***ATTENTION: As the title of this article implies, we will be delving into SPOILER territory with “In Harm’s Way”: the new episode of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. We urge you to play the game before you read this article. We promise it’s good and if you need proof you can check out our spoiler-free review of Episode One, “All That Remains”. You have been warned.***
One of my ongoing criticisms of The Walking Dead: Season Two – despite my general adoration of the series – has been its overall lack of direction. Each episode seems to end on a random cliffhanger that could lead the audience along a multitude of paths; leaving the player feeling a bit lost in the narrative. This certainly served as the perfect means to expand suspense, but ultimately at the sacrifice of plot cohesion.
At least, that’s how I felt before this season’s powerfully gut-wrenching finale, “No Going Back”. It turns out that there always was a connective tissue between these seemingly disparate story elements – something stronger than Clementine’s coming-of-age tale. Just as The Walking Dead has taken us through Clem’s ascent into adulthood, it has also put on full display Kenny’s descent into madness. It’s a game about how we, as human beings, overcome loss. Every character we’ve met this season has been the victim of deeply personal tragedy. Rebecca saw Alvin beaten to death by Carver. Sarah watched as her father was ravaged by a hoard of walkers. Jane allowed her sister to die, in order to free her from the pain of living in this harsh new world. Everyone has been changed by their collective baggage and the game asks us what our approach would be: do we let it consume us with anger and hatred, as Kenny does; or do we push through the suffering and survive, like Clementine?
The end result is a complicated answer that only leads to more questions, but The Walking Dead continues to prove that it can be as thought-provoking and tear-jerking as any televised drama or major motion picture. This season’s random meandering is not so much a fault in its story, as it is a tribute to the phenomenal world-building of Telltale Games and Robert Kirkman. With nearly all remnants of human society torn asunder, the world is completely unpredictable. Anything can happen; and in this season of The Walking Dead, anything did.
With guns blazing, the episode begins as Arvo’s group of Russian survivors fire away at Luke, Kenny, Mike, Bonnie, and Clem. The scene is harrowing and frantic: Rebecca – having turned into a walker moments before – lies dead on the ground, her baby crying in the middle of the road as Arvo attempts to resuscitate his sister. Clementine wakes to the explosions bursting around her and crawls to grab the baby before it is the victim of a ricocheted bullet. Darting behind a stone wall, she covers for Luke as he attempts to take out one of the assailants, but he is ultimately shot in the leg and forced to retreat. Kenny, in the mean time, does his best to hold off the Russians; each pull of the trigger allowing a small release of the rage that’s boiling inside of him. This isn’t the last time we’ll see his rapidly growing violent streak.
This scene does a wonderful job of keeping the audience on its toes. We have no idea who is going to survive the encounter. In fact, I’d argue that it’s incredibly lucky that most of the group leaves with only wounds. The staging is slightly confusing, because in the last episode the Russian’s had Clem’s friends surrounded. Here, everyone is scattered about the field. How is it that the surrounding force didn’t simply massacre their captives? It’s a nit-picky complaint, but I would’ve liked to have seen the seconds directly after Rebecca’s death.
Out of ammo and with one gun-toting enemy left alive, Kenny struggles to find a clip. Just as all looks lost, the Russian begins bleeding out of his mouth and falls to the ground dead. Jane pulls her knife from the man’s neck. She’s saved them all. She’s back.
I was slightly shocked to see Jane’s face again. Her selfish philosophy had made sense in “Amid the Ruins” – even if my Clementine couldn’t quite submit to the idea – and when she walked out of the watch tower, I assumed she’d left for good. But her attraction to Luke and her almost maternal doting over Clem is more powerful than her individualistic worldview. Her icy exterior begins to melt and Jane gives herself over to being part of a group again – even if it means committing her first genuine murder.
Arvo is the last of the Russians standing, still crushed after the death of his sister. His teary-eyed gaze and mechanical limp is quite sympathetic to the player, but to the survivors of his assault he is still a threat. Kenny lashes out, threatening to kill the young man for his trespasses; but when Arvo reveals that he can lead them to supplies and food, the offer is too tempting to deny. Even Kenny begrudgingly goes along with the plan, though he does get out his aggression by tying up Arvo and sending him on a forced march through the snowy wilderness.
Mike, who has been a mostly empty character up until this point, is particularly adverse to Kenny’s treatment of the new prisoner. To be honest, he has a right to be concerned. Kenny beats Arvo, pushes him, and refuses to take his gun off of his back. The kid is harmless, but gets treated like an amalgamation of all the thing’s that have gone wrong in Kenny’s life.
