Command Z Series Analysis: Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

Kerning's head on a black background with text saying an update is at 16% in Command Z
Command Z/Screenshot

The following contains spoilers for the entirety of Command Z

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

While the basic premise of Command Z is set in its first episode, certain details aren’t filled in until Episode 2. For example, it’s here that we learn that Kerning (Michael Cera) took advantage of the pandemic of 2020 to infiltrate people’s bodies with nanobots. Not through the vaccine, mind you! No, they looked into that, but found it unworkable. They did it through hand sanitizer.

Here, as elsewhere, Command Z manages to be just enough to the side of real life (and real life conspiracy theories) to keep its focus where it belongs: on how absolutely terrible everything is becoming. But the series also does well to continually approach this with humor. Even if there is an unfortunate plausibility to the actions we’re told muckety-mucks undertook moving into the future from 2023, these are always characterized in a way that is just outlandish enough to make us chuckle.

Pryce (Liev Schreiber) in black and white, in a suit and clear rimmed glasses
Command Z/Screenshot

That the team is largely successful in their missions strains plausibility at times, but the dark humor is maintained as we learn they’ve generally only made the world a fraction of a percent better even when they’ve seemed to accomplish something fairly big. The implication is that the extent to which all of the forces of the world of 2023 are conspiring to enshittify everything is almost insurmountable.

I do think it’s of note that Emma (Chloe Radcliffe), Jamie (JJ Maley), and Samuel (Roy Wood Jr.) pass on one of the interventions they’re tasked with. Namely, in Episode 5, “Antisocial Network,” AI Kerning wants them to influence a child who will grow up to invent a powerful VR technology called Oasis. He doesn’t want them to stop the tech from being invented, mind you, he actually seems to want them to work it so that he’ll be able to take control of Oasis down the line. Regardless, they refuse the mission on ethical grounds.

Similarly, when in the final episode of Command Z, “Back for the Future,” Kerning informs the team that their goal is to create intimacy (read: sex) between his 2023 self and Astrid (Laura Seay), Emma and Samuel refuse. It seems as though Emma’s cynicism has been correct all along, and that Kerning is engaging in this project for his personal benefit.

A small dog sits on a man's lap
Command Z/Screenshot

And, indeed, that continues to feel true as Jamie carries out the mission. It seems noteworthy that we don’t get an update on how much better she thereby made the world in light of her success. Rather, an older, now still alive Kerning (Kevin Pollak) arrives to see the team and inform them that because of what Jamie did he gave away 99% of his wealth, didn’t die trying to go to Mars, etc.

We can presume that this made the world somewhat better—maybe he did some of those cool things with cardboard boxes and explored karaoke’s empathy creating powers and so on—but at the same time I think all of this together gives the central question of Command Z, which is perhaps also a critique of our present zeitgeist, depending on how you resolve it.

In short, does it matter if Kerning’s motives were selfish ones if his actions actually bettered humanity? And were our friends right to refuse to undertake missions that felt ethically suspect?

An older Kerning (Kevin Pollak) wears a ball cap and gestures, standing inside of the bunker
Command Z/Screenshot

Of course, the whole setup of Command Z is ethically suspect in itself, insofar as psychically influencing people through a wormhole from the future involves some infringement on their autonomy. But the more interesting question Command Z raises has to do with whether there is any solace in some notion of ethical purity when the fate of the world is at stake.

It’s a running gag that Samuel wants to just kill people, and given how awful the people are under consideration, we can probably relate to that desire. If anything feels persuasive in discouraging the idea, it’s the thought of unforeseen butterfly effects more than a sense of moral propriety.

AI Kerning, with strange eyes, with Emma, Samuel and Jamie in the foreground in their blue suits
Command Z/Screenshot

If we’re supposed to take a lesson with us to the real world—as I think it’s clear we are—it would seem to be that we should focus on doing what we can to make things better, or at least less awful, without getting hung up on the purity of our souls.

Everything the team does merely nudges the world towards being slightly less awful, but maybe slightly less awful is the best we can do at this point. Kerning is a bit of a sleaze, along with the other bigwigs we meet over the course of the series, but maybe we can find and seize on opportunities to make evil people slightly less evil if we’re willing to compromise ourselves a little.

I don’t know if I fully endorse that message, to be clear, but it’s definitely worth considering. So, too, is nuclear energy, if it might serve as a bridge to a greener future.

Large white text on screen reads 2023 Monday July 17 as Emma enters a brightly lit cafe
Command Z/Screenshot

Command Z ends with the revelation that Jamie, Samuel, and Emma are actually from 2023, and they reintegrate into this timeline. It would be easy to suspect that what they did over the course of the series didn’t really happen, particularly with the dryer, psychedelic liquid and music from Mahogany of it all. I think that’s what the final moment between Emma and Samuel keys into—the pair remembering their time together, which perhaps they’d grown to question.

Each episode of Command Z (except for the last one) ends with a cheeky list of recommendations of sources for further information on the topic at hand. To learn more about time travel, you should watch The Terminator, Brother Future, and Run Lola Run. To learn more about climate change, watch Solylent Green, The Day After Tomorrow, and Ice Age: The Meltdown. To learn more about Wall Street, watch Wall Street, American Psycho, and Hustlers. To learn more about dogs, watch Snoopy Come Home, Turner & Hooch, and Hotel for Dogs. To learn more about social media, watch The Social Network, Ingrid Goes West, and Die Influencers Die! To learn more about nuclear energy, watch The China Syndrome, Chernobyl, and Atomic Hope. For more information on God, watch The Ten Commandments, Oh God! You Devil, and Evan Almighty.

In many ways, this is my favorite part of Command Z. I thoroughly reject the notion that we have to approach important topics in the mode of seriousness. It’s “serious people” who are doing all of the despicable things outlined over the course of the series. We should refuse to take them seriously, or to let them suck us into their perspective. We don’t have to in order to change things, and if anything doing so inhibits our capacity to do so. Plus, we get a nice series of movie recommendations.

If you haven’t checked out Command Z yet, you can find it at, which also includes some resources for taking action on the climate.

For more information on Steven Soderbergh, watch Schizopolis, Traffic, and High Flying Bird.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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