The lights are on
We've reached the middling point of the second season of The Walking Dead with "In Harm's Way". Clem's misadventures with the latest band of survivors have proven that a story focusing around the young girl has managed to become more than a simple gimmick or lackluster journey, thanks to great writing. Certain issues however, have begun to arise, latently hinted at in the second episode, stretching the season's storytelling limits with the introduction of a formidable antagonist in Carver.
The stakes are high, both for the second season of Telltale's The Walking Dead adaptation, and for the dilemma that Clementine and her crew are placed within. The third episode raises the stakes even higher, but can it and by extension this season keep the momentum without sacrificing emotional payoff? While it hasn't quite resolved one nagging problem I'm beginning to have with this season, Telltale has shown that they still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to keep us motivated. Given the episodic nature of the series, a few minor spoilers about previous episodes will be present in this review; this review is written with the expectation that those reading have played the first two.
Things have never been easy for Clementine. Being separated from Christa and on her own in the middle of the zombie apocalypse has proven to be a harrowing experience with dark moments Telltale has not shied away from exploring in spite of her youth. She's been maimed by rabid dogs, assaulted by scavengers, locked up in sheds with the threat of dying, and even forced to steal medical supplies to patch up her wounds. It comes as no surprise then, that the relationship she currently has with the newest cast has been a somewhat strained one.
While the new cast is colorful and initially seemed promising, they haven't quite differentiated themselves from being stock analogs for characters from the first season, and in most cases bonding with them has been difficult, especially Rebecca. The second episode, with the surprise return of a season one survivor and the introduction of a fascinating villain, proved that Clem's adventures wouldn't succumb to sequel-itis. What's most important is that we've seen the effects of her relationship with her mentor Lee reflected in some of the ways she's responded, and that sense of growth continues with "In Harm's Way".
The second episode ended with the group essentially forced by Carver to rejoin his "family" in one of the series' best climaxes so far, and the third episode begins with them on the journey back to his compound. We finally begin to witness just how deeply the first season's previous survivor has changed since the two were separated in the fifth episode; the power struggle between the two parties for Clem's loyalty - only alluded at initially in "A House Divided" - resurfaces with unsurprising frankness. This makes for a narrative-heavy episode that's light on exploration and feels substantially contained in comparison to the previous ones, probably due to a new director. It's also the most introspective of the episodes thus far, and with some of the choices players will be making, possibly the most impactful.
One of the key strengths of this series continues to manifest in the choices players are forced to make, without the luxury and freedom that comes in typical conversations due to Telltale's trademarked timed meter. The things that Clem says or does are remembered by the game and as a result, the characters she interacts with. Given that this episode in essence is a meditation on who Clem is as the player interprets her, quite a few of these decisions will establish just what we wish Clem to be, whether it's debating whether she agrees or not with Carver's cutthroat philosophy for survival, or whom she can trust when tough decisions - sometimes life-threatening- have to be made.
There's a level of player control also taken from the narrative, with the inevitable fact that some of the choices you do make in this case will not prevent or alter certain events from happening. Some may see this as deceptive and limiting, but it successfully foreshadows the same dilemma that Clementine and co. will inevitably face while imprisoned in Carver's compound. The sense of powerlessness, even when trying to do the "right" thing, such as taking the blame for mistakes other characters have made, only adds to the tension and sense of fragility Clementine and her fellow survivors are placed within.
Aside from exploring the compound - walking from point A to B - where Carver essentially holds them captive, you'll meet a few new characters. A few players will notice those we met in 400 Days finally making a cameo appearance, but Bonnie remains the only one with any seeming importance thus far. A significant portion of this episode consists of Clem interacting with the brainwashed denizens of Carver's "family", although Carver once again steals the show in virtually every scene he's present in through a powerful performance by Madsen, notably in several brutal scenes and a more personal interaction with Clem. There's very little action, and with many of the scenes being heavily scripted, the episode lacks the sense of agency we'd normally expect.
Ultimately, most of this episode's power comes from the personal interactions Clementine has with Carver, since most of the characters remain uninspired. Luke's still a sappy boy scout that I have a hard time seeing as a "leader"; Sarita's practically another Katjaa, albeit with less backbone; Rebecca's still a relatively underdeveloped stand-in for a Maury Povich episode with a backstory with Carver that continues to be wasted. Carver, on the other hand, has the elements of a B-movie villain, yet with a greater sense of identity. He's characteristically ruthless and at the same time charismatic, with an unflinching moral code so detached from the complications of empathy that some might find themselves agreeing with him due to how well it suits the bleakness of the reality in which Clementine lives. When he tells Clem that she's more like him than she'd acknowledge, there's a hidden kernel of truth based entirely on the choices we've made through her.
Nonetheless, the game makes no mistakes in establishing Carver as a villain in spite of all the merits his views seem to have. As the episode progressed, the very atmosphere of Carver's compound seemed just as dangerous as the open world, filled with people just as likely to kill Clem at a moment's notice as the zombies literally clawing at them from the meager barriers set up around the compound. The methods he uses to enforce his doctrine nonetheless, add another layer of grittiness to an already tenuous situation.
Special references - including a very ingenious one players will catch later in the episode - translate the narrative's emotional impact from Lee's history in effective and nuanced ways, especially in the relationship you continue to build with Sarah, a poignant foil for who Clem would've been without his guidance. Standout performances from Hutchinson continue to imbue Clementine with an impressive depth and growth that shows she understands who her character is, a note most of the cast can take from her; only one new survivor manages to stand out. However, there are a few problems that continue to bother me about this episode, and to a greater extent, the series.
"Why does it always have to be me?" Clem once complains, when the group looks to her for assistance in yet another task conveniently suited for her, naturally highlighting her role as player character. Telltale implements other metatextual nods to its gameplay formula in this episode, even suggesting a character "might" remember something Clem said instead of the usual, hinting at an ambiguity that challenges the choices we usually expect the game to record. While witty, none of these little easter eggs can hide the fact that the crew's constant reliance on Clementine is becoming a bit formulaic when examined from the same position.
Perhaps I'm underestimating Clem's skills, but with the means that most of the new survivors are presented I think it's more appropriate to say I'm overestimating the competence of the rest of the cast. Nonetheless, this episode succeeds at keeping me hooked, right down to the final decision that Clementine has to make; it's easily the most visceral scene in the second season thus far. While "In Harm's Way" moves at a slower pace than the previous two, it has the emotional force that sets the tone for both the final two episodes and whom Clementine ultimately has become through the decisions we've shaped her with.
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