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iZombie’s dame to die for goes full-on noir with “Night And The Zombie City”

Graphic: Diyah Pera (The CW)
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Despite a premise made to shake things up format-wise on a weekly basis, iZombie is a show that doesn’t really play with its general look and style all too much. It usually changes things enough to get by for a certain brain-based premise, but a complete aesthetic overhaul isn’t the norm for the series. So “Night And The Zombie City” is quite the left turn for iZombie and a much-needed one given the current status of its final season.

“Night And The Zombie City” doesn’t take a break from the main issues plaguing the season or our protagonists, but for the most part, it does frame them in a more fascinating light—or lack thereof—due to the episode’s classic noir framing device and coloring. (Clive gives the power outage excuse at the precinct, which one presumes explains the lighting issues elsewhere. That’s really all you need. That and a freezer that’s at -2 degrees—one of the more interesting blocking choices—also excusing the look as things just being cold.) In fact, while this episode isn’t quite stellar—due to current season particulars and because of how much of it exists simply for the gimmick, not necessarily within the rules of this world—it’s boosted tremendously by the framing device and the effort put into it by director Tuan Le, writer Bob Dearden, everyone who worked on this in post-production, and of course, Rose McIver. “Night And The Zombie City” is simultaneously a competent old school noir story (and homage) and a well-executed parody (due to the lines McIver has to utter with a straight face).

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The only disappointing aspect of the noir component stems from the series’ own continuity (or, again, lack thereof) when it comes to brain personalities and Blaine. Because despite Blaine eating the brain of Jane, this episode’s clear femme fatale, he’s still very much Blaine... even though Liv’s gone all-in on her brain, a hard-boiled private investigator named Frank Chisel. Arguably, there’s a point to be made that that’s because Blaine already is iZombie’s femme fatale, but that doesn’t vindicate it of depriving us of an outright performance as such. Especially as Jane’s is yet another brain that Blaine eats with seemingly no personality shift, completely opposite of Liv, with the biggest outward signifier that he even did it being the smoking gun in the form of the hurt finger. (At that point in the episode, my notes just said, “WHAT ARE THE RULES?”) As the episode even establishes Jane (in her scene with Blaine) as someone who won’t give a straight answer, you’d think that would have transferred over to Blaine, but no—he’s still just Blaine. At this point, I imagine the reason iZombie doesn’t do much to have David Anders play other brain personalities is because it would only give the audience more reasons to like him (even just temporarily), when the intent is to constantly remind the audience that he is an evil man who deserves his comeuppance. (Here, he’s also frustrated that the smugglers he hired are having trouble capturing Freylich kids. Great guy.) But while that makes sense, it ultimately hurts the show’s already quite-muddled mythology and rules about zombies.

This is still an episode of interesting choices, particularly presentation-wise. The case itself is a wash, as we’re tipped off on who the murderer is early, but the why still needs answering (albeit incompletely), and the choice to have Blaine and Liv figure things out independently as they do keeps the story interesting. As I mentioned before, this episode is all about the general aesthetic overhaul. Dale/Clive’s office is shot from completely different angles and spots than usual, clearly existing (even before Liv takes a seat) to be the stand-in for the stereotypical P.I.’s office. In fact, this episode makes the precinct even more of a living, breathing character, as it uses it for its particular needs. Earlier in the episode, Clive’s actually back at his desk for no other reason than the specific blocking of Liv and effect of said blocking. That would be something to nitpick over in any other, normal episode, but here, the intent is clear.

Plus, with him in the background of Liv’s P.I. shots, Malcolm Goodwin gives perhaps his best annoyed Clive Babineaux looks ever. These are the faces of a man who’s witnessing “a colossal pain in the ass” in action, and this is his burden. While this episode is, of course, chock-full of those looks, they truly transcend the usual reactions, functioning more as sight gags than anything else. “Night And The Zombie City” uses its quasi-black & white look to play around with the background—whether it’s specific noir moments like Martin showing up at the morgue or Don E’s reaction to Peyton doing karaoke—in ways it simply can’t in standard episodes.

