SyFy channel's flagship zombie epic Z Nation is a light-hearted yet bleak, self-aware series that centers itself in a universe with its own set of rules. While most scenes play like a first person shooter video game, there's a healthy mix of cinematic competence, off-comedy and drama that delivers a story that relies on the eccentricities as well as emotional honesty of its main characters. Zombies run and the infection is instantaneous. There's no wasting time with the correlation between the government and the exploitation of civilians in an attempt to acknowledge it as a virus and the mission for a cure.
It is a show aware of the phenomena and fascination with zombies, but recognizes that the threat is far from child's play. Characters face danger from humans and zombies alike, but always manage to find hope and solace amongst each other without it feeling like an After-School Special for this generation. These merits, believe it or not, is what makes Z Nation positively stand out and why it has a solid cult following.
At the pinnacle of these strategic building blocks is the central character, ex-National guard and first in command Roberta Warren played by Kellita Smith. According to one writer and I can imagine many more, "Kellita Smith has created arguably the most badass female protagonist of our time". Bold words, indeed. And I completely agree.
Z Nation has managed to successfully take an organic step towards this radical notion to make a female character who happens to be Black, carry a series where she's simultaneously intelligent, courageous, mournful, desirable, sharp, witty, beautiful, tough, caring, loyal, vulnerable, sexual (not sexualized, and if so, on her terms), and influential. Warren is not a leader but the leader. She very clearly is looked to for guidance and revered without malice, jealousy, or incredulousness.
Thus far in the series' early history, Warren has shown herself to be one of the most revolutionary characters of color on a genre television show. If ever. She's so beautifully established as not only a central player who exudes resilience, but someone worthy of a tender backstory, an active sexual appetite, and someone who consciously considers the well-being of others while taking care for her own physical and emotional needs. Roberta Warren can not be put in a box, and that's glorious!
Z Nation hasn't quite taken zombies in popular culture by storm. Ironically, with less scrutiny, Z Nation seems to answer to itself by its thankfully conspicuous treatment of Warren, a Black woman in ways we don't see on other genre shows. There are three particular episodes that magnify this show's ability to develop one amazingly dynamic character that is absolutely worthy of examination.
"Home Sweet Zombie" Season One, Episode Five - Everyone has a pre-zombie apocalypse life.
Fellow ex-National guard and trusted confidant to Warren, Charles Garnett (played by Tom Everett Scott) takes the down time to ask Warren about her husband, once fire fighter named Antoine whom she lost contact with when the apocalypse began. She explains how their disconnect seemed indefinite and Garnett follows with the suggestion that they go to her old home to see if they can find him. Obviously reluctant, Warren agrees to go and when she finds the first clue that he may still be around, she becomes determined to find him.
When the storm becomes more aggressive and they make it back to the house, Warren makes a very bold and arguably stupid decision to stay on the house ground floor while everyone takes cover beneath. In the moment, she pulls in Antoine's chair to block the basement door and has a seat, putting her wedding ring back on and taking emotional solace in their photo album.
She tells Garnett in a tearful manner, "I have to wait for him this time... I owe him that much." Warren faces the tornado (her storm) in an act of acceptance. Her home, the life she made with Antoine is about to be disintegrated and so full of grief, relinquishing all instincts for survival or the thoughts of her co-horts, including Garnett, she's willing to die because she wants those memories back. More to the point, she wants Antoine. As the tornado becomes life threatening, Warren has a vision of Antoine in his firefighter gear, sheltering her from the danger as she looks to him and utters, "I waited for you".
"Resurrection Z" Season One, Episode Six - The not-so strange juxtaposition of sex and religion.
The gang finds brief shelter in a compound in Provencetown run by one of Garnett's old colleagues. Major Williams (Roy Stanton) offers them food and a few rooms to share for slumber. While they're all in the cafeteria fueling up, each of them, in a matter-of-fact, giggly delivery agree that Warren and Garnett should share a room. Alone. While Garnett tries to very unsuccessfully communicate that there's no need for him and Warren to be alone for any reason, Warren unabashed takes advantage of the opportunity. She doesn't play coy with her attraction to Garnett or the fact that her crew knows. Here, the only concern is her need to essentially, have an orgasm.
Warren is the initiator every step of the way, the perfect balance of aggressive and seductively assuring to the more conservative Garnett. His feelings for her mixed with mutual attraction is endearing, making it easy to cheer them on in the scene that follows:
As a viewer, you're satisfied for them and thankful that the writers didn't enact some long, drawn out saga detailing any unresolved sexual tension. The thirst was quenched at a believable pace.
The conclusion of this episode takes a somber turn when the gang faces a dangerous "second coming" religious cult that has infiltrated the compound, dismantling it as a safe space with a climax that ends bloody and quite unfortunately for Garnett when he leaps in the middle of gunfire to save his co-horts. Warren and Garnett say their goodbye's in the middle of the chaos.
When she's left no choice but to leave him to die at the compound, Warren trembling from a distance, grants him mercy by putting an additional bullet in his reanimated head. I was hoping by some miracle he'd make it. I loved watching the two of them together. But alas, the gang moves forward to fulfill the mission. Warren obviously needing more time than the rest to emotionally regroup.
"The Murphy" Season Two, Episode One - Make room for the imperfect superwoman.
After a huge explosion that nearly kills what's left of the gang, Warren and two of her original companions, Doc (Russell Hodgkinson) and 10K (Nat Zang) make it far enough away from the damage together. Warren decides to head off alone to find help and supplies after they've found a deserted spot for rest. She tells them if she's not back in two days, to move forward.
Completely depleted of energy after what looks like days without food or water, Warren has a moment in the woods. She collapses and contemplates suicide with a gun pointed at her head and a heavy conscience. One of the most extreme and very real lengthy moments where she looks at death as a viable option, it is the cries of a young girl trying to fight off zombies that charges her battery reserve. Warren rises to find the girl surrounded. A slow motion montage of her zombie slaying skills follows, the pacing mirroring the motor of her mind which is operating on less than zero. What we witness is pure survival. Warren is not depicted as superhuman or a strong Black woman. With our textual knowledge, we see a person with little left to give physically yet manages honor her personal code to help those in need. The strength she demonstrates is raw, and while we're rooting for her to make it, we know that's not entirely possible on her own right now.