In an alternate universe 1999, a police officer stumbles across a subculture of psychopaths involved in an ultraviolent cross country race in cars that run on human blood. Naturally, he joins up.
I’m going to break down and discuss this first episode in great detail, so just be warned that major spoilers will follow. If you want to remain fresh for the pilot, turn away. If not, start your engines.
We open with a special message from Julian Slink, the carnival barker who hosts the races. He shows us a world suffering from drought, food shortage and no oil. The only way out of starving poverty is a secret road race with a $10 million prize at the end. Each car runs on human blood, a cheap alternative to traditional fuel that forces the drivers to become killers.
In the dusty wasteland of the California Territories, a pretty girl in a short skirt leans beneath her cherry red 1967 Chevy Camaro’s open hood. She is Grace, our antiheroine. A yellow sports car zips by and then screeches to a stop. Two bro dudes get out and hassle Grace before she drives off, sucking on her trademark lollipop.
They give chase across desert highways flanked by rocky canyons, until Grace eventually pulls over. She’s out of fuel, and one of the men attempts to force himself on her. While he’s unbuckling his belt, Grace removes the gear shift from her vehicle. It conceals a deadly saber that she stabs her assailant in the crotch with. He is then fed face first into the Camaro’s obscenely gory engine and gobbled up. His shredded clothing is crapped out beneath the vehicle.
Grace then relieves the other dude of his arm to top off the tank before hitting the road.
In poverty-stricken Los Angeles, desperate citizens pay for water from ATM-like machines. Stealing water is a big deal, and the streets are patrolled by the new equivalent of law enforcement, ContraCrime. They are reminiscent of the OCP-sponsored cops in the Robocop films in that a corporation is paying the bills.
They carry powerful stun weapons and a camera/speaker on their uniforms lists crimes as they happen in real-time. Two of them, Arthur Bailey and his partner Chris Carpenter, are tracking water thieves when we meet them. A suspect in custody has odd track marks down his forearms, and it is revealed that he’s been selling his blood for water credits. In exchange for freedom and a jug of precious water, the criminal gives them an address to a mysterious warehouse where the blood buyers might be.
Grace arrives at a Los Angeles warehouse and has her retina scanned by a race employee before being allowed entry. She gazes at a photo of her sister in happier times.
At ContraCrime headquarters, we see a motivational poster with a fist and the hilarious slogan: We Kill Because We Care! ContraCrime!
Bailey wants to investigate the address lead, but Carpenter would rather leave it alone. Their female sergeant has a jar half-filled with the teeth of those unlucky enough to be beaten and arrested by Contra officers. If the jar is filled by the end of the week, she will buy drinks for the department. Bailey is the holdout, as beating up downtrodden citizenry isn’t really his style. He is told to collect 10 teeth or surrender 10 of his own. Police brutality isn’t just common. It’s mandatory!
It turns out Bailey was once a criminal who stole fruit to survive, and a cop who caught him did not turn him in. That mercy spurred Arthur to become a cop himself and try to help citizens. He wants to effect positive change in the city, rather than become the jackbooted trooper of oppression that his superiors want him to be. Carpenter finally agrees to check out the warehouse while a female officer named Aki quietly observes the two men talking.
The cops eventually stumble upon The Blood Drive racers, who look like Mad Max villains, having a wild party involving fire, booze, pounding metal and whole hell of a lot of leather. Grace is there as well, polishing her bloodthirsty ride. The master of ceremonies takes the stage as a hush falls over the crowd. He is Julian Slink (played by the great Colin Cunningham of Falling Skies) and his opening statement of greeting feels like it was aimed at the grindhouse-loving television audience more than the racers:
“Ladies and gentlemen, bastards and tramps, bloodsuckers, motherfuckers, road trash and vamps, to the queers and the strange in the crowd and on the stage, to the violent, the malevolent and those seeking the grave…welcome HOME!”
With his blackened teeth, top hat and feathered suit, Slink cuts quite the memorable and theatrical figure. As he cavorts on stage, bound victims are fed into various automobiles by cheering racers.