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Also a very specific choice? Despite being a noir episode that would seemingly feature a consistent voiceover, literally every line a private dick like Chisel would have for his internal monologue, Liv says out loud. She’s never not running her mouth or speaking to herself in this episode, which actually works even better in frustrating Clive the way it does and when she and a very drunk Peyton are essentially having two different conversations. The thunderstorm, the near-constant noir score—executed best when it starts up as Liv enters the bar just as Blaine leaves—the fade transitions, and of course, the use of shadows and silhouettes, light and dark. “Night And Zombie City” is another iZombie episode that proves its commitment to chosen genres and one that shows it’s still got some tricks up its sleeve. It also proves that, if you beg Rob Thomas enough times to let you write this episode, it’ll eventually happen.

Early in the episode, I felt like it would’ve been interesting if iZombie had employed this style full-time, only to ultimately feel like it’s for the best it’s only a one-time thing—by the end of the episode, my eyes hurt. Because it’s not quite black & white—it’s just a lot of dimmed light or, at least, color correction to make it seem like dim lights, plus the washed out wardrobe choices—it’s not a look that’s meant to sustain a full season or series or even a full episode. (Compare it to an actual black & white gimmick episode like Felicity’s “Help For The Lovelorn” or Supernatural’s “Monster Movie.” This is more like a lo-fi Sin City.) As far as I could tell, there was only one truly black & white scene in the episode, as the brain food prep transitioned from the washed out colors to full-on black & white during both boiling and cutting:

Screenshot: The CW
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Even without “real” black & white, “Night And The Zombie City” is a visually-fascinating and stimulating episode, making what would surely be normal shots in the show’s regular format seem simply beautiful. In fact, there’s one particular shot that just completely struck me while watching this, an episode designed for nearly all of its shots to strike the audience:

Screenshot: The CW
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I mentioned the most disappointing aspect of the noir element, but the most disappointing moment of the episode as a whole, however, is a relatively small one compared to the rest of the episode’s stories: Darcy and Don E’s make-up scene. Darcy’s initial reaction to Don E calling Bunny’s death a “hassle” is understandable, especially as a person—as a human—who has to look at the fact that her boyfriend isn’t a good guy, even if he’s not as bad as Blaine. The problem, however, is that Darcy’s issue with that moment doesn’t even end up being that—it’s that she’s worried he’ll just not care when she dies. Darcy and Don E are a fun couple of weirdos (and “The Fresh Princess” really highlight that), but Darcy’s down for whatever attitude (because she’s a dying Freylich kid) in all this makes her less of a character (and less of a human) as time goes by and more of just some Don E accessory who doesn’t even function like someone who existed prior to entering this world.

But congratulations to Don E and his teenage bride, I guess.

As for the major plot points, Seattle is thankfully spared from the nuclear option by a change of heart due to the power of Hi, Zombie, General Mills gets into bed with Dolly Durkins, and Martin’s plan is even more on track thanks to Ravi tipping him off about Max Rager. While this episode is greatly driven by the power of its framing device, it’s not a standalone episode; in fact, there are major moves for the larger story.

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Is it believable that Hi, Zombie—as we’ve come to see it—succeeded in changing the mind of even one important person in Washington D.C. about zombies? Not at all. But if we can accept zombies, we can accept this, I suppose. The Hi, Zombie scene could honestly be much worse. I understand that’s faint praise, but as something that was expected after Ravi initially invoked the Will & Grace comparison, the actual scene itself does work. Of course, the actual emotional impact of the vote about the nuclear option is hurt by the fact that a number of the delegates are zombie sleeper agents, not all changed by the power of what is supposedly the best sitcom about Seattle since Frasier… but the point is that at least one person’s mind was changed, and that’s enough.

Of course, General Mills doesn’t take it well, as he’s even more bloodthirsty after the Piesta and the public murder of his zombie daughter as a result. Which leads to him, ironically, joining forces with Dolly Durkins, the one actually responsible for the zombie attack and Sloan’s death. The combination of Mills and Durkins somehow makes both characters even more unpleasant, and it continues the clusterfuck of characters in an impending civil war that still feels way too small for what it is. Washington D.C. is represented by literally one conference room, after all.

