMerica (NuMerica?), and the outpost where Marines are gathering up refugees to take them to safety. Or rather, that’s the hope: Almost immediately, we learn they can’t establish contact, and even Sun Mei isn’t sure it really exists. “Maybe I just need something to believe in,” she says, which has been the central issue in Z Nation all along. The mission of seasons one and two, the rejiggered quest of season three...these were all ways of holding on to hope, of maintaining optimism in the face of almost certain inevitability. When you run out of options, you create a new one. NewMerica may or may not actually be there, but for now, it’s a way to inspire people to keep living, which might be the best anyone can hope for in this world.

Photo: Daniel Sawyer Schaefer/Go2 Z 4/Syfy

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Or you can just keep your head down and go on fighting. Addy and Lucy have chosen that route for now, driving around helping people and trying to stay one step ahead of Zona soldiers (which didn’t really work out too well). Lucy can telepathically communicate with the one-eyed Addy (another mystery), and it’s probably just a matter of time before they escape their captors and join up with the others at the outpost, but at least the two young women are proof of one thing: This series will continue to utilize gratuitous slow-motion shots, regardless of how unnecessary they are. (I know you want it to be a big cool reveal, Z Nation, but no matter how much you add swelling music, it’s still just a shot of two people getting out of a car.) On the plus side, the show is also continuing to explore the idea of Zs as possessing thoughts and feelings, with Lucy working to keep them alive during these skirmishes. It’s good to see the writers aren’t about to let that world-altering concept fade into the background.

Sure, there are about a million questions you could harp on over the course of this episode, but most of them feel insignificant compared to the sharp and engaging world-building that’s done over the course of “Warren’s Dream.” We don’t need to know how the hell 5k “sacrificed himself” to save Addy and Lucy in any logical way, just as we don’t really need to know how the others went their separate ways following Zona’s abduction of Murphy and Lucy. Those answers may or may not come in due time, but what matters is that we’ve got what feels like a bold and exciting new show. Z Nation has been rejuvenated both narratively and (partially) stylistically, all for the better. You may pine for the days of giant rolling cheese wheels, but last season proved there were limits to that kind of storytelling. Z Nation did what any good show does: It evolved. If sacrificing a little gonzo absurdity is what’s needed to happen to generate rich new machinations and human drama, then that’s something to believe in.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back, everyone, to Z Nation reviews. I hope this season premiere made you as enthusiastic as I am about the new direction of the show. Looking forward to discussing it with you all.
  • Speaking of which, I saved this for the observations, because I wasn’t sure what to say about it outside of, “Sure, why not?”: Henry fucking Rollins as a Marine in touch with his feelings! Curious to see if that’s going anywhere outside of a fun cameo. “I think somebody needs a hug.”
  • My favorite moment of the Warren dream-world has to be the ship overhead transforming into a giant Manta Ray.
  • It’s safe to assume Dr. Teller’s appearance at the end (remember him from last year’s season premiere?) implies some sort of underground resistance or secret band of rebels in Zona, no?
  • Warren peeling herself out of that white cocoon may not have made a ton of sense, but it sure looked cool and created an unsettling start to her discovery. Speaking of which:
  • Z Nation over-the-top flourish of the week: Warren waking up and stumbling back to consciousness clad in white plastic high heels.
  • Good to know that, in addition to eliminating Zs, Zona has also gotten rid of the clap.
  • Guess we’ll see you next week, Simon and Kaya?

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