The Walking Dead: Season Two
360, Android, iOS, Ouya, PC, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One
Whether in print or onscreen, The Walking Dead has always been at its best when demonstrating that the greatest threat to your wellbeing in a zombie-infested world is not the undead, but your fellow survivors. Perhaps that – as well as the desire to adhere to a bimonthly release schedule – explains why Telltale has almost entirely forgone the first five-episode run’s light puzzle elements to focus more heavily on narrative in this sophomore season, with exploration also pruned back. It soon becomes clear that those you consider your allies are, in fact, the most taxing puzzle of all.
Particularly for an 11-year-old. The decision to continue with Clementine’s story, casting her as the lead for the entirety of the season, is a courageous one, not least because it leads to a very different kind of player-protagonist dynamic. As Lee, we made the decisions we considered best for Clementine to help prepare her for the horrifying realities of an apocalyptic world. Now we’re invited to get inside the head of an 11-year-old, a significantly different proposition. Are we thinking like Clem, or attempting to parent her again? Are we doing what she would do, or what we think she should? It raises questions about agency and empathy, but the result might just be a slight emotional distancing; we feel a stage removed from Clem because her situation is so impossible, so unknowable. We were all 11 once, but it wasn’t anything like this.
Initially, however, the new locus works surprisingly well. Season opener All That Remains works hard to differentiate Clem from Lee, and for a time you’re guiding someone who feels truly vulnerable. After so many zombie-slaying power fantasies, it’s unsettling how just one or two walkers can come to represent a real threat. And yet the need to give the player some decisions to make leads to a series of increasingly contrived scenarios where a group of adults relies on a young girl for guidance. Clementine is forced to act as mediator and sent on dangerous lone missions; often she’s treated not just as an equal, but as a surrogate leader. In empowering the player, Telltale also empowers its protagonist, and while it offers the odd reminder of her frailties, Clementine rarely feels as helpless as perhaps she should, however much growing up she’s had to do in such a short space of time.
One key point of differentiation is a stronger sense of forward momentum in the narrative. This is partly a by-product of shorter episode length, and it works both for and against the season as a whole. One result is that the supporting cast is more lightly sketched than before (by the finale, you’ll likely have forgotten two or three names of those who haven’t made it that far), though that also contributes to the sense of unease, the feeling that you can never really get to know anyone – certainly not enough to be able to place absolute trust in them.
As such, there are dramatic moments that don’t always seem to grow organically from the characters, but from the needs of the plot. Sudden emotional outbursts feel forced, a clumsy way to stimulate conflict; people make unlikely, reckless decisions, their behaviour out of character with previous actions. Formerly friendly characters will round on Clem for no good reason, most notably in one late-game volte-face, which wouldn’t make much sense if Clem was an adult, let alone a scared child trying to do the right thing. Telltale’s writers cull minor cast members brutally once they’ve outlived their usefulness, at times for no reason greater than that it’s been too long since the previous shocking death or big emotional set-piece. And there are also moments where it’s clearer than ever that whatever choice you make is not going to be enough to save a life: the Grim Reaper’s scythe hangs more visibly over certain heads than at any point in Season One. And yet, in preventing Clem from getting too close to anyone, this is a more consistently nerve-wracking season, with a stronger focus on human relationships falling apart under strain, on emotional rather than physical violence. As groups are forced together by circumstance, distrust and unease nibbles away at already-frayed psyches, and there’s rarely a moment to relax. The trouble with this is that while the journey might be unpredictable, it leaves you grasping to attach yourself to a single fulfilling narrative arc. Episode four is the weakest to date, finishing on a cliffhanger that aims to match its Season One equivalent for shock value, but can’t come close to its emotional impact.
It’s rescued by an outstanding finale that satisfies on several different levels. There’s the first moment of real warmth, one of this season’s few pauses for thought, and an opportunity to get to know the group. As Clem, you finally feel something close to a sense of belonging, one she hasn’t experienced since Lee. Naturally, it’s the calm before the storm, though this time your decisions have a significant impact on the narrative, rather than choosing between two paths that lead to the same destination. At last, a subplot that has been simmering throughout the season comes to the boil, making it plain what this run has really been about.
And the ‘right’ thing to do seems harder than ever to gauge, particularly in one agonising late-game choice where both paths feel equally regrettable. If it’s less affecting than the heartbreaking climax of the previous arc, it might rattle uncomfortably around your mind for a little longer. An uneven season finishes on a high that just about rescues what came before, and at its best this is every bit as brutal and draining as its forerunner. So long as you’re prepared to be put through the wringer again, The Walking Dead remains one of the most gripping adventures around.