Carpenter goes to call for backup while Bailey tries to move in closer to the carnage below.
Julian has each racer injected at the base of the skull with an implant that delivers a lethal electrical pulse should anyone come in last in an event or break one of the rules. Any attempt to remove or otherwise mess around with the implant results in instant death.
Here, we meet our contestants.
There’s hulking leather clad maniac Rib Bone, upscale lady Domi and her partner Cliff, dapper Gentleman and his greasy mechanic the Scholar, crazed metal-toothed whacko Clown Dick, rotund Presley impersonator Fat Elvis, and Grace.
While observing, Arthur is pushed down into the crowd by a thug. He damages Grace’s hood in the fall, and she delivers a couple vicious blows to his head. Slink digs the entertainment of watching these two cause mayhem, so he advises Arthur to play to the crowd’s ceaseless desire for a show. The cop grabs Grace and kisses her passionately while the gathered cretins hoot and holler. Slink has both the heroic police officer and the homicidal bad girl injected with linked implants. Now Arthur has no choice.
He’s in the race.
Chris pops up ahead of the backup he called and tries to control the situation. He gets a glass bottle to the eye and is left in the warehouse as the racers begin the first leg of their journey, which takes them from Los Angeles to Arizona. Arthur immediately tries making a break for it and is stunned by Slink’s implant. Before he can die, Grace forces Arthur back into compliance. She tells him that though the implants can’t be removed, she heard a rumor that adrenaline screws with their effectiveness. He’s all gung-ho to arrest the folks behind the race, but Grace explains that it goes higher up than he knows. And those maniacs back at the warehouse weren’t just shoving screaming victims into their engines to kill them. They were fueling up.
“These cars run on human blood? Why would anyone do that?”
“Have you seen gas prices lately?”
She has a point. Arthur questions her about her motivations for joining the race.
“Everyone has something to prove, trying to claim that primo title. Isn’t that how you found it?”
“No, I’m not like you. I’m a cop. I’m trying to help people.”
“Bullshit. No one makes it to the Blood Drive without a little psycho behind the eyes, pal.”
She shows him the photo of her sister, who she wants to help with the $ 10 million dollar prize, and then hits the accelerator. If they come in last place at any point in the race, the implants will kill them both.
“Yeah? Well, then we have a problem, because as long as I’m alive, no one’s going in your engine.”
Back at ContraCrime HQ, Carpenter’s takes a shower that shuts off when he reaches his water quota, leaving him naked and annoyed. His sergeant shows up and hands him a newly fabricated report that says Chris was knocked out and never saw any vampiric cars or homicidal revelers. Nice cover up! He is taken off duty.
Officer Aki takes Carpenter’s original report out of the trash. She believes his wild story and wants to help, so the pair hunt down the water bandit with the strange marks on his arms. Aki pulls a knife and prepares to cut pieces of the dirty fella off if he doesn’t talk.
On the side of the highway, Blood Drive racer Rib Bone listens to pop music, smokes a cigarette and listens to muffled screams from somewhere behind him.
In the Camaro, Grace goes over the rules of the race. She has reached #3 by the time we join the conversation: No Racer May Deliberately Kill Another. She points to cameras inside the car watching their every move.
They pass Rib Bone, who is feeding a car full of young cheerleaders into his vehicle, a rusty flat-bed tow truck. As he pushes a girl’s sneaker-wearing leg into a woodchipper, the surviving teens watch in horror nearby, bound and gagged. Of course, Arthur can’t let this pass. He forces the Camaro off the road and battles Rib Bone, who attacks him with the severed leg. Grace, carrying her gear shift saber, eventually joins the fray.
In a Los Angeles parking garage, Aki, Carpenter and the water bandit watch a mysterious van pull up. The doors open and homeless men are led out by armed men. Satisfied that this is the place, Carpenter lets the bandit go. The two cops enter a cold, sterile laboratory building. A sign on one door reads Extraction Lab, and they enter.
