Last week I took a look at the use of cannibalism on The Walking Dead. This week, I’m following up with an exploration of the same theme on Z Nation…
Cannibalism In Z Nation…
Episode Run: 2
First Appearance: Fracking Zombies (S1 Ep2)
Last Appearance: Philly Feast (S1 Ep3)
Lead Up: Fracking Zombies (S1 Ep2)
Key Players: Cassandra and Addy
Fracking Zombies does a good job of introducing the two core themes of this arc: the duality of human nature, and the meaning of post-apocalyptic life. Its effectiveness is limited by two factors – the fact it’s only the second episode of the season, and the fact the first episode focused so heavily on Hammond, Murphy and Citizen Z, while this entire plot arc will rely on Addy and Cassandra. While Addy is arguably the most well-rounded of the other characters at this point, Cassandra has barely been seen.
Cassandra was introduced in Puppies and Kittens (S1 E1) as a scantily clad girl inexplicably sitting in a cage, and just about all we know about her is that her wardrobe choices are sorely inappropriate for a world in which the greatest threat to your safety is being bitten. In fairness to the show, there is a reason for this, and the other characters call her on it, making a refreshing change from similar eye-candy characters whose clothing (or lack thereof) usually skates by without rhyme, reason, or explanation (Rosita over on The Walking Dead springs to mind). All that being said, it does do a reasonably good job of teasing the fact there is more to come, without giving any inkling of the truly horrific nature of the threat.
The Duality of Human Nature…
On the road, the group run into two ominous blokes on motorcycles, take one look at their sketchy appearance, and are relieved when they roll on by. When one of the bikers runs into them later and asks to join them, they’re immediately mistrustful, and only let him come because he promises to lead them to gas, which they desperately need. They have a brief conversation about whether they’ll pick up anyone on the road, begun by Cassandra. Murphy points out to her that they picked her up, despite the fact she was inexplicably found locked in a cage while wearing next to nothing. She drops it, but it’s clear she both knows and mistrusts the new arrival – he later calls her ‘Sunshine’ and tells her she’ll never escape ‘him’, confirming the connection.
The presence of an obvious wolf in the group highlights the dangers of trusting strangers in the new world.
Meanwhile, at Northern Light, Citizen Z catches sight of a dog sleigh coming up on the outpost. He’s initially elated at the realisation there are people coming and he’ll have company for the first time in years. He starts to maniacally panic about making sure they have snacks and other amenities, while delightedly screaming ‘People!’. The full ramifications of this hit, however, and he swiftly sobers, repeating ‘people’, while picking up a gun. It’s an effective and stark reminder that people cannot be presumed to be safe, and one must always defend oneself from strangers, either due to their duplicitous ways, or the fact they now walk among the dead.
The Meaning of Post-Apocalyptic Life…
On the road, Murphy notices Addy is recording everything with a GoPro camera. She comments that they’re likely the last generation of humans and someone should keep a record. While attempting to switch off a generator that’s attracting a lot of zombies, Mac and Addy climb a long flight of stairs at a refinery. The staircase is packed with Zs, giving us a really good look at how effective the duo are as a team, and how blasé they have become about killing the dead.
Putting down the zombies is a secondary concern to their conversation about whether or not they should accompany Murphy to California. Addy insists that Murphy represents hope – the first hope she’s felt since everything went to hell. This is in keeping with her character’s habit of recording everything. Despite the horrors she’s seen, she’s thinking about more than simple survival, wondering what it all means, and how it will work out in the end. If there’s even a chance Murphy is the key to a cure and they can fix things, she wants to take it. Mac believes it’s pointless: the old world is dead, there’s no getting it back, all they will succeed in doing is getting killed in the attempt. Addy bluntly states she’d rather die believing in something than live believing in nothing.
Meanwhile, Cassandra is confronted by the biker, who is bent on forcing her to return with him to an unnamed location. She refuses, eventually killing him to save herself and ensure she successfully leads the zombies away from the refinery so the others can get gas. Before he dies, she tells him she’d rather die than go back: she’d sooner give up her life than continue living it in a manner that (we later find out) is utterly abhorrent. Like Addy, life for life’s sake is not enough for Cassandra (this is important to her later story arc). She needs her life to have meaning, even if that meaning extends no further than ensuring she doesn’t become a monster.
The question of how meaningful life is post-apocalypse is echoed at the end of the episode when both Murphy (having survived a swarm of Zs) and Citizen Z (having successfully rescued a live sledge dog from a zombie sledge dog) rejoice in the fact they’re still alive, before they realise what that means. Murphy’s cry of “I’m alive! … Damn it!” perfectly summarises the sentiment that life is no longer a worthwhile and joyful pursuit, but one long nightmare. At Northern Light, Citizen Z’s exuberant victory swiftly turns to tears, as the reality of his predicament comes crashing back in – he’s saved the dog, but he’s still alone, out of contact with everyone, and clinging to the slim chance that Murphy will make it to California and somehow fix everything.