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As for the Martin of it all, believing in people isn’t necessarily a character flaw, but Ravi’s believing in Martin right after Liv told him off and learned he created Utopium proves that it might actually be a character flaw for him. Our heroes have to be dumb for Martin’s plan to work, because even not knowing the truth about the character, from a mile away, he’s as fake as his hair. The saving grace is that it does lead them to realize Martin isn’t to be trusted and to investigate, finding Utopium and the Romeros. As for Liv and the original confrontation scene, I’ll praise Rose McIver once again for making the very best out of this material. It’s really hard to get fired up about the scene when we already know how terrible Martin is, and Liv’s barely even scratched the surface on that. But as questionable as the Martin storyline has been, iZombie at least has kept the pace in our heroes learning the truth about him, with no unnecessary, dramatic pushback in believing said truth.

Also good—relatively—is Candy riding off into the sunset with one of the zombie cures. And she does it after rocking out hard to a—foreshadowing?—karaoke (“Karaoke to My Heart”) version of The Go-Go’s “Vacation.” Candy has long deserved a win with the way Blaine treats her, and what better way than to end up with one of his stolen cures on her way out of his life. It’s just a shame this conclusion comes out of nowhere, as Candy rides off with smuggler Bubba, a character who’s been in (including this one) three episodes and only has a brief love at first sight (or so it seems) moment with Candy here before he helps her on this great escape. Just the idea of them having that moment in a previous episode would’ve sold the end result better, but then again, fast love is apparently in the air at Don E Be Goodz.

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On the other hand, how many times can the cure be so close to Ravi yet so far?


Stray observations

  • Ravi: “Clive, you’ll be the perpetually annoyed cop who’s a thorn in Liv’s side. Not much of a stretch, really. And I’ll be the faithful assistant, loyal to a fault but forever destined to be taken for granted. Also not much of a stretch.”
    Clive: “Careful what you wish for.” The only thing that changes in their dynamic in this episode is the presentation of it all. Also, the best part of this moment is just how jazzed Liv is by Ravi’s hyping about the impending experience.
  • I laughed hard at the brain recipe of the week being hard-boiled eggs. Such an easy joke and yet.
  • As I mentioned before, this episode really exists because of the gimmick, because it’s a stretch to buy Chisel actually behaved like this when he was alive (though it explains Clive’s “colossal pain in the ass” comment). There’s a reason the episode doesn’t show a good chunk of his actual personality like it would most other victims. All we get on that front is the vision that shows his fedora and magnifying glass and his trenchcoat for every day of the week. But if Liv didn’t get this specifically over-the-top personality, then we’d never Don E’s confused moment where he has to note it’s only 8 a.m. and she’s drinking liquor.
  • Liv: “She’s in the wind. And Bunny ain’t talking. Corpses are funny that way.”
    Ravi: “Uh… there’s a lot we can deduce from a body. That’s literally our job.”
    Liv: “My job is piecing together who popped this pearl skirt and why.”
    Clive: “Yeah. Mine too.”
    Ravi: “I also aim to solve murders.”
  • I assume Jane’s motive for killing Bunny and Chisel was wanting to make money off the cure, since she was a human. The motive is never actually given for her actions, a point that’s at least played for laughs in her scene with Blaine.
  • Clive: “Go home, get some sleep.”
    Liv: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
    Clive: “You’re already dead.”
    Liv: “We’re all already dead, Clive. We just don’t know it yet.”
    Clive: “...cool.” 1. Clive said the thing! 2. Is Liv’s response basically iZombie’s version of “We are the walking dead?” I am zombie. (Look, it’s been a long night. And things didn’t even turn quasi-black & white for me.)
  • Is Martin actually going to NA meetings?
  • Peyton: “We’re not going dancing, are we?”
    Liv: “We’re going to Don E Be Goodz.”
    Peyton: “Goodz enough!” This episode kind of made up for all the episodes this season without Peyton. We got drunk Peyton, we got drunk Peyton karaoke-ing Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” we got drunk Peyton starting a bar fight. Far more interesting than the possibility of watching Peyton in Washington.
  • iZombie is many things, but a show known for its fight scenes it is not. So as cool as it is at first to see full-on zombie mode Blaine and Olivia clash, almost immediately, it’s a reminder that the series has never really had to have good fight choreography.
  • Bat-swinging Crybaby is shocked Blaine betrayed him and told the cops he killed Jane. You’d think Blaine’s henchmen wouldn’t be surprised at this, but there’s a reason they’re Blaine’s henchmen.
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About the author

LaToya Ferguson

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.