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Here’s the big problem when we talk about freedom: It’s almost never clarified what kind of freedom we’re discussing. If we mean the freedom to say whatever we want without fear of state reprisal, that’s a very different kind than, say, the freedom to live without significant worry we’ll be randomly attacked on the street. Both require a social contract, in which we agree to establish certain rules governing the society in which we live. But if one person wants freedom from constant fear, and another wants complete free will, as in the case of Will and 10k this week, there’s going to be conflict.

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“Little Red And The Wolfz,” despite being an often hushed installment focused on 10k’s journey of survival and escape, is one of the weightier episodes of the series. Any time Murphy was conversing with the corpse of Dr. Merch, or 10k and Will were arguing over what qualities are most important to the world in which they now live, surprisingly heady matters were being discussed, even when they were smuggled in via subtext during the surface-level absurdity of some of Murphy’s comments. The complete lack of music throughout the episode was a bold choice, and paid off by lending gravitas and significance to the entire endeavor. Z Nation doesn’t do serious all that often, but when it does, it deserves credit for going out of its way to try and make that seriousness count.

10k’s journey across the Pacific Northwest landscape—sometimes only one step ahead of Will, other times his captive—was the most significant deep dive into a single character the show has had this season. And 10k, an often thinly sketched member of the group who has spent most of the season unconsciously forced into the job of Murphy’s henchman, needed some quality time. Again, the show is finally beginning to pay some dividends off that lackluster season opener, revealing that 10k is still suffering guilt over losing 5k to the Zs. During his sick and hallucinatory states, he not only sees Red running through the forest, but confronts the painful memory of his inability to save her young ward. She serves as a spirit guide of sorts, steering him away from Will and forcing him to man up and take down the mysterious titular “Wolfz,” who turn out to be soldiers—Zs in wolves’ clothing, if you will. It’s an inner journey that ends with 10k bouncing back from his failure, and embracing the need to fight, even as he knows his more intimate embrace with Red is false. “You know I’m not real, right?” Red says as she cradles him, and 10k admits it. He’s not stupid—he just wanted a moment with her.

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The confrontation between 10k and Will contains layers, as the two grapple with the meaning of freedom, and what has value in this brave new world. “These days, afraid and dead are the same thing,” Will tells him, and that statement reveals the difference in worldview between Murphy’s people and our heroes. Will and his wife were tired of being afraid. Fear ruled their lives, and they were sick of the constant struggle, the sense of futility, that accompanied their every step. Add to that their dying girl, saved by the power of Murphy’s bite, and it becomes clear why they’ve chosen his side.

And that’s what makes this such a great exchange: Will has a point. This isn’t some lunatic, siding with a blue-skinned weirdo just because he’s got a Nightcrawler fetish. He’s genuinely thought about the ramifications of his choice, and in his world, it’s the difference between safety and inevitable death, between comfort and the endless struggle against terror and creeping, murderous hordes. He doesn’t even consider free will to be the cost of his decision, because there’s no need for Murphy to exercise his will upon, well, Will. 10k looks like the crazy one, stealing vital serums and risking more lives just to flee the one person who seems to be doing some good in this world. It’s a good reminder that people often sacrifice freedoms because it makes living in the world a little easier, and depending on your point of view, that’s not a bad thing. It’s why we have The Patriot Act.

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No less soul-searching—though on its surface more facile—is Murphy’s struggle to understand Dr. Merch’s death. He’s trying to puzzle out the reason for her betrayal, and much of his monologue takes the form of the absurdist self-aggrandizement we’ve come to know and enjoy. “What in my name am I supposed to do now?” he muses, embracing his divine status with relish. There’s a lot of good lines like that, but underneath it all is real pathos, the same insecure fears that have always plagued Murphy. Why did she run? He can’t wrap his mind around it, because the most reasonable explanation, as he acknowledges, implies she would rather be dead than be under his control. Or, as he puts it, Merch would rather die than be like him. He can’t separate himself from his physical effect on those whom he bites, so the rejection of his control feels like a rejection of him as a person, and that hurts. After his shouting match with a dead body, the most honest and plaintive question he has is a simple one: “Is there something wrong with me?”

That moment hits hard, because the idea that you’re not right—that you, as a person, are somehow less than others—is one of the most painful charges that can be leveled. And in this case, it’s made all the more difficult by Murphy’s efforts to avoid the obvious fact: Namely, something is very wrong, and it’s getting worse. His choice is ultimately no less self-negating than Merch’s, as he chooses to eat her brains, and gain access to her brilliance, rather than acknowledge he’s losing control of his humanity, and becoming more like a zombie. It may be an understandable choice, but damn, it’s a sad one.

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Stray Observations:

  • Murphy’s paranoid suspicions are absolutely on the money for once: Warren and company are coming to get him, 10k will certainly try to rejoin them, and his people need to prepare for an attack. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you, to cite the old grunge cliché.
  • Again, the direction this week was excellent, despite the continued over-reliance on slow-motion editing. 10k’s journey managed to be gripping and surreal without ever tipping over into hokey or stupid—a rare feat for this kind of “led by a ghost” dream imagery.
  • Speaking of which, kudos for giving him that Rambo-rising-from-the-water moment. 10k so rarely gets to look cool.
  • The Wolfz were ultimately rather dispiriting, in that they turned out to just be soldier Zs. After those animalistic hunting edits, and the piercing cry 10k hears, I was hoping for something a little more imaginative. At least 10k taking them down with that metal bar was badass.
  • Again, I want to credit the writers for giving Murphy such a compelling justification for his behavior. Hearing the one follower tell Murphy his story of being suicidal, and feeling like ol’ blue-skin gave him a new lease on life, was moving, as should be the case in this clash of ideologies.
  • But, of course: “She didn’t deserve you.” “Don’t say that. Everyone deserves me.”

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