As the group pauses to give the badly injured Luke some rest, Mike pulls aside their most troubled member to gauge his mental state. Kenny clings to the baby likes it’s the last thing keeping him from shattering into pieces.
Eventually, as the tension dissipates, Clementine meanders over to Kenny to help change the bandage hanging over his bloodied eye. They have a quiet conversation that’s reminiscent of old times and they decide to name the baby Alvin Jr (or “AJ” for short). Kenny even manages to crack a few jokes before wincing at the pain of the antiseptic touching his skin. It’s an intimate reminder of the trust between these two people. They’ve been through so much together and despite Kenny’s brutal outbursts, he still comes across as a caring friend and mentor. With Clementine, he can resurrect parts of his old self, but we’ve heard him apologize before. It’s clear now that Kenny is not going to change. This broken man is all he knows how to be any more.
Finally, after a full day of hiking through the forest, the group stumbles onto an old power station that seems bereft of walkers. They choose to spend the night there, hoping in vain for some kind of peace for once. Starting up a fire, Luke reveals that today would’ve been his birthday and as a result, Bonnie reveals an old bottle of whiskey that she’d been saving for a special occasion. This feels like the first time that the group has been able to unwind all season. There’s no impending attack, no walkers, no imprisonment. They’re just a bunch of battered and bruised friends who shoot the shit about life before the world went to hell. It’s a refreshing sequence and memorable despite its mundanity. The Walking Dead is so good at causing anxiety, that its quiet moments feel as necessary for the player as they are for the survivors. Jokes about teenage sex romps and art history are exactly what we’ve been longing for. Even Kenny and Jane, the most detached members of the group, are persuaded to join the casual conversation.
Despite the action and tragedy of future events, the scene by the fire will probably remain my favorite in “No Going Back”. This is the last time that everything is relatively static and unchanging; the last time that it feels permissible for Clementine to be a kid again. It’s all down hill from here.
The next morning, Arvo leads the group to a riverside house that seems to be unfinished; but more significantly, it lies on the opposite side of a frozen body of water. In order to access what may or may not be hidden inside the shell of a home, everyone will have to cross the frigid ice. Again, Kenny announces his suspicion of the boy. With nowhere left to go, however, the only option is to take the dangerous journey across; danger that is only exacerbated when a group of walkers emerges from the trees.
Slowly, Clementine and her friends begin to make their way across the slick surface. It’s a steady trip for the most part, until a few zombies begin to crash through the ice; causing it to crack. Using the distraction to his advantage, Arvo attempts to dash away from Kenny. Alas, his captor spots the deception and chases after him, causing further stress to the already feeble frozen water.
Luke finds himself at the center of the collapsing ice with only Bonnie and Clementine left to assist him. The walkers surround his position, leaving him in an increasingly hazardous position. Bonnie begs for Clem to help him, hoping that her light weight won’t cause further damage. Luke would rather that she provide cover and take out the remaining walkers so he can free himself.
Hesitantly, Clementine makes a sluggish approach, reaching out towards Luke’s trembling hand. But before she can get a good grip, the ice shatters sending both of them into the open water below. Floating upwards, Clem attempts to break through the thick frost until a river-bound walker grabs her leg, pulling her down. Luke swims to her rescue, wrapping his arm around the creature’s throat; but before he can save them both, he too is grabbed by the leg.
Unfortunately, it’s the leg that was shot by the Russians and he has no way to fight back. Clementine watches as her friend sinks to the bottom, disappearing into the haze of the freezing river. Jane reaches down and removes Clem from the ice, hurrying back to the house. It’s a horrifying turn of events in which both the natural world and the unnatural walkers conspire to commit an atrocity. Luke, an alpha male character if there ever was one, is dead. No amount of preparing or training could have saved him. It’s a roll of the dice that ends the life of one of Clementine’s last major allies. He could’ve bitten the dust in the earlier firefight, but is instead the victim of a bum leg. At the end, he appears to accept his fate. He ceases to struggle and embraces eternity. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the loss any less potent. The quiet night is over and it’s not coming back.
