Zombie media is pervasive, and to many, it has run its course. It’s found a way to lodge itself into the public psyche beginning with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. This series used an outbreak of zombie infection as a backdrop to explore and critique aspects of society Romero saw problems with: racism, consumerism, and martial culture. It was an existential threat that didn’t carry any ideological baggage. It was the violent deconstruction of society and culture that laid human vice and virtue bare. I wouldn’t expect that this is something new. Existential threats to one’s culture have generally served as the backdrop to drama. Perhaps for my own generation, the lack of an existential threat has made it necessary to latch onto Romero’s imagined threat. Now we use it as a backdrop for our own fears and anxieties. We use it as the language to explore our quiet unease with the society around us. Season 2 of Telltale’s Walking Dead uses this language to magnificent effect.
Continue reading if you’re comfortable with spoilers.
We were last left with images of Clementine left to fend for herself. Lee is gone, and there’s no one left that’s close enough to her to provide a foundation for her survival. It was a terrible end to season 1, that pointed to far more dreadful consequences in season 2. Episode 1 made certain that you understood that Telltale was making good on those consequences. She’d lost the last surviving member of her original group, had to fight and kill a dog, and been left for dead by other survivors who thought she could be infected. While ultimately she finds herself part of a new group, there’s still little trust shared with her. And danger still lurked close by.
Episode 2 unveils a fairly significant reason why Clementine is unable to trust her new group. And his name is Carver. For reasons unknown, he inspired fear in this group that led them to abandon a secure home that had supplies. This wasn’t fear at the prospect of being raided by a rival group or by bandits. It was fear based on a history with this man that none were willing to share with Clementine. During their flight from Carver’s group, they happened to stumble across another group where one, presumed dead, member of Clementine’s original group has found refuge: Kenny. He appears to have rebuilt a stable life with his partner and the rest of their group. It’s the first break Clem has received during this season; to find a familiar face that shares a bond with her. It’s not long before Carver catches up though, and threatens to wipe out both groups. And you’re also reminded, even if he is a familiar face, that Kenny is a troubled person.
Episode 3 brings both groups to Carver’s compound where, over the course of the episode, he makes his case to Clementine and the audience that strength and an intolerance for weakness is key to survival and prosperity. It is a key inflection point for the season, where the tone shifts from being about Clementine reacting to threats around her to proactively making decisions to try and create a safer situation. It’s a terrible predicament for Clementine, who is left without people she can truly rely on. Will she do something that could be awful, in order to find safety? By this point, the game has made it clear what Clem’s story arc is going to be, and starts challenging the player to figure out how she fits into it. By the end of the episode, it’s clear just how ruthless Carver is, and how unstable Kenny might be. It’s up to you decide how Clementine should digest these developments.
Episode 4 wastes no time in putting your reasoning to the test. The group is on the brink of being destroyed. You’re also introduced to a new character that might offer Clem some stability: Jane. Contrary to Carver’s philosophy of bending and breaking others to do your bidding in the name of safety, Jane demonstrates to the audience the value in staying disinterested in others in the name of your personal safety. To her, others represent a liability to your safety. Jane takes a personal interest in Clementine in as far as wanting to help guide her in the right direction. Jane puts to words what the player might have recognized earlier in the season: that she’s not able to rely on those in her group. It would appear that Jane is exactly the answer to Clem’s dilemma, but Jane is not ready to take Clem on for fear of losing her later. To complicate things further, another member of the group has a baby, adding a great deal of pressure on the group to achieve safety and security.
By the end of the series, the remaining survivors have been pushed to their limits and are quickly dying, or becoming divided amongst one another. Kenny has a renewed sense of motivation in protecting the orphaned baby, even though his perspective has been warped to the point of seeing it necessary to attack and practivally torment those he sees opposing him. Jane sees Kenny as the primary threat to the group at large, and to Clementine in particular. Jane offers to team up with Clem and then run away together. However, this offer does not extend to the baby. And eventually, Kenny and Jane, the two closest people to Clem, are locked in a conflict that’s going to end in one of them being dead. It’s at this point that the player must guide Clem to decide who must survive the battle. It’s a harrowing sequence that puts more pressure on the audience than Season 1’s climax might have. And there’s no clearly correct answer. Any decision here means hurting someone that cares about you.
In the end, Telltale has made a game about coming up with ways to rationalize your actions. There is a fair bit more deviation in story lines and endings this time around. But when there’s no right answer and all results are bad to one degree or another, the audience must be prepared to have a explanation they can live with going forward. It’s simply a game of course. But you’re enjoyment of the season really rides on your ability to make these decisions in a way that’s consistent with your own moral compass; assuming you’ve managed to become invested in the series and its characters. But after the first season, it’s hard not to be invested. Season 2 doesn’t have Lee, and the dynamic has fundamentally changed with the player being in control of Clementine, but Telltale has risen to the challenge and delivered an experience that’s of the same caliber as the first season. I’ve been able to see three of the game’s endings so far, and each provides a thoughtful and satisfying conclusion based on your decisions. I, myself, spent more time mulling over my choices than I thought would be relevant to the game. I was very surprised when the game matched my level of investment.
It’s difficult to say whether season 2 will capture the same amount of attention and praise that season 1 did. It already raised the bar for downloadable, episodic content. But those who found season 1 to be an engaging and intense experience will not be disappointed by season 2. And you might be surprised by what you find.