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"Santa Clarita Diet" Season 3: Feel-Good Murder and Feminist Zombies

An empowered zombie woman eating a men's rights activist? It's a gender role reversal for the end times!

Santa Clarita Diet is a typical comedy about flesh-eating zombies who value family time and environmentalism.

In season 3, realtors Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) Hammond continue their struggle to provide a stable home for their teenage daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson) while hiding Sheila's zombie nature. Season 2's explosive climax left high expectations for its follow-up, but showrunner Victor Fresno delivers the strongest season of offbeat humor, campy gore, and surreal ultimatums, all of which test the limits of morality, marriage, and sacrifice.

One of the show's greatest accomplishments is maintaining a consistent balance between absurdity and conflict. Santa Clarita Diet may be a show featuring cannibalism jokes, a talking, decomposing head in a vase, and a feral creature named Mr. Ball Legs, but the world has clearly defined rules that seamlessly fit Sheila hunting humans and Abby's high school environmental club. A non-lethal bite will turn a human into a zombie, so Sheila makes sure to murder and eat all the men she kills; Joel and Sheila can still be good citizens, realtors, and parents if they only murder bad people (they used to target Nazis; now they target the mercenaries sent to kill Sheila and Men's Rights activists); and their determination to give Abby a normal life is an insult to the teenager's strong will, as she ended last season by blowing up a neighborhood fracking site.

But since season 3 opens just one month after Sheila's been turned (by eating bad clams and throwing up Mr. Ball Legs), the Hammonds are still discovering new rules that challenge their sense of security. Armed with the defense mechanisms of sarcasm, witty one-liners, and slapstick physical comedy, they're forced to make a series of bizarre choices that test their emotional bonds with one another. When Sheila realizes that an undead person can only be killed by impalement through the head, her fears of spending eternity alone tests her marriage. But Joel's indecision over letting Sheila bite him is the driving conflict of the season, one that's highlighted by poignant turns in the show's consistently sharp writing. Joel earnestly asks Sheila, "What if love is only possible because life is fleeting? That knowing it's going to end is the reason why people cling to each other?"

The conflict over commitment and vulnerability is mirrored in Abby's indecision over her romantic feelings for her best friend and neighbor, Eric (Skyler Gisondo). Hewson convincingly switches between deadpan sarcasm and impassioned calls to action, while Gisondo brings a mature self-awareness to the typically smart, self-conscious teen. In fact, Hewson and Gisondo's performances as two precocious will-they-or-won't-they teens are impeccable foils to Barrymore and Olyphant's quirky dynamic. Barrymore alternates her onscreen presence between girl-next-door and flesh-eating hunter, which underlines Sheila's untameable devotion to doing what's right for her family–even if that means eating people. Olyphant embodies the wide-eyed and sheltered suburban husband who's also eager to shoot a crossbow at the man who threatens his family.

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The Hammonds' surreal lives push their characters and relationships to extremes, with season 3 culminating in a cliffhanger that could signal victory or more compromise for the family. While Joel is left conscious, it's unclear if he's become undead or possessed by Mr. Ball Legs. Both would only complicate his new membership in the Knights of Serbia, the ancient order dedicated to exterminating the undead. With season 4 of Santa Clarita Diet unconfirmed by Netflix, Fresno told The Hollywood Reporter, "We wanted to leave [the ending] hopefully satisfying if we don't come back but also promising something that could be really interesting to explore if we do come back."

The characters' sole motivation in season 3 is to find a higher purpose for what's happened to their family. As a whole, Santa Clarita Diet frames zombieism as a strange means of self-actualization and self-empowerment–a novel take on an old trope that's weird enough to be cool. Sheila reflects that she was a meek wallflower before she was turned into a powerful zombie; now she looks forward to "feeling incredible every day for forever" and wants to share that with Joel. Similarly, Abby's passion for activism is actually driven by her strong will to protect her newly undead parent. At one point, she confesses her only nightmares are about being powerless to protect her family. As the season goes on, Sheila is outspoken against language that promotes the "mindless zombie" stereotype, Abby resorts to murder for the sake of justice, and Joel and Eric bond over their mutual frustration over feeling like liabilities rather than equals. As they both overcome their cautious natures to support the women they love, Santa Clarita Diet creates the perfect gender role reversals for the end times.

Season 3 mixes gore and feel-good pep talks, cuddling with kill rooms. As Sheila asks Joel and captures the dilemma of our time: "Have you thought any more about accepting my offer of immortality? Act now and I'll throw in a free set of steak knives."

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

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