How To Eat People…
Philly Feast follows on from the previous episode by immediately giving us a look at the compound inhabited by Cassandra’s former ‘family’. Led by Tobias Campbell, a flashback explains why Cassandra was so scantily clad when they found her (she was hooker bait). The main theme of the episode is introduced with all the subtlety we’ve come to expect from Z Nation, in the form of the Liberty Bell being sent flying down main street, squashing every zombie in its wake.
Citizen Z is grilling beef for his new friend, Pup, and comments that it’s a ‘dog eat dog’ world out there. He realises who he’s talking to and amends this to ‘zombie eat people’, but the cut between Citizen Z’s grilling beef and a large hunk of meat grilling on Tobias’ barbeque effectively foreshadows what’s to come.
The second biker from Fracking Zombies returns to tell Tobias he’s found Cassandra, and they head out to retrieve her. Catching sight of them, she splits from the group and runs. Meanwhile, Addy (briefly left alone by Mac while she tries to contact Citizen Z) is snatched. Mac returns and presumes she was bitten, but Citizen Z tells him he heard human voices on the radio. Addy’s camera reveals one of the men who took her was the biker from the previous episode. Realising Cassandra knows more than she’s saying, Mac loses it and threatens her. She runs off, but they eventually catch her and force her to explain about the compound, where Addy is being introduced to the freaky family. Tobias tells her they have been forced to resort to unusual means in order to survive. They try to get her to eat, but she refuses, and is taken off and dressed up like hooker bait (much to her chagrin).
The message of the episode, given voice by Citizen Z at the end, is “Do what you gotta do to stay alive”. There is considerably less ambiguity in that regard than we saw last week in The Walking Dead’s handling of cannibalism – one of the core themes of that arc was ‘how far is too far?’. The line is clearly drawn in TWD, and cannibalism crosses it. Things are a little fuzzier on Z Nation. While the group are arguing over whether or not to rescue Cassandra, the point is raised that she’s a cannibal who lied to them and put Addy in danger. Addy herself argues Cassandra was simply doing what she had to do in order to survive, and thus her actions are understandable and excusable.
This somewhat undermines the strength of Addy’s presence up to this point in the episode. Life for life’s sake isn’t enough, life must have meaning, hope, and be good at some core level. It’s difficult to reconcile the actions Cassandra was ‘forced’ to take at the compound with this world view. The implication is that Addy would have done the same in Cassandra’s place, had they not rescued her, but her own actions and words contradict this, while Cassandra’s assertion that she’d sooner die than go back contradicts the fact she later chose to go back willingly. The only saving grace is the reason she went was to save Addy.
The Cassandra Question: Cannibalism And Morality…
It’s unclear how Cassandra differs to the rest of Tobias’ group, beyond the fact she tried to escape. Black Summer forced them all to eat human flesh in order to survive, but the rest of the survivors all had to make it through Black Summer, and did so without resorting to cannibalism. It’s clear that Tobias lost his mind when his wife became ill and, in the face of so many people depending on him for survival, did what he had to do. But why the rest of them were brainwashed into agreeing with him is unclear.
Nobody else at the compound questions it other than Cassandra, yet aside from hunger (which everyone endured during Black Summer), there’s no inciting incident for the rest of them. While it’s not unreasonable to suppose that starvation could drive people to cannibalism, we’re not talking about simply eating the remains of the recently deceased, as has historically happened in incidents of extreme starvation such as the Donner Party and the Andes plane crash.
What Tobias does to the people they consume is far more gruesome – the systematic mutilation and torture of individuals who are still alive. This is a necessity in the post-apocalyptic world, as eating the flesh of the dead would – as Garnett explains during one of Philly Feast’s painful exposition scenes – turn you into a zombie. The solution is to take flesh from the living, and eat that instead.
It’s really unclear how this makes any difference, as the flesh would die as soon as it was removed, and you would thus still be eating dead flesh. The only way it makes any sense is if the zombie virus is only activated throughout the body by some signal/chemical release/reaction that occurs upon brain death. Meaning the cells in dismembered flesh, though dead, only carry a dormant form of the zombie virus, which everyone already carries.
Regardless, the point remains: the majority of humans when faced with extreme starvation might stoop to eating the flesh of the already-dead, but most wouldn’t kill in order to create more food. While the majority of people would give in to the need to kill in self-defense, there’s a world of difference between killing a person who is actively trying to harm you, and slowly eating a man alive because you are hungry. The question we’re left with is whether or not it’s believable that starvation alone, in a world where everyone is starving, would be enough to drive a group of people to such a brutal form of murder.
