When I think about zombies — or I should say, when a zombie show is either meticulously cogent or utterly unconvincing in its depiction of the undead — I often think about their transformation. Whether long or short, the process of losing your humanity and becoming a walking, growling, flesh-eating corpse tends to end with a sudden shift; a moment where the multifaceted human being disappears and a single-minded (zero-minded?) creature takes over — like a light switch being flipped or, as intended, like moving from life to death. There is no choice in the matter. Once bitten or otherwise infected, the bite-e is doomed to their fate. Surrender is the only option.
“Resident Evil,” over its first six episodes, provides plenty of time to dwell on zombie symbolism and verisimilitude. Staring into eyes surrounded by a clear, indented division between actual skin and latex breaks the spell of a fictional horror adventure. So does bad zombie acting, where discrepancies in movement, speed, and ferocity invite further unwanted distractions. (For example, some zombies dive-bomb victims, piercing body armor and skin in a single bite, while others politely move aside when the hero’s only shield is a trashcan lid.)
Building a convincing world isn’t the only clash evident in the Netflix series. Episodes are split into two timelines, one in the apocalyptic “present” of 2036, and the other in 2022, months before the end of the world. Each centers on Jade, played by Ella Balinska as an adult and Tamara Smart as a teenager. In the future, Jade is studying zombies — or “zeroes,” as they’re called here — in the hopes of finding a way to tame them, if not cure them entirely. In the past, she and her sister, Billie (Siena Agudong), move with their father to New Raccoon City, a city-sized campus set up for Umbrella Pharmaceuticals’ employees and their families. Bouncing between the two timelines doesn’t just present mysteries to solve — what caused the zombie outbreak? what happened to Billie? — but also dueling tones and even genres. The future is almost all action, filled with the franchise’s trademark mutant zombie reveals and plenty of gruesome battles. The past is close to a teen soap, where the reveals are prolonged and predictable, and the only fights are emotional. The self-seriousness and gravity of the bleak 2036 timeline (afire with red and yellow images fighting off a pitch-black night) is difficult to sustain next to the half-assed arguments and love stories in the other (which are captured in icy blues and grays, set in the sterile white backdrop of suburbia).
For the majority of the eight-episode first season, “Resident Evil” is a mishmash of ambitions, likely to satisfy very few fans of the franchise (whether they’re fond of the video games, movies, or both). It’s stubbornly split between the human concerns of a world already promised to be obliterated and the undead urgency of a landscape that always prioritizes survival. Rather than tell one story well, it tells two stories poorly, and in a rebuttal to Jade’s quest to housebreak 6 billion zeroes, it’s clear the living and the dead can’t coexist.
But then, like the switch inevitably flipping from down to up, “Resident Evil” surrenders to what it’s become, and utter lunacy prevails. The last two episodes aren’t perfect. They aren’t reasons enough to recommend the series in its entirety, though you could easily watch them without the preceding six hours and still have a damn good time. But what these final two hours do that the others do not is give in: give in to the absurdity of the premise, of the franchise, of the conflicting stories they’ve forced together. The ending is actually fun, in part because “Resident Evil” lets its finest thespian off the leash, but also because it’s forced to serve the story its created, rather than any other ideas of what it should be.
Chaos reigns, and it starts, as so many great things do, with Lance Reddick.
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the review contains spoilers for “Resident Evil” Season 1, including the ending.]
Courtesy of Netflix
Up until the opening of Episode 7, Reddick plays Albert Wesker, Billie and Jade’s father who happens to be the top scientist at Umbrella. Working directly underneath the villainous CEO Evelyn Marcus (Paola Nuñez), Albert has been up to some shady shit. He’s helped cover up a violent outbreak at a plant in Tijuana. He’s injecting himself with his daughters’ blood, and it’s unclear, exactly, how he became a father to begin with. (There’s a convoluted explanation early on involving surrogates and twins that I will not bother to repeat here.) Still, his devotion to his girls is absolute. When Billie breaks into Umbrella, thinking she’ll expose the company for animal testing and gets bitten by a deranged zombie dog instead, Albert covers for her, wiping the security footage and smearing his face in the animal’s blood so everyone thinks he killed the dog, not Jade and Billie.
From there, it seems like only a matter of time until Billie turns into a zombie. While the 2036 story indulges in franchise tradition of parading weird zombies of various species in front of Adult Jade (some new monsters, some classics), showrunner/developer Andrew Dabb stretches out Young Billie’s transformation in order to fit in additional side plots about Jade’s minor crush (on Evelyn’s son) and awkward school outings. (Side note: I absolutely love that “Resident Evil” keeps with the films’ focus on female action stars and even doubles down by revolving around two sisters’ fractured relationship. I just wish that relationship was developed with any level of emotional honesty, rather than relying on hackneyed boy drama to push them apart.) For a while, the series implies Billie died sometime between the first and second timeline, but the way Jade talks around her sister’s fate is more than enough to think she’s still around.