In a Mercedes-Benz, the Gentleman and the Scholar speed east towards Arizona, listening to classical music. Meanwhile, Grace tosses a spiked cable across the highway as Arthur attempts to free the bound cheerleaders.
The trap flattens tires, stranding the Gentleman and his illustrious colleague. The Scholar hugs the Mercedes and comforts it as if it were a living thing.
“They hurt my baby! It’s alright, I’m here…”
Grace instructs the Gentleman to have his more mechanically inclined partner fix her car and she’ll let them go without maiming them. Though the rules state that drivers can’t kill each other, they don’t provide restrictions to torture and serious injury. He instructs the Scholar to get to work, and then spies the helpless cheerleaders. Upon seeing them, he pulls a sword from inside his cane and moves in to collect “fuel.” We see Rib Bone knocked out nearby.
After Arthur intervenes, the Gentleman promises not to kill the girls. Although the Scholar finishes his work on the Camaro, Grace is suspicious that he rigged her engine to fail.
“The Scholar is infuriatingly detailed when it comes to machines. It’s his obsession. My obsession is good manners. I am the Gentleman, after all. We will keep our word. But if we meet on the road again, well…that’s another matter.”
Having met Rib Bone, the Gentleman and the Scholar in short order, Arthur asks a fair question:
“Is EVERYONE a psychopath?”
Grace and her cop pull away, and the Scholar reveals that he did rig her engine to shut down in a couple of hours. The Gentleman sets about the task of collecting the trapped cheerleader’s fingers and tongues to power the Mercedes without outright killing the girls.
He keeps his promises.
In the Extraction Lab, Carpenter and Aki find bodies being drained of blood while hanging from the ceiling. They bear the same multi-pronged scars as the water bandit. The last gurney is empty and the name Christopher Carpenter is labeled on it, along with the logo for something called Heart Enterprises.
It’s a trap!
Aki reveals that she is an agent of Heart, and tricked him into coming down here to silence his babbling about the Blood Drive race. During a brief scuffle, the female officer is impaled on a pipe. What comes out of her is not blood, but aqua and peach colored chemicals. And given the subtle mechanical whirring sounds as she moves her head, I’m guessing Aki is an android.
As Carpenter turns to flee, his path to freedom is blocked by a second Aki. This one has a different hairstyle and a black vinyl costume. She’s Dominatrix Aki, and she swiftly punches Chris into unconsciousness.
At the Arizona finish line for the first leg of the race, drivers begin to arrive. Fat Elvis drinks, bikers screw and fight. Domi and Cliff arrive. She tosses him the keys and heads into a tent to party. Clown Dick shows two women why he’s called that, complete with a rectangular black censor bar over his wang.
Out on the highway, Grace’s Camaro dies of radiator problems. She plugs a hole with Arthur’s shirt and forces him to urinate into it to restart the engine. Rib Bone and the Gentleman race by them, which means that Grace is now in last place. And last place kills you as the implants activate.
Julian Slink is handed the implant control box at the finish line.
Arthur suggests shorting out the killer implants with a burst of adrenaline. He’s already shirtless, so Grace strips out of her clothes. Using her shirt to tie off the steering wheel, she gives him simple instructions:
“Do me or die.”
As electricity courses through their noggins, they have sex in the passenger seat. Eventually the pair switch positions, with Grace bent over facing the backseat and Arthur behind her. The Camaro’s windshield is blocked by a censor bar as Grace steers with her boot. It works! The implants fail and the Camaro slides across the finish line sideways. As Arthur climbs out of the car, the appreciative crowd cries out: “Fuckin’ cop! Fuckin’ cop!”
In their rather demented eyes, he’s become a hero. If he feels any pride, Grace quickly crushes it with her criticism of his technique.
“Where’d you learn to screw like that, the Boy Scouts?”
