Photo by: Frank Schaefer/Syfy

What makes a good cliffhanger? Stories must earn the ability to make viewers wait to find out the conclusion to a narrative arc. It requires wrapping up previous plot threads, in order to focus attention on a single event, something that organically builds from the previous rising action to deliver a startling conclusion, one that teases a definitive answer while leaving the details unclear. Say what you will about The Walking Dead’s irritating summer-long wait to learn which character its big new villain had beaten to death (and there’s a lot to say about how the show got that wrong), at least the basic contours of what transpired were outlined. Someone was beaten to death—we just didn’t know who. It’s cheap manipulative storytelling, but at the bare minimum, it wasn’t a narrative muddle. We knew what went down. For an even better example, see the end of Sherlock season two.

It’s almost too perfect an analogy that in the world of Z Nation an ostensible cliffhanger turns out to be a third of its cast literally falling off a cliff, an ideal representation of how the series takes an already dicey tactic and just botches it completely. This entire season was built upon the premise of the mysterious Zona group lurking in the background while the actual plot followed Murphy’s attempt to build a new society out of his human/Z blends. Then, the penultimate episode abruptly dispensed with the entire Murphy-vs.-Warren showdown to take on the greater problem of The Man kidnapping Lucy to deliver her to Zona. It was putting one knot of plotlines on hold in order to address another, potentially more intriguing one. Instead, the show screwed up both, failing to provide even a modicum of narrative explanation for making its audience sit around for another year as it waits to find out what the hell happened.

There aren’t even clear stakes. Addy, The Man, and Lucy all going over the side of Mount Casey was followed promptly by 5k, his homemade wings presumably implying a form of deus ex machina rescue for at least one of the others, as out-of-nowhere and unjustified as an alien-level Zona aircraft appearing from nowhere to charge and fire its space-age pulse weapons. But again, there’s no rhyme or reason to this. Tricks to keep an audience watching should always be part of a guarantee that the cheap ploy isn’t at the cost of the story. But here, the story just stops dead in its tracks, the equivalent of a writer’s room throwing up its metaphorical hands and saying, “Ah, whatever, we’ll figure it out next year.” There’s no minimal payoff to sticking with all of season three, the way Lost would provide clear indications of what happened before dropping another season-ending tease for the following arc. (And no, finding out Murphy has technically been dead this whole time doesn’t count, especially since the idea no one would notice his lack of a heartbeat for the past three seasons is fucking idiotic, unless their version of “dead” involves some tortured workaround.) Without some notion of a self-contained story, the idea of a television season loses all meaning, and transforms into a self-indulgent soap opera, only without the assurance you can tune in Monday and find out what happened.

What makes ”Everybody Dies In The End” so frustrating is that it seemed to be building toward a satisfying conclusion. Getting the coordinates for Mount Casey from Kaya (sorry, “Kaya-in-the-sky-a”), Doc and Addy rejoining the others, the confrontation with Zona’s soldiers watching their immunity slowly fade away—it all worked in service of finally getting somewhere with what’s been almost an entire season of table setting. The reintroduction of Lucy and her rapidly aging body was a smart way for the show to cease needing Murphy to function as the sole pivot point for the series’ plot. Suddenly, humanity could have a new savior, one who allowed Murphy, The Man, and others to grow as characters around her, lending depth and moral shading to their motivations. And the growing protective relationship between Murphy’s daughter and her abductor allowed us to see why people would place their faith in a group like Zona in the first place; when Lucy pleads for no one else to die, that she can’t stomach further violence and loss, The Man gently assures her, “That’s exactly the point.” He’s genuinely doing what he thinks is the greater good—society has failed, so maybe a group of elites can succeed where the rest of the world couldn’t.

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And Zona’s soldiers are testament to the kidnapping plan. With their creepy blue eyes and desperate demeanor, they stand as living embodiments of the organization’s frantic need for that magical Murphy blood. When the strike team lands, cuffing Doc and Grandpa Z before being turned into Zs the moment they enter the compound, it seems like Zona’s powers are far beyond the ability of our heroes to contest. But Doc and Grandpa manage to make short work of the team leader who stays with them, a nice hero moment for Doc prior to the ridiculous laser-beam ship that may or may not have blasted everyone after the screen cut to black. The mysterious group was the biggest tease of the season, a promising McGuffin that was never effectively utilized or explored in any meaningful way after that great opening menace with the Aryan model types in the remote poolside property.

