In a recent interview, iZombie showrunner Rob Thomas joked “I specialize in shows that sound dumb on paper.” Little wonder, then, that the series’ first season has been such a wild ride in all the best ways: the adventures of Liv Moore as she fights crime and deals with the complications of becoming a zombie have been hilarious, scary, and emotionally wrenching in equal turns. That last quality stands out in particular – for such a seemingly campy and fun premise, the show knows how to keep viewers hooked with vivid emotional drama. Powered by the nuanced performances of Rose McIver and the cast behind her, this past season has been packed with surprisingly raw and affecting moments. Here are some of my personal favorites:
– Lowell’s death. Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of character death, and I can be hard on it as a storytelling decision. There have been many shows where it has struck me as cheap – a crutch for writers when they become bored of certain characters, or want to lean on shock value to get an audience’s attention. That being said: I was genuinely startled by Lowell’s sudden demise, and rather than feeling like it was lazy, I immediately saw how it changed iZombie’s status quo. In previous episodes, the story had established itself as a lighthearted comedy-drama with a mildly suspenseful and ominous plot as its backbone. Lowell showed up several episodes in as a love interest for Liv; as their relationship unfolded, I figured it would become a key feature of the show, possibly turning into a later love triangle with the addition of Major, Liv’s ex-fiancé.
Instead, though, Lowell made a last-ditch heroic effort to take down the primary antagonist, and was murdered as a result. While watching Liv mourn him, I kept waiting on the edge of my seat for him to come back – sure, the zombie genre traditionally has bullets to the head as a permanent means of death, but there must be some kind of loophole! They wouldn’t just kill off the heroine’s current love interest on a sweetly offbeat and cheerful series like this!
And yet: that is exactly what happened. Losing Lowell made me realize how much I’d come to enjoy the character during his five-episode run and how deeply I felt for Liv as she struggled to process what happened to him. It also made me realize I had absolutely no idea where the show was going, and anything at all could happen – not just in terms of who might survive or die, but also in terms of the story’s ambition and scope. Everything changed after this twist, and the emotional intensity immediately kicked into high gear.
– Peyton discovering the truth. Major, major props to Aly Machalka and the writing team. Despite Liv’s roommate receiving a limited amount of screen time during the season, they managed to make Peyton’s character real, authentic, and always fun to watch. Her friendship with Liv had a natural, easy chemistry; you could believe that these two had been friends for years. Peyton saying “you’re my freakin’ heart” in the pilot felt immediately genuine, which is why it hurt so much when she witnessed Liv’s monstrous side during a fight with another zombie. Liv making desperate, halting efforts to explain herself while Peyton stared in shock was probably one of the most painful scenes I’ve ever watched; it’s probably because this series initially started out with such a down-to-earth tone, rather than going immediately for the epic “incoming apocalypse” approach, that its vulnerable moments feel all the more honest and impactful.
How would you explain to a loved one that you’ve turned into a creature right out of a horror movie? How would you deal with hearing that news from someone else? Many fantasy-based shows have dealt with similar revelations at one time or another, but iZombie stands out specifically because McIver and Machalka ground the material in the context of two people who’ve known each other for years suddenly having no idea how to confront a traumatic situation, particularly because it casts one of them in such a horrifyingly different light. Peyton’s sweet, slightly erratic best friend and roommate is suddenly a superhuman creature who eats brains to survive. She thought she knew her better than anyone, and within the scene you see Peyton actively being forced to realize with terrifying immediacy that she can’t begin to understand who or what Liv has become.
And the smartest writing choice in the wake of this reveal? It’s not immediately resolved, with Peyton coming to accept the truth after some contemplation and the girls’ relationship being totally healed, or even simply implied to be well on the way to recovery. We don’t know where Peyton is right now, or how she’ll return next season; in Liv’s complex new world, there are no easy ways out. I am distressed and biting my nails while I wait for the two to fix what’s broken between them, but I’m also glad the writers are playing the earth-shattering nature of this conflict out. It’s one of their strongest emotional threads, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.
– The last ten minutes of the finale, because what in the WORLD. In a whirlwind of game-changing decisions, Liv turns Major without his consent, realizes her mistake and reverses it with the last dose of cure, and then chooses to potentially let her brother Evan die rather than change him. The layers of characterization packed within these moments are impressive, and make the story even richer. Prior to the events of the finale, Liv was always a reasonably moral protagonist, who actively thought about the consequences of her actions and tried to do good. She made the best of an unfair and isolating situation by using her zombie abilities to solve murders, and even though she wanted to kill Blaine for the safety of the innocent humans he hunted, she found herself unable to cross that personal line. Liv was so likable and genuine and heroic that, when I saw her consider turning Major into a zombie without his permission in order to save his life, I assumed she’d allow him to die rather than condemn him to a personally upsetting state of being.
Joke’s on me: while some of the details were similar, the show went in a different direction that was also much more effective and surprising. Despite Liv’s general goodness, her regret over breaking up with Major to protect him has always been one of her vulnerable points, and to see her cross an ethical line because she’s desperate to save his life – and, as we learn, because she recognizes the opportunity for them to be together again – speaks to the flawed and complicated side of the character. She does something deeply questionable that disgusts Major, and, as he points out, her reasons are not entirely selfless. The profound remorse Liv feels is all the more agonizing for how deserved it is: we have grown to love her throughout the season and we sympathize with her, but it’s also clear to see how badly she’s wronged him in her efforts to help.
And then, in accepting she can’t force someone into a frightening existence they may not necessarily want simply because she thinks it’s for the best, Liv decides not to give blood to her brother after he’s mortally wounded in an explosion. She does this despite the personal grief it will cause her and how it will likely destroy her relationship with her mother. While I think the writers undermined their themes in having Liv also cure Major without giving him a choice in the matter, the ending was still extremely powerful and resonant. After dealing with so many upheavals and difficult life changes, our heroine has reached her toughest hurdle yet. It’s one thing to save people; it’s another altogether to sacrifice your own happiness and let someone go because you love and respect them enough to preserve their autonomy.
For a show featuring monsters that have managed to cheat death, the stakes are constantly raised again and again. iZombie is charming and hilarious, but it’s also mastered the delicate balance between humor, suspense, and punch-you-in-the-heart sadness – no small feat in general, but especially when it comes to a 13-episode first season. So far, the series has shown a strong grasp on narrative consequences and emotional fallout, which makes me all the more excited for what season two will bring.