Inside the nightmare party that follows, Rib Bone eyes Arthur as he draws a slit across his own throat. Domi gets a lapdance, and Julian approaches. He reveals that the implants have now been recalibrated to kill even with adrenaline surges. To unlock the violent man he sees inside the cop, Slink playfully throws a knife at Bailey. He catches and instantly returns the blade. It punches bloodlessly through Julian’s right palm. He tosses it aside and hands Arthur his business card. It reads:
Julian Slink, Master Of The Stage.
On the back is the Heart logo. Arthur removes the camera/speaker device from his police uniform and examines the back. Made by Heart Enterprises.
We see a brilliant montage: police rifles, the machines that dispense water, candy bars, cigarettes, clocks, toilet paper, the car lighter in Grace’s ride, etc. All Heart products. They are in everything.
Grace shows up with two cold beers, and Arthur vows to help her win. She can keep the money as long as he can arrest the people behind the race. As they drink on it, he notices a familiar logo on his bottle of Prickly Pear Premium Beer.
He spits it out in anger.
With all that plot out of the way, let’s get down to what works.
First off, Julian Slink is awesome. I loved Colin Cunningham’s work as the shady anti hero biker John Pope on “Falling Skies,” and truthfully I didn’t immediately recognize him as the ghoulish ring master Slink. He’s theatrical, droll and I love the black feathers. He’s all about providing entertainment.
We’re left with an interesting dynamic concerning the leads, Alan Ritchson’s Arthur and Christine Ochoa’s Grace. As the race unfolds, will Arthur sink into murderous depravity in the name of keeping the engine running, or will his presence and morality change Grace’s rather cavalier attitude towards grinding up her fellow man?
In the first episode at least, the writers walked a fine line with Grace. Sure, she killed some dudes, but only after attempted rape. Besides the occasional murder, she’s basically a good person. She cares for her sister and saved Arthur’s life from the implant after he leapt out of the car. But it’s important that she not be TOO good, either, or she loses her appealing sharp edges.
The way I see it, she is defined by the world she grew up in. Everyone is thirsty and desperate, poverty is everywhere and the wealthy can afford to move the less fortunate around like game pieces. Living in that circumstance, where you have to take what you need in order to survive, could conceivably produce someone like Grace. She accepts the hellish world and moves through it with her own agenda. If saving her sister means stuffing folks into the hungry engine block every few miles, so be it. Her signature weapon, the gear shift sword, is also very cool.
As a hero, Arthur is out of his depth. He’s surrounded by evil, and if you’re looking for a story where the square jawed male asskicker mows down the baddies while his arm candy girlfriend serves no purpose other than to get rescued and/or laid, you’re mistaken.
The man eating engines are absolutely horrifying, particularly when Grace opens her hood and you see gloppy wet strands of blood and gore slip out. I love the effect of the engines opening up to devour a victim.
The weirder “Blood Drive” gets, the better.
Yes, the series goes for the loud and outrageous Grindhouse aesthetic, so there’s plenty of censored sex and gory violence. It’s definitely not tame television by any means. But when the show moves away from pounding hard rock and flashy car chases and gets truly weird on a character development level, it shows its strength.
As soon as we met the Gentleman and the Scholar, I wanted to know more about them. One is interested in polite manners and etiquette (but has no compunction about mutilating cheerleaders for their blood) and the other has zero social skills and incredible expertise with machines. I liked the Gentleman’s old fashioned driving gloves and his sword cane. And being intrigued by these two racers makes me thirsty to get to know the back stories and quirks of the other competitors. What drove them to enter, beyond the possibility of the cash prize? The depraved racers are a treasure trove to be mined for great character moments and surprising twists.
On that same note of embracing the strange, I loved the revelation that Officer Aki is not only some kind of android, but that there are multiple versions of her. Is the mysterious Heart staffed by entirely androids or aliens? It raises tantalizing possibilities about the endgame of this race.
As a series, “Blood Drive” has much promise. The further it steers away from the conventional explosion packed shoot ‘em up and towards bizarre conspiracies and black humor, the stronger it’ll get.
It definitely seems worth the ride.