The Motivation Of Cannibals…
Tobias is clearly unhinged, having been pushed to the limits by the pressures of leadership and loss. His wife is gone, but not dead, an eerie living echo of the zombies surrounding them – she does nothing but eat. We see nothing in his character that explains how he manages to brainwash others. He uses threats, violence, and force, yes, but at some stage he was the only one bent on killing and eating people. The others could have overpowered him had they chosen to, but they just went along with it. Not only that, when Black Summer ended, they continued to lure people in, catch and consume them.
The key to any good plot involving extreme and unbelievable elements is to ground the fantastic and insane in reality as much as possible. This enables people to devote their suspension of disbelief entirely to the inherently unrealistic elements of the plot. The problem with Z Nation is that the normal human actions that should have clear cause and effect reasoning don’t hold up. There’s too much about the situation that doesn’t make any sense if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds. This is a stark contrast to what we saw on TWD, where the motivations, reasoning and transformation of the Terminus cannibals from helpers to hunters was both clear and believable.
Post-Apocalyptic Gender Troubles…
The cannibal plot of Z Nation is further undermined by the inference is that the men of the compound are simply evil, while the women are women, which makes them weak, and vulnerable in a way men aren’t. We’re expected to believe they had no choice but go along with it. This seems to be the argument made for saving Cassandra – it’s a ‘woman thing’ that the guys couldn’t possibly understand, because they aren’t women.
It’s really unclear what’s being said here. Are they saying Cassandra only resorted to cannibalism because she was threatened with rape if she didn’t? There’s nothing to indicate this was the case – violence, yes, but not rape, and presuming Tobias only used those tasers to get the women in line is ridiculous. As physically stronger individuals it would be more necessary to use them on the men, not less. It seems from Cassandra’s own account that she went along with everything Tobias said willingly initially, and when Black Summer rolled around and he suddenly started feeding them people, she just rolled with it.
She doesn’t tell us she had no choice, because she would have been eaten alive herself had she refused. That seems likely given the manner in which Addy was threatened, but again that’s a threat that would be levelled against both the men and women, it’s not a ‘woman thing’ to be afraid of someone dismembering and eating you while you’re still alive. Had they left out that element entirely, it would have been a strong episode focusing on strong female characters, that highlighted post-apocalyptic gender roles (women are bait, men are killers) without ramming it down your throat or getting preachy about it. It’s especially ineffective given how poorly constructed the points. What exactly is the ‘woman thing’ they’re talking about and how does it relate to the situation at all?
Are we supposed to believe it’s worse for the women at the compound because they’re less capable of handling situations like this, are physically weaker, and thus actions are more excusable for them in the name of self-defense
Is that really what they’re trying to sell in a series with so many female leads who are arguably strong (both physically and mentally) than their male counterparts?
Faux Feminism Vs. Heroism…
The whole thing could easily have been made more plausible simply by putting a little more thought into it. Perhaps they were unaware of what they were eating initially, and by the time they found out, enough of them were on board with Tobias’ plan that they were happy to enforce his new world order, having experienced the benefits of regular meals. Had Cassandra, during her (incredibly long) expository monologuing, indicated she did something horrendous to save herself from enduring the same fate, we might have been more sympathetic to her. Certainly, the fate of those being butchered is the stuff of nightmares.
This could have been shown by simply threatening Addy with the same fate if she refused to play the role of hooker bait and eating human flesh with everyone else. Addy, in the face of what would be done to her, finds herself torn between doing what she believed to be right, and saving herself. She holds out as long as she can but eventually, she takes the meat and is about to try and choke it down when Garnett arrives and she’s spared that fate. Having been faced with the choice herself, Addy understands she’d have made the same choice Cassandra did, if only for long enough to escape (as Cassandra did). This perspective allows her to understand Cassandra’s actions and wants to save her from enduring the fate she fought so hard to escape, and willingly gave herself up to in order to save Addy.
That is a powerful motivator for saving Cassandra.
‘It’s a woman thing’ is not, and I say that as a woman.
What bothers me about this is not the notion that women who are sexually exploited should be protected and rescued. They absolutely should, that’s not even in question. What bothers me is that the reason Cassandra is worth saving has nothing to do with what she is being forced to do – the other women present are all being forced to do exactly the same thing, and there’s no thought of rescuing them. Nobody excuses them using the same reasoning.
