Addison Carver won’t give up. You can beat her, dislocate her shoulder, leave her for dead lying facedown in a river, and she will keep trying to fight. There hasn’t been much time spent with Addy this season—so much so, that halfway through the season I briefly wondered if the actor playing her, Anastasia Baranova, had done something to anger the show’s producers—but if “Duel” was an effort to make up for lost time, it succeeded. She’s been a cypher for the past 12 episodes, the character given no emotional beats or moments of growth, meaning she’s essentially on autopilot, periodically piking a Z and tossing out a quip, or being plagued by dental pain. The Addy who began this episode was the same one that ended season two, as far as viewers were aware.

Here, she finally reveals a new layer to that sassy exterior. Addy is a fighter: Since the disaster with the Zona submarine, she’s been developing a steely determination, quietly plowing through situation after situation with a reserved attitude, deciding what’s important, and adjusting her plans accordingly. It took finding Lucy to give her a chance to apply that evolved mindset to the mission, and once it happened, she wasn’t going to let it go. It’s now clear sending Doc off to make contact with Citizen Z while she’s kept up the hunt for Lucy was no random assignation of responsibilities; Addy chose this path because it’s what she does. She sets goals, and then doesn’t stop until they’re accomplished. Even if it costs her life—and frankly, there were a couple of times tonight it should’ve ended like that, unless The Man is a much bigger softie than has been let on. Sure, he’s been very clear that he won’t kill anyone unless they get in his way. But no one got in his way more than Addy. I can only surmise that he’s got a masochistic streak.

“Duel” is one of the most significant episodes in the history of Z Nation, as it potentially reshapes everything we thought we knew about the zombie apocalypse. It starts out as a small beat, but then it sinks in: Lucy is mentally talking with the Zs, and that communication isn’t a one-way street. “She thinks you’re my mom,” Lucy informs Addy, gesturing to the Z with whom the little blue girl is playing patty cake. And with that, nearly three seasons’ worth of information about Zs get reshuffled, and arguably the very worldview that has driven our protagonists changes, too. Zs aren’t just mindless infections possessing human bodies, bereft of consciousness or personality. Somewhere deep within, they still have names, thoughts, and feelings. We’ve assumed for so long there was nothing left of the soul within these creatures, because all evidence indicated as much, and it kept up the tradition of zombies lacking any remaining trace of their former lives that has been a mainstay of almost every iteration of the creatures from pop culture history. But we’ve never had a Lucy before.

It’s understandable Addy would resist accepting this knowledge, because it forces her to reckon with an uncomfortable idea: All the Zs she’s killed were still people, in some distant, remote way. They were capable of thinking and feeling, just not demonstrating those faculties or resisting whatever core programming in the Z virus that forces them to perpetually seek human flesh. Now, along comes a little girl who insists those people are still trapped inside these shambling bodies (“This is Sandra. It’s her real name. And she’s in love with Nick”) and might not want to die. Lucy is aging at a rapid clip—a somewhat awkward moment in this episode confirms she’s hit puberty—and she still thinks like a child much of the time. The world is laid out in obvious ways to her. Some people are really dead, but the Zs are something else, and it baffles her that no one else can understand this. It would be like possessing the only functional nose in a world of people who can’t smell. Combine such a state of affairs with a rebellious adolescence and stubborn child all rolled into one, and Lucy’s penchant for screaming any time things don’t go her way starts to feel more understandable.

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The titular duel between Addy and The Man moves in fits and starts, with action sequences that sometimes feel forced. The overall story is solid, with a clear vision executed by episode writer-director Jennifer Derwingson, who also wrote this season’s high point, “Little Red And The Wolvez.” She successfully conveys the arduous struggle inherent in each of Addy’s confrontations with the season’s best nemesis, and manages to finally spend the necessary time showing how the character has grown into this person willing to grab The Man’s ankle even after he’s just pulled her arm out of its socket. It’s unclear why he lets her live time and again, other than possibly knowing Lucy would be a bigger handful than she already is were he to kill Carver, but the character evolution goes a long way toward alleviating some of the more stagy and clunky scenes. By the time Doc joins Addy in the car, the stage is set for a season ender that brings everyone back together, having changed for the better. Well, Doc is still Doc, but that seems unlikely to shift—and who would want it to?

The third season of Z Nation has endured its share of growing pains. What seemed liked an ambitious and inspired story for the first half quickly sputtered when it became clear the writers didn’t have enough story to sustain the full number of episodes. They can’t return to the one-and-done well any more and expect anything like the payoffs that delivered for the first two seasons, especially not with the entire team separated. Bring everyone back together, and maybe a new mission can continue. But as we turn to the end game, one thing has been established: Addy is better than ever, and Z Nation might never be the same.

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Stray Observations:

  • Big ups to Addy for playing possum after The Man hits her with the gas container in the first fight. The “knocked out with one hit” cliche is a great one to tweak.
  • Again, Lucy has a Z arm pointing the way—this time, a literal arm only.
  • Addy. upon getting a good look at the rapidly-aging Lucy: “Oh, girl, we gotta take you shopping.”
  • That talk between Addy and Lucy in the clothing shop was inspired. From the bra conversation to Lucy’s difficulty accepting what happened to her mother, Derwingson did a hell of a job injecting some actual dialogue into a show that sometimes struggles with believable scenes.
  • The Man really got the short end of the stick, didn’t he? Playing babysitter really brings out the exasperated dork in him. “Don’t eat garbage off the ground!”
  • The Addy-Man fight by the river was the best, almost making up for the weird beats of the other ones. Especially The Man hitting Addy so hard, she flips in the air. Ouch.
  • Z Nation random crazy moment of the week: Doc hallucinating himself and 10k as Doc and Marty from Back To The Future.

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