Once inside, Jane places Clementine by the fire in an attempt to keep hypothermia from setting in. Mike and Bonnie set about searching the house for supplies, but Kenny is too enraged to be of any assistance. He blames Arvo for Luke’s death and begins beating him to a bloody pulp. The image is shades of the moment when Carver broke Kenny’s eye socket. It’s vicious and brutal, a monstrous act that demonstrates just how far Kenny is willing to go. He is officially out of control, unable to function amongst the rest of the group.
But we still care for him.
Clementine pleads with her friend to stop his violent outburst and as if he is coming out of a trance, Kenny quits. He stalks outside to vent his anger while Clem gets some much needed rest.
She awakens and finds Mike caring for Arvo’s wounds and feeding his empty stomach. As Kenny’s animosity has grown, Mike’s empathy has grown. In fact, it’s difficult not to sympathize with the young Russian. His family is dead and he’s stuck with a madman who would just as soon kill him as look at him. Telltale does a phenomenal job of earning pity for a character who the audience should rightfully hate. But the tears perpetually welling in his eyes remind us that he is much like Clementine; a kid stuck in a mature world of life-or-death consequences. His actions were cold because he had to be cold to survive. We almost forgive him. As Mike makes his exit, he whispers to himself, “I can’t take this any more,” and that’s foreshadowing if I’ve ever heard it.
Kenny summons Clementine to the front yard of the house where an old pick-up truck lays dormant. Like the boat back in Savannah, this vehicle is the last symbol of hope for the broken man. It’s a way to escape the brutal cold of this death-strewn landscape and end up in the mythical sanctuary of Wellington. Kenny continues to rag on Jane, insisting that she can’t be trusted after leaving the group days ago. But from my perspective, Jane has been more reliable than anyone else: she found a place for Rebecca to have her baby, she saved Kenny from the Russian assault, and she pulled Clem from an icy tomb. Regardless, when Kenny is soft and vulnerable, he makes good arguments and we remember that there is still the shell of a good man deep inside. Unfortunately, just as he regains our trust, he breaks out into another rage; kicking the front of the truck because he can’t get it started.
Clem returns to the relative safety of the inside and finds Jane peering through a window, watching Kenny’s emotional eruption. Caring for AJ, she seems even more maternal than usual – if a little awkward. She points out that Kenny is taking a severe downturn and might soon become a danger to the rest of the group. Clementine agrees, but is ultimately unsure how to handle the situation. She loves Kenny, but can feel herself drifting away.
When Clementine offers to let Jane hold the baby, we get a brief instant of levity. Jane is convinced that AJ will puke on her and like some vision from the future, he does. It’s an adorable, dare I say, familial moment: the kind of silly memory shared between people who truly care for each other.
But before Jane can clean off the baby mess, the truck starts in the background and the group hurries to Kenny’s side; his hair-brained scheme has finally paid off. Suddenly, he has a clean slate. All of the violence, all of the outrage are cleared away as we savor the fact that we can finally get out of this damned state. We have an escape route. But the question quickly becomes: where do we escape to?
Jane argues that the cold is too much to survive and that they should head back to what’s left of Howe’s Hardware Store. Kenny is fixated on continuing north to Wellington. The ensuing verbal brawl is as intense as any of the recent physical conflicts and Clementine decides that it would be best if they make their decision in the morning, when everyone is less exhausted.
Clem and Kenny share one final private conversation in the truck. He pleads for her trust and support, but she isn’t quite sure if Wellington is anything more than a post-apocalyptic legend. The only thing keeping her attracted to the idea is that Christa might be there waiting. Kenny requests that she take the night to think about her decision, but he is as fatalistic as ever. Something is missing from behind his eyes. He’s ready to give up and the only thing keeping him going is his surrogate children, AJ and Clementine.
Early the next morning, Clem wakes up to the sounds of voices and a revving engine. She stumbles outside to find Bonnie, Mike and Arvo loading the truck. Like an echo from the moment they met, Clementine is hardly surprised by Bonnie’s betrayal; and listening to Mike’s earlier conversations made his intentions clear all along. They’re going to leave Kenny, Jane, Clem and AJ behind to find their own selfish way in the world. From a practical point of view, it makes sense: all of the baggage is gone. No madman to calm down. No baby’s cries to draw walkers. But that doesn’t mean it hurts any less. These are the people we’ve been through hell with and they’ve sided with a boy who would’ve killed them if Clem hadn’t intervened. It’s a shocking event that, despite the blatant foreshadowing, is tremendously unexpected.
