In season three, Z Nation’s narrative reach has regularly exceeded its scattershot grasp, but when it’s angling to do so much, falling a little short isn’t the end of the world. (After all, the world ended more than six years ago in the timeline of the series.) Throughout this year, the story has moved from a rambling and compelling road trip to a broad and ambitious mini-epic about the potential savior of humanity being willing to sacrifice the very notion of human freedom if it means safety—with him in charge, of course. As a result, the traditional tactic of “new town, new crazy Zs of the week” is no longer befitting the structure of what Z Nation is trying to do. Which is why the whole thing fits together awkwardly: This is a show undergoing growing pains, as it moves beyond its former incarnation to try and do something with larger stakes, for both the series and its characters. If it feels like a strange pairing week to week, that’s at least partly by design, because the design is in transition.

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Episodes like “Heart Of Darkness” indicate the strong but heavier direction this season has been angling toward, using its lighthearted installments (last week’s gonzo election being the high-water mark) almost as palate cleansers between the serious stuff. It hasn’t yet managed to blend those two elements together as harmoniously as it would like, but when the repercussions of events unfolding are this sudden and surprising, erring on the side of gloom and doom can be forgiven. The brief interjections of Citizen Z and Kaya notwithstanding, this was an installment with a lot on its mind, and by the time it ends with not one, but two unexpected deaths (yes, one is debatable, but come on, not really), the entire arc of the story has been scrambled, with nary a joke to be found.

(Photo by: Daniel Sawyer Schaefer/Syfy)

The deaths of Vasquez and Hector mainly startled because they happened so quickly, one after the other. The entire season has been driving Hector toward a confrontation with his past, and “Heart Of Darkness” contains echoes of its namesake by having Warren, Hector, and Sun plunge ever further into the unknown, seeking the Col. Kurtz-like figure of Escorpion. As it became clearer that Hopper was leading them right to the mysterious leader of the Red Hand, the odds went up that it was someone we already knew, and Vasquez was a likely suspect. Still, learning he had suffered some sort of psychological break from the trauma Hector caused made for a nervy and uncertain exchange, as Warren reintroduced the sexual tension between them, only for him to refute the connection as soon as she called him by his real name. It was a bold choice to feature a showdown in which Hector not only did his best to shock Vasquez out of his altered state as Escorpion, but then have Warren run Vasquez through with her blade the instant Hector was given his mortal wound. It was a lose-lose scenario for both of them, but it gave Warren exactly what she wanted—an army to take on Murphytown.

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That goal also provided one of the more unsettling but intriguing character developments of the season. Again, the reference to Joseph Conrad’s story becomes a way to suggest that Warren might be changing in ways her team will find worrisome. Her commitment to violence, her stated desire for men who will “kill without reservation or remorse,” and her unblinking assumption of power in the wake of Vasquez’s death all point to a shift in her personality that values the mission over morality. She never used to shy away from doing the right thing, but it looks like she may have taken Murphy’s adage from the season opener—“never get off the boat”—a little too much to heart. When her truck full of newly allegiant warriors arrives in Spokane, it might result in the deaths of Murphy’s followers, but it also might lead to the more concerning possibility of a little bit more of Warren’s soul dying off.

Murphy ends this episode much as he began it, prepping for the impending confrontation with Warren and her team. He tries to get 10k to talk, to no avail, and even has a brief conversation with Citizen Z, which drives home the point that Operation Bitemark is deader than Cassandra. Now that Kaya and Z realize Murphy’s evangelical zeal on the radio isn’t some diversion or sham, but rather his new mission, the need to get in touch with Addy, Doc, and the others becomes even more vital. The military outpost still has an important role to play in all this, beyond providing much-needed levity. It’s unclear what Sun’s vaccine actually does; we see Hector’s eyes pop open, but whether he’s a garden-variety Z or some weird hybrid has yet to be demonstrated. (Pretty much all the money left in this world on the latter, however.) Murphy, for all his idiocy, has given these people hope, purpose, and even electricity. Along comes our ostensible hero, Warren, to bring that to an end. The ambiguity of the season’s story reflects the struggles Z Nation is having as it develops into something richer, and along the way, it may make some well-intentioned mistakes. But as long as it pays off in ways like “Heart Of Darkness,” those are mistakes worth making.

Stray Observations:

  • R.I.P. Vasquez and Hector. The latter may be back walking and possibly even talking next week, but the odds of it still being Hector are vanishingly small.
  • Kudos for the radio call signal of “Kaya in the sky-a.”
  • I breathed a sigh of relief on Warren’s behalf when she decided breaking out the back of the bathroom was preferable to hiding in shit.
  • 10k’s physical state is a little vague right now. Murphy offers him back his “humanity,” but 10k seems to be out from under Murphy’s mental thumb at the same time. Some illumination here wouldn’t be unwelcome.
  • Even though it was basically an excuse to do something visually interesting, the red “Guilty” room offered a great image in that shot of Warren, holding out her gun, half-shadowed in the dim glow of the bloody scenery.
  • Doc and Addy’s 10-second scene was strangely shoehorned in to this episode, but the discovery that Lucy had grown unnaturally fast was a neat stinger. And she takes after her Dad in skin tone—or rather, she did until his started fading.

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