And she is, but I digress. Albert’s big conflict throughout Season 1 is that Evelyn wants to rush a mood-boosting super-drug (lazily named “Joy”) to market, and he doesn’t think it’s ready. Eventually, Albert’s insubordination lands him in an Umbrella holding cell, which is when we meet… Bert, a clone who’s also played by Lance Reddick! Now, before digging into the glory that is Bert, it’s important to understand that up until this point, Reddick has been required to do very little. He’s serious. He’s smart (hence, the glasses). He’s devoted to his daughters. For an actor of Reddick’s range, conveying these characteristics isn’t a stretch, and for those who know what he’s capable of, seeing him hit the same notes for six hours can be frustrating.
Bert lets Reddick play a joyful new song, but to explain Bert, “Resident Evil” has to introduce a full band of Reddicks. To kick off Episode 7, we learn that Albert used to work at a lab in the Arklay Mountains with Bert and Alby. All three are clones of the original Albert Wesker, who made them to conduct secret research on his behalf. The only problem: Umbrella didn’t know about it and when they storm the facility, the original Albert (dressed in head-to-toe leather in a nod to the original video game character) shoots Alby and tries to kill the other two clones, before being forced to flee with his life. That’s when Evelyn finds them, imprisons Bert to do her bidding, and “lets” Albert lead the Umbrella scientists as a “free” man.
Back in 2022, with Albert locked up next to Bert, it doesn’t take long for the series to give in to the undeniable desire of a body swap comedy. Bert has to pretend to be Albert — to be the dad he never got the chance to be — and suddenly he’s at an Olive Garden with Billie and Jade, shouting about breadsticks. “This is my unlimited basket, they need their unlimited basket,” he tells the waiter. “I’m sorry, sir,” she responds. “It’s one per table.” “But… that’s a limit,” he contends, earning a laugh bigger than any monster yet to run across the screen.
Courtesy of Netflix
Seeing Lance Reddick playing multiple characters serves two magnificent functions: First, it gives us more Reddick, and more Reddick is always a good thing. The star of “Corporate,” “The Wire,” “Fringe,” “John Wick,” and, lest we forget, four episodes of “DuckTales” has long shown he’s so much more than whatever role he’s best remembered. He can calibrate his sonorous intonation toward frightful intimidation or humble curiosity with an exacting precision, and he uses it — along with subtle physical alterations — to create assertive and meek versions of Albert. The original Albert is a joy to behold, not because of the nostalgic nod to video game lore, but because Reddick looks like Blade and threatens to cut off Bert’s finger via a “pinky promise.” Reddick makes him gleeful, not the reference.
Second, and arguably more significant, is that Bert’s introduction tips “Resident Evil” over the edge. It’s no longer two shows competing against each other, one a plodding teen drama/origin story and the other a life-or-death thriller. It’s all a comedy. Any solemnity feigned in the future timeline is forever colored by Bert, handcuffed to an SUV, shouting at his attacker, “I don’t like you! You’re not nice to me!” Freed from contradictory directions — “Feel sad! Now feel scared! Ignore that dumb zombie! Forget that plot hole!” — the audience can just laugh along with the silly zombie story. That may not be the desired outcome, but it sure beats feeling nothing at all.
And it arrives just in time. “Resident Evil” is consistent in its attempts to convey substantial scale (be it the physical sets or CGI-monsters that fill them), and the finale refutes its bland title (“Revelations”) by opening up the goofy floodgates. Teen Billie chomps down on her sister’s would-be boyfriend. Evelyn shoots her own son in the face. Adult Billie kidnaps Jade’s daughter. Hordes of zombies are wiped out by drones. And literally towering over the entire episode is a massive mutant alligator, unleashed by the good guys as a last resort and introduced via an amazing dramatic zoom as its virus-tainted eye slides open. The unnamed seabeast justifies its star turn by noshing on zombies, swatting helicopters out of the sky, and even befriending a little girl. A true cutie pie, Aly saves the day, and despite being unjustly rewarded with a fatal blast of missile fire, her MVP status for the final hour is undeniable.
Given the six choppy hours that preceded “Resident Evil’s” rousing two-part ending, it’s hard to trust future seasons will stick with the bananas spirit Season 1 stumbled upon. The two-timeline structure is left intact. We still don’t know exactly when the teen sisters split up, and there’s no guarantee multiple Alberts will return. Jade, having been shot in the stomach, should be dead, but her determined stare at Billie’s escaping helicopter implies she’ll will her way back to life, back to her quest, back to marrying two groups at war with one another. But maybe, just maybe, she’ll give in again. After all, once the transformation is complete, there’s no turning back. Surrender is the only option — and for “Resident Evil,” it’s also the best.
“Resident Evil” Season 1 premiered Thursday, July 14 on Netflix.