However, it only gets more devastating when Arvo sharply draws a rifle. Clementine responds in kind, lifting her pistol and pointing at Mike as he approaches to disarm her. He pleads with her to let them go; to let them escape from the bickering of Kenny and Jane. But Clementine is too choked up by the duplicity of their acts. She screams to alert her friends that there are traitors in their midst and as she does, Arvo pulls his trigger. Clem falls to the ground and is knocked out cold by the shock of the bullet entering her body.
We are left wondering, “Is this it?” After all of her trials and tribulations, is Clementine really going to die because of the errant behavior of a sad, deceitful boy? It feels glaringly real for the first few seconds. Nobody could protect her from this horrible fate.
The fade to black lasts for an eternity…and then we hear a familiar voice.
Lee wakes Clementine from a nightmare. She peers up at him with surprised eyes and we begin to wonder if this whole season has been a dream. Sure, that would be a terrible cop-out, but it’s better than the alternative. It means that Lee and Luke and Omid are still alive; that Kenny still has a semblance of his sanity. It seems strange to say that the world is set right once more; but compared to the present, the past – with all its flaws – seems glorious. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that this is merely a memory, a means for Clem to sort out her current circumstances.
Curling up on the small sofa of the RV, Lee and Clementine have a brief conversation about leaving Lily behind after she’s killed Carley. They ponder whether or not it was the right thing to do; but Lee ultimately settles on the fact that when someone becomes dangerous to other people, it’s important to leave them behind. He can’t bring himself to put Clem in harm’s way. This insight is particularly relevant: “Part of growing up is doing what’s best for the people you care about…even if it means hurting someone else.” It’s a key bit wisdom that will become essential during my final choices of the game. Nothing is more human than the tribalism of this thought; but in a world as dangerous as this one, you can only afford to protect those you absolutely trust.
With the truck rumbling around her, Clementine is returned to consciousness by the potent arguing of Kenny and Jane. They’re the last two people she has any faith in, even if they can’t stand each other. By chasing Mike, Bonnie, and Arvo away from the vehicle, they were able to get onto the empty roads and head further north.
Unfortunately, Jane is still not on board with this plan. She has no interest in surviving the cold of the winter when the possibility of finding Wellington seems completely out of reach. Kenny bites back, claiming that Jane can’t be trusted because she’s left them before. AJ is too important to be abandoned by a woman who has a history of self-service; who left her own sister to die. Clementine is barely able to contain her frustration with the combative debate in the front seat. As the attacks get more personal, she tries to scream over her friends, but fails to distract them. She almost died at the hands of Arvo and all Kenny and Jane seem concerned with is one-upping each other’s insults. They’re acting like petulant children; children who could very well kill to prove themselves right.
The argument only ceases when the truck is sent into a tail spin.
Once stopped, they see an old traffic jam ahead and Kenny hopes to be able to siphon some fuel from the old cars. It’s the calm after a horrendous storm. The verbal blows between Kenny and Jane had felt as damaging as the furious punches he laid into Arvo the day before. Clementine hops into the driver’s seat to watch for walkers as Kenny scouts ahead for gas, but Jane has other ideas. She wonders whether they should just leave him.
But Clem is in no mood for further betrayal – they’ll wait this out and hopefully resolve their differences once Kenny returns.
A gun shot rings through the air, rousing a horde of undead. Jane instructs Clementine to put her foot on the gas and though she’s far too young to have driven a car, she does as she’s told. They plow through several walkers before swerving into a ditch along the side of the road. The crash is harsh, but everyone seems to be unharmed…except for the fact that a zombie is wedged in the windshield, grasping for his quarry.
Jane grabs AJ and crawls through the window, urging Clementine to do the same. Clem follows behind, but the snowstorm has taken a turn for the worse and the landscape is barely visible through the haze. She draws her weapon and takes out several walkers as she stumbles through the permafrost, listening intently for AJ’s cries. It’s a truly iconic scene: Clementine, on her own, pushing forward through the wind, the sleet, and the blistering cold – appearing more adult than some of her compatriots. This is not the life that Lee would have wanted for her, but it is the life he trained her for.
She rendezvous with Kenny in an old rest stop, but he seems frantic and frenzied. He needs to know where AJ is. He needs to cling onto the little bit of hope that the small boy provided him. When Jane trudges through the door without the child, Kenny snaps. The girl says nothing, peering down at the floor in shame. Fearing the worst, he dashes back out into the storm and Jane, prepared for this moment, whispers that she’ll finally show Clementine the monster Kenny really is.
