The strength of both Telltale’s and Robert Kirkman’s formula for The Walking Dead are becoming weakness through over-saturation. As a result, Thicker Than Water, the fourth, and penultimate, episode of the current series ticks all the right boxes for creating a good slice of Telltale-flavored Walking Dead, but the overly familiar story beats make for a less impactful, yet entertaining, experience.
Our protagonist pair of Javi and Clementine, along with the rest of Javi’s group, are still stuck fast in the makeshift town occupied by the New Frontier group, which is currently surrounded by a horde of the undead. As dangerous as it is outside, the atmosphere inside the town grows more and more toxic as a power struggle threatens to rip the community apart. Javi needs to gather his family and figure a way past the undead, while Clem seeks answers to find her own personal redemption.
With this being the penultimate episode, there’s revelations and resolution alike as personal stories bear fruit, and the troubling outside factors cause characters to confess unspoken feelings in horribly ominous ways. In this regard, Thicker Than Water is an almost perfect Walking Dead episode, delivering the grim reality of the post-apocalyptic world, and showcasing both the brief glimpses of hope and endless despair that encapsulates the way of it.
The episode begins with a more serene flashback to the pre-apocalypse, and a bit more backstory on Javi’s relationship with his brother David. It does a good job of further selling the animosity/love divide between them, reminding you that neither man is perfect, but they are more than the stigma they’ve been stuck with.
Back in the present, the swirling mistrust in the New Frontier and their ideals is causing fresh tension between the brothers whilst also bringing them together in preventing catastrophe of one kind or another (or likely both), but the most startling moment of the opening is that there’s a brief glimpse of the adventure game Telltale used to make as Javi, and the player, must figure out how to break out of prison. It’s the last time we see such a thing though, at least with the same depth, as the rest of the episode is back to the more modern version of the Telltale formula, which is great for some things, if not others. It does at least allow for some much needed character development from some of the less well-defined members of the cast.
Kate, ex of David, and now romantic partner of Javi, gets a touch more to her backstory beyond misunderstood stepmother. It isn’t much, but it does help assuage the guilt felt about the relationship when David was reintroduced and make Javi and Kate feel like something more than a plot device.
David’s son Gabe probably gets the biggest character boost as he strives to prove his worth to both his father, and the group at large, with a predictably rash ‘heart over head’ mantra causing him as much failure as it does success, but this isn’t out of some snot-nosed disdain for authority, rather a sense of burgeoning adult determination and reasoning. It lets you see more than just a trope-fuelled teenager, a boy becoming a man, initially somewhat reluctantly, yet by the middle of this episode, he has a robust confidence to him, even if the results of that confidence aren’t entirely fruitful.
Elsewhere Clementine gets a bit more ‘fill in the blanks’ action, and it remains a heartbreaking dip into a troubled recent past, and even though it starts to feel like you’re learning exactly what kind of person she’s become in those void years, there is just a shred of dark mystery to her that keeps an edge to the character. There’s also an amusingly awkward (this could be deemed awkward in both a good and a bad way) conversation about Clem becoming a woman, with a fumbling Javi clunkily explaining what periods are. It’ll be interesting to see if there is a sting in Clementine’s tale once we get to the finale.
The episode moves a fairly serene pace by Walking Dead standards, yet it’s not entirely a bad thing thanks to the moments of character development. The downside is a villain who feels confused, and a strange jumble of story points that don’t fit together with the people involved or the story at large. By the end though, ‘Thicker Than Water’ swats aside the more questionable writing, plodding pacing, and nonsensical plot to deliver an action-packed finale that doles out some tasty implications for the final episode. It’s nowhere near as emotionally draining as the cliffhanger for the first season’s penultimate episode, but it does provide a glimmer of hope for a solid end point for this story.
The biggest issues facing The Walking Dead in any medium right now is predictability and fatigue with the formula. Combining that with a general apathy for Telltale’s own formula, and no matter how well put-together this series may or may not be, it will ultimately suffer because of this. This is indeed true of ‘Thicker Than Water’, as it feels oh so familiar despite a decent effort being made to tell a good story. Time will tell if the finale at least gives us a satisfying conclusion to a fairly solid season, but perhaps this should be the last if neither formula is willing to make a radical change.