By exploring uncharted emotional territory in its examination of human morality, Telltale Games makes the finale to The Walking Dead’s second season feel fresh and compelling.
That comes in spite of a narrative that, with all things said and done, never came together in a wholly satisfying way for me. Some of Season Two’s cast was killed off before they could develop into interesting, indispensable comrades. Others came in and out of the picture with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance, leaving me ever unable to develop strong attachments and discern which characters were worth my emotional investment. Thankfully, “No Going Back” finds stable narrative ground as a conflict between two values that stand as the season’s defining themes–and the two characters who represent them.
Editor’s note: Character portrayal and development factor heavily into this critical analysis of Episode 5. Beware of spoilers, including the names of important characters and discussion of their relationships. The ending of Episode 5 is not discussed; specific details about plot events are not mentioned.
The values are pragmatism and passion, and the characters who trumpet them are Jane and Kenny. Despite joining Clementine’s group a bit late in the game, Jane has been given screen time and thought-provoking conversation worthy of a memorable supporting character. With so much Season One baggage in tow, Kenny didn’t need to earn my investment the same way, but he has. The positively gut-wrenching tragedies he’s endured this season, to say nothing of his time in Lee’s company, have crafted a vivid picture of a broken man who’s hanging onto sanity by a thread. For all his fiery speeches about keeping the group together, finding a safer place, and protecting Rebecca’s baby, you see a mask of sentimentality forming. It becomes difficult to discern what’s authentic and what words are just words. Carver, and the worst monsters of our world, comes to mind: What lies did they tell on the eve of their descent into madness? Are they convincing us of their good intentions–or convincing themselves?
Jane’s infrequent moments of humanity, by contrast, come across as more authentic for how they break through her stone-cold exterior. When she warns Clementine that Kenny could snap at any second, I’m tempted to listen, because she so rarely bothers to express concern for anyone but herself. But even her protestations start to feel hollow in the same way that Kenny’s impassioned directives become difficult to trust. Both carry–perhaps unknowingly–different philosophies about survival, and it’s clear that they’re clashing with more than just the group’s best interests at heart.
But where Episode 4 rather bluntly asked me to pick sides in this conflict and shape Clementine’s survivor identity, Episode 5 was less interested in my position. Decisions that decide the fates of friends aren’t made in a philosophical vacuum. “No Going Back” explores this by staging its finale and outcome on a series of choices, made under vague circumstances, that directly affect characters whose very grip on reality and rational thought are in question. Never have Telltale’s branching decisions demanded such juggling; how could I possibly make the “best” choice in a situation where my history with characters, their mental breakdowns, a wealth of survival philosophies, and the very circumstances of that decision are all vying for attention?
I can’t, but that’s probably the point. There was nowhere near enough time for me to weigh every factor that deserved consideration, nor even enough time to give proper attention to the factors I could manage to wrestle with. Acknowledging the multiplicity of valid arguments and recognizing my all-too-human inability to properly assess them led me to instinct. And, by this point, I’d spent enough time as Clementine to trust that my instincts–her instincts–were a valid response to one of the toughest life-or-death decisions this series has ever presented.
For the first time in The Walking Dead’s history, your decisions yield different endings. Though I can’t speak for any ending but my own, I was satisfied by the results of my wrought instincts. In the end, my conclusion confirmed and cemented the Clementine I had been building all along. The ending, much like The Wolf Among Us’ excellent finale, didn’t invalidate my instincts with an aftermath explaining why they were right or wrong. Moral ambiguity has gifted me the chance to think about my actions after the credits have rolled, and I suspect I’ll still be mulling over what could have happened–and whether I made the right call–for some time.
I also hold Episode 5 in high gameplay regard, as it nails a balance between conversation and frantic action. The latter is used less frequently than ever; in fact, this episode’s action moments are downright rare. But they’re each more gripping for it–you’re never shooting walkers or running from trouble long enough to grow desensitized to it. Other parts of the episode can be boring; only when character drama and development are firing on all cylinders can this altogether less interesting cast hold my undivided attention. Season Two ends on a more contemplative note than its predecessor, and as a whole eschewed clear narrative milestones for non-traditional pacing and a more cerebral plot without obvious villains or progression. With all said and done, this approach worked well enough and certainly helped Season Two feel different than Lee’s journey. But a more nuanced take on morality demands a cast of characters consistent, interesting, and well-developed enough to make this examination worthwhile. I’m not convinced that Carlos, Sarah, Alvin, Rebecca, Luke, Mike, and the rest held up their end of the bargain.
Somewhat glacial pacing and unfocused narrative aside, “No Going Back” is a worthy conclusion to the story of Clementine’s transformation. What’s most special about this season is how difficult the questions become. At the end of all things, we cannot make perfect decisions, but we need to be OK with our imperfection, cling to what we find most important and keep moving forward. In the apocalypse, as in everyday life, this lesson rings true. Season Two’s biggest credit is that it reminds us how to move forward from our own decisions by allowing us to make a plethora of very difficult ones and painting the moral aftermath in shades of grey. That memorable experience is well-worth forgettable characters and frame skips.