Cassandra is different because, although she was forced to do terrible things in order to survive, she only continued doing them until she was able to escape, at which point she fought tooth and nail to avoid going back. She said herself, she’d rather die. Yet ultimately she gave herself over to that fate, when she realised the price of her freedom was abandoning Addy to suffer in her place.
At that point, she made a conscious choice to do something she was no longer willing to do in order to save herself, so that she might save an innocent.
That’s not a ‘woman thing’ it’s a ‘hero thing’.
The use of Addy was effective. She’s easily the most well-rounded character of the bunch at this point in the series. Fracking Zombies did a very good job of setting up the similarities between Addy and Cassandra, in terms of the manner in which they see the world, and their desire for something more meaningful than simple survival. When Addy is taken there is real tension due to Mac’s desperation to get her back, something that would only have been possible between Mac and Addy at this stage, as none of the others have believable, developed, or likable relationships so early in the series.
Mac and Addy are a seriously cute couple, who work very well as a team, and clearly, depend on each other for their mutual survival. Taking one of them and leaving the other desperate to get them back was a good call. Snatching Addy rather than Mac worked well too – Mac would only have been taken for food, while Addy is a viable replacement for ‘Sunshine’ as hooker bait. Allowing Addy to experience a glimpse of what Cassandra went through is also vital to Cassandra remaining with the group and not being ostracised, shunned, or simply abandoned for what she’d done.
What Didn’t Work…
The motivations of the cannibal cult are unclear. Tobias seems to have turned out of desperation to protect those he was responsible for and a kind of madness induced by his wife’s illness. Cassandra’s attempts to explain how dangerous Tobias is, and explain that Black Summer caused him to lose his mind and the rest of them to ‘lose their souls’ is very ineffective. It’s badly acted, and dulls the impact of Addy discovering the half eaten (still living) victims at the compound. Addy’s discovery, on the other hand, is a very effective, completely horrific scene, but the manner in which it’s bookended by scenes of exposition from Cassandra (which don’t tell us anything Addy isn’t already showing us) undermine it considerably.
Tobias echoes the ‘eat or be eaten’ mentality of the Terminus group over on The Walking Dead, but he’s far less effective. The Terminus group are genuinely disturbing. Tobias’ ‘family’ are simply inexplicable. They lure people in with the promise of sex, not too different to the promise of sanctuary seen on TWD, but decidedly less believable. In a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is hanging on by a thread, the likelihood of people being willing to walk into a heavily fortified compound filled with strangers, and leave themselves totally vulnerable, all to get laid, is far less realistic than the notion of luring people in with the promise of food, shelter, and safety.
The fact there are zombies tied to the fences of the compound does nothing to make it seem like a safe place to enter, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. Terminus is in a place people would naturally gravitate towards, that’s easily found at the at the culmination of numerous train tracks, signposted, and advertised on a radio. It is visually a bright and hopeful place filled with food and resources. There is absolutely nothing drawing people to Tobias’ compound other than some post-apocalyptic strippers.
Are we really to believe people just randomly find this place?
That the bikers are out there convincing strangers to come back with them in exchange for the promise of nookie?
The only effective elements of the episode are the scene in which Addy discovers the half eaten humans, and the rescue of Cassandra. They attack the compound using a hoard of zombies (much like Carol does at Terminus) drawn along in their wake of their truck by the sound of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5. The compound is overrun by zombies, Doc is able to get Cassandra out, while Tobias is torn apart by the mutilated people he’s been feasting on.
Another peculiar element is the use of Doc to go in and get Addy. Mac could just as easily have done it, Doc is hardly a more effective fighter. Given how erratic and obsessed with getting Addy back Mac is, it feels very strange that he’s not the one to save her. We’re left with the sense it was more about giving Doc something to do in the episode rather than it making sense from a narrative perspective.
Seriously. It’s almost never mentioned again.
You would think it would have lasting repercussions for Cassandra, Addy and Mac, but it doesn’t. Addy and Mac discuss it once, and it’s vaguely arguable that the experience is part of what drives Addy to abandon Mac at the end of season 1 but the pieces for that decision are all in place before she’s taken: Mac’s possessive nature, their codependent relationship, her desire to have a meaningful life, his desire to simply be with her and survive at the expense of everything else. The only impact it truly has on her decision is a vague hurt that when she needed him most, he wasn’t the one that saved her. This doesn’t really work given the numerous other times Mac demonstrates his willingness to go to extreme lengths in order to find, save, and keep Addy.
The result is the only lasting impact of what should have been a very powerful storyline in the show is the unshakable feeling that none of it really makes any sense. Contrast this with TWD, which used the same theme to craft an extremely powerful plot arc, strongly deliver on the core themes of the show, and provide the impetus for a lot of pivotal character developments, and we begin to see why Z Nation has never been taken seriously in comparison.