There wasn’t enough time to service everyone’s character arcs this episode, which is fine, but they were set aside in favor of some action that wavered between fun and stupid (a.k.a. the Z Nation Maginot line). Warren and her group served a functional purpose, getting to Mount Casey and getting in a few solid action beats. It didn’t last long, but the mountaintop fight between Murphy, Warren, and The Man was well choreographed and thrilling, especially the decision to have The Man shoot Murphy, only for the bullet to pass through him and strike Warren. There’s been so much mucking about with blood, pathogens, and which does what to whom this year, getting the team’s biggest badass infected by the very blood that has been the focus of her mission lends renewed stakes to Warren’s mission. She’ll now be in the strange position of relying on someone other than herself.

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All that blood and injection nonsense came to a head in the body of poor 10k. Every time Sun Mei made a comment about everything he’s been shot up with in recent weeks, it came across like the writers’ apologia for reducing him to a confused, shambling mess of a character. By the start of ”Everybody Dies,” it was no longer clear if he was in control of himself, or a half-pawn of Murphy’s, or some other bizarre combination of misguided intentions. His death and resurrection was as much a chance to hit the reset button as it was a way to goose the finale with some life and death stakes. The return of Red and 5k was nice, if incidental, and provided 10k with some additional character drive in seeing this mission through. (We never really got to know them well enough to care one way or the other, but they make 10k happy, so fair enough.) The scene was a clearing of his muddled persona, epitomized by his first back-to-life line to Murphy, “You are not my savior,” And it provided a welcome counterpoint to the bananas decision to make Addy into a world-class free climber, the fail-and-try-again determination of last episode replaced by an inexplicable mountain climbing superpower. Must be that wildly constraining outfit that restricts movement that’s making her so skilled.

But even Addy’s transformation into Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger (there’s that word again) looks reasonable compared to the inexplicable decision to end season three with nothing resolved, save 10k as a coherent character. Rather than any sort of satisfying version of a “what happened?” tease, the show just throws a few people off the edge of a cliff, and then introduces a comically advanced ship, one that even the faux-alien spacecraft of the “Rozwell” episode would look askance at. It’s less a cliffhanger than a non-ending, and a bummer of a way for the show to end a season that made great strides toward a more engaging, complex, and—dare I say it—mature style of storytelling. There will always be room for the ridiculous in Z Nation; looking ahead to next year, let’s hope it also nails down the serious.

UPDATE: As I mention in the last paragraph, I thought the appearance of the spacecraft wasn’t really justified, despite the prior introduction of such technology in “Rozwell.” But Z Nation co-creator Craig Engler has now said in a tweet that was precisely the intention. I’ll be going back to that episode to see if there’s some buried teases of a stronger connection I may have missed before.

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Stray Observations:

  • Lucy’s ability to communicate with Zs long distance has progressed to full-on geo-locating telepathy. Or, as Doc puts it, “Apocalyptic GPS. Far out.”
  • The strike team’s interrogation of Doc was harrowing, a well-executed little scene that actually felt tense.
  • Lucy, not being able to control the Zs in the mountain: “He wasn’t a friend!” There was no addressing the bombshell from last week about Zs still being people deep down inside. Guess Addy was too busy scaling Mt. Casey to talk about that.
  • Grandpa Z was a silly but enjoyable part of this episode.
  • More importantly, Warren and 10k’s reunion finally felt earned after he was brought back. It was a fleeting moment, but her kissing his forehead was a nice way to show that Warren has come back from the brink of her “everyone is expendable” attitude and returned to caring about her people.
  • Honestly, speaking as someone who’s a big fan of cliffhanger endings, that was one of the weakest and least-earned I’ve seen in recent memory, a real disappointment to an uneven but fascinating season.
  • Thanks, everyone, for joining in. I’ll be happy to continue the Z Nation conversation on Twitter, and with luck (and a little Z weed), I’ll see you back here for season four.

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