REVIEW: ‘Black Summer’ Season 2 is Zombie Theatre

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Black Summer Season 2

Black Summer Season 2 is a Netflix original zombie horror series. The show was created by Karl Schaefer and John Hyams. Returning cast members include Jaime King, Justin Chu Cary, Zoe Marlett, and Christine Lee, with new additions such as Bobby Naderi entering this new season.

The first series saw a group of survivors fight their way through the opening days of the apocalypse. Rose (King) found her daughter Anna (Marlett) but finds herself separated from fellow group members Sun (Lee) and Julius James/Spears (Cary). All three of them are forced out into the Northern wilderness, the freezing conditions just as deadly as the zombies littered in the forest. They all encounter different groups, all determined to find supplies dropped by a mysterious plane that flies overhead. As the teams converge, all they will find is death.

The series is let down heavily by the structure of the plot within the first half. The cold open and closing scenes are terrific, starting by using an old character to unleash a surprise on the audience. After that is a lengthy chase scene via foot and air. But when the main plot starts, the first episode is a cacophony of chaos and confusion. Multiple stories are happening at the same time after many events have already happened. It is the job of the subsequent episodes to explain what happened and how the characters got into those situations. This takes half of the season to do, and is annoying as there are so many flashbacks and lead up to something that you know has already happened. The story doesn’t move forward for so long, it just plays catch up.

What actually happens within these events is interesting but difficult to maintain concentration over. The second half of the season becomes more linear, but there are frequent moments where the narrative is unstable and time is altered. But it’s easier to cope later in the season, once the audience is aware that the technique is being used. There is a clear destination where all of the various parties will converge, and the motif of the pane serves as a beacon of hope in a bleak landscape.

There are surprises stacked within each and every episode, especially regarding the outcome of many of the character arcs. If this is the final season, then the last episode will serve as a poignant piece of closure.

Black Summer Season 2 feels entirely unique to other zombie series, primarily due to the composition of the scenes and the way they are shot. In many ways, it feels like a stageplay with zombies. Some of the scenes are incredibly long, consisting largely of conversation and tension. One of these, found in episode 9, progresses for close to 20 minutes. For one scene. It is common for the scenes to be single shot, with the camera following the characters like it is handheld.  In car chases, this results in a similar feel to car chases in police documentaries. Or we will follow a person as they move from one floor to the next, whether it be a slow walk or fleeing from the vicious undead. This fluid movement but slow approach feels refreshing and new. Whilst these scenes may go on for too long sometimes, the house style that directors Hyam and Abram Cox utilise makes this series feel different in how it looks.

The rest of the visuals are fantastic. A very large aspect ratio and abundance of wide shots result in a lot of space inside the screen, helpful when showing the vastness of where the characters are and how utterly unforgiving it is. The ability to see more doesn’t ease the nerves of the audience, however, as they are constantly looking to see if there is something fatal hurtling its way towards the characters.

The long scenes and dialogue-heavy chapters are aided by some magnificent performances by many of the cast. The core team is separated early on, facing trials and torment away from help.  Rose and Anna find themselves stuck in a mansion, trapped with two different families with itchy trigger fingers and shot nerves. King is unbelievably brilliant as Rose, having come a long way from the woman we saw in the very first episode. She is brutal and murderous, willing to do the worst things imaginable to keep Anna safe. But these actions begin to affect how her daughter sees her. Marlett’s performance is incredible, subtly breaking down as the season progresses. Very quiet, the weight of all the trauma she has faced is presented subtly and beautifully, building to a stunning and horrifying solo scene.

Julius is injured and left for dead, spending much of the season on his own. This results in some brilliant physical acting from Cary. He is somewhat of an opposite to Rose, as it is his past actions that start to catch up with him, instead of the present actions that Rose is unleashing. When he begins to monologue, the audience can’t help but listen. 

Sun is perhaps the protagonist we see least, and whose arc is the least obvious. She is held prisoner for much of the season by multiple parties. So many of the most violent and intense moments happen near her, leaving her fearing for her life on a near-permanent basis. The most heartbreaking part of her story is that she is unable to communicate with those around her. No one near her can speak Korean, and she can’t speak English. This has left her feeling lost in both seasons, unable to say how she feels or what she wants. 

The new faces within Black Summer Season 2 have a varied impact on the audience. Naderi is a capable antagonist, full of menace and anger. He is a soldier and leads a team of ex-soldiers in search of the plane and the care packages it drops. The things he has been forced to do since the apocalypse have turned him stone-cold, but he does provide people with the opportunity to earn his trust. And Bechir Sylvain joins Julius in the episode “White Horse,” creating what may be the best episode of the entire show. Much of the duration contains just those two, and they perform a fantastic double act. The relationship between Julius and a man who knew him before the apocalypse is funny and tragic at the same time. 

Dakota Daulby, Brenda Robins, and G. Michael Gray play a family that Rose and Anna end up stuck in a large mansion with. Daulby and Robins both act as characters that are wrought with nerves, angry, and ready to shoot in a second. Whilst their performances are impressive and make for an unbearably tense selection of scenes, the chaos of their acting never relents, and keeping that up for the entirety of the episode can result in tiring the audience.

The dialogue is much improved from the last season, coming through in the form of long monologues or intricate conversations. Many of the actors involved have history in the theatre, and that comes across in how the speeches unfold. But Black Summer Season 2 is also comfortable relying on silence too, allowing the excruciating tension to be heightened as much as possible. The fight scenes are extended just as much as any other type of scene, with clever techniques and manoeuvres resulting in high-octane battles. The one issue that occurs on occasion is that the culmination of a long period of suspense is sometimes underwhelming. Either it ends really quickly or not quite fulfilling the potential it had.

There are only a few other small problems with the season. The chapter titles that helped the show switch between characters in the first season continue. Bold white letters on a black background signify a change of scene. Initially very important in the opening episodes of the show as it gave a character name, it ultimately ends up being distracting and breaks immersion. When it just has a character’s name as the heading, such as the penultimate scene of the season, it carries with it more emphasis and power. All of the episodes are now near enough the same length, as opposed to the ever-decreasing run time of season 1.

The soldiers and zombies alike appear to have no peripheral vision whatsoever. Frequently, one of the protagonists will hide inside a room where they will be seen if their enemy just turned their head, yet it never ends up happening. The zombies are a threat but are actually used sporadically in most of the episodes. They exist as an inevitability. If a person goes outside or if they succumb to any injuries then they suddenly become a bigger threat than when they were alive. When a zombie does appear, it is extremely difficult to make their death permanent. These are among the most terrifying zombies within fiction.

Black Summer Season 2 is a fantastic series let down by its early episodes. Feeling more like theatre, the long scenes and emphasis on being slow make a welcome difference from the intense fast-cutting of other shows and movies in this genre. What may turn the audience off is the clunky structure of how the plot unfolds. The characters are phenomenal and big improvements over their presence in the last season. That is an observation that can be made about this entire season; it is much better than the first attempt at this series by Schaefer and Hyams. 

This show is not for everybody as the unorthodox production may not be at a pace they are comfortable with. This is a different and experimental way of telling a story that has been told countless times before, and the filmmakers must be respected for that. 

Black Summer Season 2 is available now on Netflix.

Black Summer Season 2
7/10

TL;DR

This show is not for everybody as the unorthodox production may not be at a pace they are comfortable with. This is a different and experimental way of telling a story that has been told countless times before, and the filmmakers must be respected for that.