Convinced that Jane had purposefully killed AJ to save herself, Kenny pushes Clementine out of the way to get his hands on the woman. There is no hesitation, no question of her innocence. Kenny is going to kill her: an execution for perceived crimes against his family.
Punches fly, bodies are tossed through the air, and eventually all three of them stumble outside. Kenny stabs Jane in the leg with her own knife and she stumbles, knocking Clementine onto her back. Bleeding from her bullet wound, she can barely stand back up; but Clem’s gaze is fixated on a horrible sight. Kenny is on top of Jane with his knife at her throat. Jane is using all of her strength to keep the blade from puncturing her skin.
Someone is going to die. There’s no going back now.
In that instant, my mind was riddled with sadness and heartbreak. I knew Kenny wasn’t going to make it out of this alive. It was going to be my gun that put him out of his misery. I thought about what Lee had said; to protect those we love, we sometimes have to hurt others. But what I was about to do wasn’t going to hurt Kenny; it was going to hurt me.
With all of the mounting tragedies of his past, I couldn’t help but feel pity for the man. Even as he bore down on Jane with murderous force, I knew that it was a result of the multiple holes in his heart that he just hadn’t been able to fill. His rash actions seemed more and more like a desperate cry for help. He was asking to die, but unwilling to make the request directly. Clementine did what Kenny could not: she pulled the trigger.
This was an even harder choice to make than killing Lee in season one. He was on verge of turning into something unnatural. Out of love, Clementine took his life so that she would not have to see him in such a terrifying state. But with Kenny, the decision was not so cut and dry. It relied on the moral interpretation of his recent behavior. As a player, I came to the determination that his rage was just a reflection of his sadness and that the best thing for him would be to return to Duck, Katja, Lee, and Sarita. It was a mercy killing. The whispered bits of dialogue as he lay on the ground, bleeding out, were all the confirmation I needed. “You did the right thing,” he said.
In my heart, I knew that was true.
But crushed by the guilt of killing the last connection to her old life, Clementine is barely mobile. It’s only when she hears AJ’s cries in the distance that she’s able to gather the strength to move. Just a few feet into the snowstorm is an old car and inside is the baby, resting safely on the back seat. It’s a joyous moment to know that he’s still alive, but it also feels as though Kenny’s death was the result of a hateful and perverted lie.
Jane tries to explain herself, but the reasoning is empty and hollow. In her brazen attempt to prove her loyalty to Clementine, she only served to show just how distrustful she really is. In my eyes, Jane is as much of a monster as Kenny. She is too blinded by her feelings to be reliable. Clementine can’t accept her apology; not after what she’s done.
Bridges are burned and Clem comes to the realization that her only hope for survival is to leave behind this part of her life. She holds AJ tight in her arms and walks away from Jane. It’s a starkly depressing, yet empowering moment that serves as a perfect ending to my Clementine’s journey.
I’ve always predicted that Clementine would end Season Two on her own. She was never able to fit in with a group that was capable of selflessness. Everyone was too broken by the past to stick their neck out for her. There were numerous times when she had to be the adult in the room, making decisions and solving problems. But perhaps that’s a deeper symptom of how long this sordid disease has been affecting the human race; corrupting morality and destroying all remnants of civilization. People are too weary to be as good as Lee Everett. His legacy is that Clem at least makes the attempt; but at this point, she is a very different person than the little girl he met in the tree house. Ostensibly, Clementine is the guardian of the most precious symbol of hope anyone in this world could ask for: a child. Now, more than ever, she is Lee.
The Walking Dead: Season Two has been a powerhouse of video game storytelling. “No Going Back” is a perfectly bittersweet finale that pounds the player with heartbreak after heartbreak, but gives them just enough hope to keep them pressing forward. Few games are capable of the complex emotional depth that is evoked in the final moments of this harrowing episode. I laughed, I cried, and I lost a good friend; but I loved every single moment of it.
If this is truly the end of Clementine’s tale, I’d be left completely satiated. But rumors are already swirling surrounding a potential Season Three of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. While I am not at all averse to diving back into this melancholy universe, I do wonder how – with five distinct and separate conclusions – this series could possibly continue with Clem in the lead.
But then again, before its release, many journalists and fans questioned the decision to produce a second season. I’d argue that they ended with a superior product. Telltale has certainly proven itself worthy of our patience and respect. I can’t wait to see what they have up their sleeves.
Series Score: 9/10