Apocalypse Regained: How Telltale Saved Season Two of The Walking Dead

Spoiler Alert: This post discusses the plot of Season Two of Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead, include the endings in the season finale.

The Walking Dead Season 2

In a pair of previous posts, I explain why Season One of The Walking Dead was brilliant and most of Season Two (as well as The Wolf Among Us) was relatively weak. Here, I’ll discuss how Season Two started out alright, and then, more importantly, how it saved itself at the end after losing its way.

When Season Two came out, I was excited to continue the interactive story from Season One and 400 Days. And the first episode of Season Two did a good job setting the stage, presenting the player and Clementine with hard scenarios, painful growth, and one or two awkward, imperfect choices that increased my anticipation for Episode Two. My disappointment with most of the middle of Season Two (and with The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s other release in the meantime) got me to the low point, however, where—in sharp contrast to my acute anticipation of S1:E5 after the cliffhanger ending of S1:E4—I finished Episode Four of Season Two feeling frustrated, disappointed, and pessimistic about the end of the season and Telltale’s future in general.

Happily, after an extremely lackluster opening, S2:E5 regained its footing and turned into a Telltale episode on par with Season One. The middle of the episode presented a tactical decision about saving Luke that made me feel terribly guilty and upset over my failure to make things work. (Later research showed that it was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario, but in this case, I feel Telltale’s ability to unsettle me wins out over the fact that they did it by tricking me). I later felt embarrassed and angry about having stood up for a character (Arvo) who turned out to be a thoroughly terrible human being (an even more extreme version of how I felt about the Lilly debacle in Season One).

The lead-up to the game’s finale (frustratingly written as it sometimes was in order to get the characters to the plot crossroads the designers wanted) filled me with creeping dread as I realized the choice I was going to have to make. Even so, when I realized how the choice was going to be presented, I was horrified by the terrible options at hand. I made a choice that I hated but felt—and still feel—was right: I shot Kenny to keep him from killing Jane. Kenny’s acceptance of this felt a little too neat in retrospect, but in the moment I was simply grateful for being partially absolved of the terrible thing I’d had Clementine do. I felt satisfied with the hard edges and imperfect outcomes of my final series of choices, and I felt that the dialogue was written well enough that though some of the scenario was clearly plot- rather than character-driven, I could still come up with character motivations that made sense both with what happened and with who I knew Jane, Clem, and Kenny to be. I felt the loss of what could have been with Clem and Kenny terribly, but I still believed that I had been right to save, and go with, Jane (and to help the family afterward).

But, and this is where I feel that Telltale finally regained the greatness that made the first game so affecting, I could completely understand why statistics showed players almost evenly divided amongst the game’s five starkly different endings. The most common ending (as of 8/29/14, four days after release) of Clem + Jane + family has 36.8%, and the least common, Clem + Jane without the family, has 10.4%, with the other three between 13 and 23% each. Aside from the “Clem and Jane rebuff the family” ending, there’s not a permutation that I wouldn’t be tempted to take, and I think all of them work dramatically (some bad dialogue flow in a couple of the options—especially when leaving Kenny to set out on your own—notwithstanding). Having watched all the endings, I didn’t regret my own decision so much as grieve for the loss of bits of happiness and redemption only available in others. I badly wanted to see Kenny redeemed, as he is in the Clem-goes-to-Wellington ending. Or to see hope on the horizon and a more functional Clem-Kenny relationship, in the ending where they stick together but there’s hope for acceptance into Wellington later on. But I think it’s right that this redemption can’t be clean—that it can only come at the cost of looking away as Kenny kills Jane in a preventable murder. No ending lets you have it all, because these people are imperfect and they live in a horrifying world. Being forced to accept that and make choices anyway, while wishing it were otherwise, is Telltale’s narrative achievement at its best. Since playing Episode Five three days ago, I’ve found myself brooding often on the pain of having to kill Kenny after having gone through so much with him over two seasons, but I’m still glad I didn’t just look away. Kenny gets better in the Clem-Kenny endings, but at the climax, he was once again acting with impulsive, selfish, violent rage, while Jane’s idiotic plan was at least dedicated to creating a better situation for Clem.

The endings of Episode Five work well, and they give me hope for Telltale’s future. This is because they finally demonstrate a willingness to provide strongly divergent narrative paths rather than constantly bottlenecking things again so the next season can keep going along one basic path. I care a lot about Clementine, as I did Lee, but I think she’ll be in Season Three only peripherally, if at all—and I think that’s a good thing. The power of Telltale’s narrative focus is on giving player choices meaning, and part of that possibility space must involve meaningfully divergent endings. They got that right with Season Two, even if much of what got us there was stumbling and unaffecting. Like episodic TV, there’s a strong incentive for writers to not do anything drastic to main characters in a plot so the show can go on forever. In avoiding the temptation of riding the Clementine story until they’d squeezed the last penny out of it, Telltale instead rewarded us with a painful, thought-provoking season finale—determined by our choices—that makes me, at least, want to stay aboard for Season Three, whomever it may be about.

Written By: Brandon Perton