In “The Lodge”, episode 7 of Black Summer season 2, young Anna (Zoe Marlett) conducts a long, silent hunt through the hotel where she and her mother are holed up, searching for the source of a sound that’s alarming in the way any unexpected sound might be after a zombie apocalypse.
It turns out to be only a banging door, but the sequence contains a different and unexpected horror when Anna sees her own reflection in a window and screams, silently, in frustration at what the world’s become and what she’s had to become. It’s an immensely powerful moment after the suspenseful trek through the ski lodge that precedes it, and one that captures the almost complete bleakness of Black Summer, a zombie show like no other.
Though loosely linked to Syfy’s Z Nation, which it shares a co-creator (Karl Schaefer) with, Black Summer is far from comedic. Stephen King described the first season as “existential hell in the suburbs, stripped to the bone” (his praise perhaps accounting for much of its success). And now, in its second season, the stripping-back proceeds further as the characters head north into endless snowy terrain, only occasionally interrupted by tiny outposts of human habitation. (It’s not explicit exactly where this all takes place, but the show was filmed in Alberta, and it’s presumably either Canada or a northern state like Wyoming.)
Many zombie shows take place amidst the lovingly imagined remains of densely inhabited areas, but here the emptiness provides a clean slate on which creators and writers Schaefer and John Hyams can construct multiple dramas, unburdened by complex settings or involved back stories for the characters (“I’m somebody else now”, says one of them.)
We know little about the individuals here, just as they mostly know little about each other, and although Anna and her mother Rose (Jaime King)—carry-overs, like several other characters, from season 1—eventually emerge as the focus, it’s not the kind of series where a few obvious stars are guaranteed to be invulnerable good guys.
Not knowing is, indeed, fundamental to the success of Black Summer, but that’s also a likely reason why it just doesn’t work for some viewers. Even more so than in season 1, the structure is choppy and confusing, mirroring the confusion of these people in a collapsed world. The narrative jumps around in time and space, suddenly ignoring apparently significant characters or introducing new ones without explanation, and the division of each episode into short chapters with terse headings (‘Ambush’, ‘Lemons’) only serves to emphasise the fragmentation.
Though a story direction eventually becomes clear, much of Black Summer feels like a series of disconnected incidents suspended in time, adding up to an experience that’s almost stressful for the viewer trying to make sense of it. Having seen season 1 won’t help much, and neither do the ubiquitous woollen hats (and beards on the men).
Thematically, this follows the genre model that’s been familiar since zombies left the plantation and erupted into normal communities in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Black Summer is more concerned with the tensions among human survivors than with the zombies themselves, which provide a source of ever-present threat and a reminder of impermanence rather than a significant plot element.
And, much like AMC’s The Walking Dead, it follows the fortunes of a set of essentially individualist characters who sometimes work together and sometimes against each other. But while it occasionally prompts recollections of the first few episodes of that series, Black Summer has none of TWD’s penchant for grandiose melodrama or apparent concern that we should find its people loveable.
Indeed, though Black Summer does have a kind of narrative arc—the quest for an airfield where flights to safety might possibly be found, fulfilling the same function in season 2, as the refuge of the sports stadium did last season—it’s not really what the show is about. The discontinuities and apparent randomness of what we see and what we don’t see are the point; the old ways of living have gone, and with them, conventional modes of storytelling.
Within this impressionistic jumble is a variety of moods and tones which allows Black Summer to constantly surprise. In episode 4, “Cold War”, for example, there’s virtually no conversational dialogue, but then episode 5’s “White Horse” is full of it. And it’s one of the best of the season, almost entirely focused on an encounter between two men, Braithwaite (Bechir Sylvain) and Spears (Justin Chu Chary), who were acquainted before the zombies and now meet again in the woods.
Even stronger in a different way, though, is the aforementioned episode “The Lodge”, where a dinner scene provides the series’ most open discussion of the characters’ situation—“you can find heaven on earth if you want to, or hell if you choose to” says Boone (Manuel Rodriguez-Saenz)—while the setting’s inevitable echoes of The Shining (1980) reinforce that even in a place of security described by Spears as “heaven”, there’s danger.
In yet another way, meanwhile, episode 8’s “The Plane” is also notable for its exhilarating final pursuit of Mance (Jesse Lipscombe) by the zombies. This is a rare moment where Black Summer pulls out all the action stops, but as in the first season, it’s the many quieter passages that give the more kinetic sequences, the sudden eruptions of violence, and the writer’s ruthless killing of well-established characters, their force.
Direction and cinematography account for much of the immediate impact of Black Summer, too: the contrasts between confined locations and open spaces with big skies that dwarf the small groups of people, the handheld artless chaos, the shots of a house’s frontage that are repeated so often they start to feel threatening, as if even approaching it might bring ill fortune. Alan Puro’s score, which made a fine contribution to the first season, also continues to do so here—especially in “The Lodge” with its sheets of sound like creaks of wind or ghostly wails.
There are also many strong performances; not only from King and Marlett but also from Brenda Robins as an assured, possibly unhinged mother of two adult sons; from Dakota Daulby as one of those sons, seemingly psychotic; from Christine Lee as the Korean woman Sun, isolated even more than the others by her language; from Sylvain and a soft-spoken Chary as Braithwaite and Spears; and from Kumiko Konishi as Rhonda, key to episode 3’s “Card Game”.
For some viewers, the choppy and even bewildering style will be too much to take, while occasional implausibilities may annoy others. For example, at one point it doesn’t seem credible that someone could hide in an occupied house unnoticed for so long; while at another, characters struggling to move a large crate of supplies over a ridge don’t think of unpacking it and refilling it on the other side).
For those prepared to roll with it, however, Black Summer more than compensates—both in compelling individual scenes and in overall effect—for what it lacks in standard zombie-apocalypse tropes. There are no baroquely fantasised biker gangs or cannibal cults here! Instead, Black Summer gives us a haunting and atmospheric sense of disorientation, and an uncomfortable impression of what losing the trappings of civilisation might actually be like: hard, inexplicable, and ever so lonely.
USA | 2021 | 346 MINUTES • 8 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writers: John Hyams, Karl Schaefer, Daniel Schaefer, Sarah Sellman, Abram Cox, Henry G.M Jones & Jen Derwingson-Peacock.
directors: John Hyams & Abram Cox.
starring: Jaime King, Justin Chu Cary, Christine Lee, Zoe Marlett, Bobby Naderi, Manuel Rodriguez-Saenz & Jessie Lipscombe.