Spoiler alert: This review/episode recap contains major, major, major spoilers, and you should only read it if you've already played chapter four of Walking Dead: Season 2. If you want to know whether to buy it, just glance at the score and move on.
During the first season of Telltale's Walking Dead I was often frustrated by the fact that the choices were too binary, or too difficult to grasp in the moment, so that I found myself impotently wishing I could explain my decisions to the other characters as they walked away.
This hasn't really been an issue for me in season two, because Clem's choices have generally been far more inconsequential - and even when they've had grave implications, the other characters have been unlikely to misunderstand or hold her to account.
The result has been a series that lacks the intensity of its predecessor, as well as the impetus that attempting to find Clem's parents in season one provided. Now Clem just staggers from one disaster to the next while her friends get progressively sadder and deader.
Telltale also created a problem for itself when it killed off Lee and made Clem the protagonist, effectively transforming a vulnerable child into an invincible one (because you can always just try again).
But it replaced this killer dynamic with the gratifyingly universal theme of a child coming of age. Season two sees Clem learning how to survive alone while at the same time trying to work out what kind of person she wants to be, and for the most part this process has been depicted with sympathy and intelligence.
Janes, brains, and automobiles
Chapter 5 – 'No Going Back' – reunites Clem with her mercilessly solitary friend Jane, who abandoned the group at the end of the previous chapter after briefly succumbing to base urges with Luke. Jane is a steely survivor, constantly urging Clem to be pragmatic and to abandon unhelpful attachments (read: 'Kenny').
All of the characters turn away from Kenny to some degree as he descends into rage-infused madness, but Jane articulates this opposition most persuasively by drawing a parallel between Kenny and Carver after Kenny assaults Arvo, the harmless Russian boy whose life the group has managed to completely ruin.
The group's wariness of Kenny is perfectly understandable, and it becomes harder and harder to remain loyal to him (if you were ever inclined to). He becomes even less sympathetic after he starts directing racist taunts at Arvo, and you start to wonder whether he's even capable of harming Clem.
So fine, you might think. Let Kenny perish. But Walking Dead is more nuanced than that. If Jane is the head, arguing for the outcome that keeps the most people safe, then Kenny is the heart, arguing for the one that satisfies simple human urges, like being loyal, protecting the young, and avenging the dead.
(There are other characters in this chapter, of course, but Jane and Kenny stand for the opposing worldviews between which Clem ultimately has to choose. Eventually the remaining characters – Arvo, Mike, and Bonnie - become so symbolically superfluous that they just get up and leave.)
Kenny is going mad, but his basic humanity is worth preserving. Jane is coldly lucid, but her vision of the world might not be worth staying alive for.
The way the two characters respond to Rebecca's orphaned baby illustrates their counterbalancing virtues and failings perfectly. Kenny is a doting guardian, taking responsibility and naming the child. Jane, on the other hand, is a reluctant guardian at best. "I think it needs food or something," she tells Clem, as if talking about a plant.
As far as Kenny is concerned, in order for the survivors' lives to have meaning, and for them to retain any trace of their humanity, they need to protect the child. "That's what Lee knew," he says, "and what people like Jane will never understand."
At the end of the episode Jane pretends to have lost the baby in order to goad Kenny into a conclusive burst of violence. It's hope versus pragmatism, rolling around in the snow, with a knife. Afterwards Clem discovers the child safely hidden on the back seat of a car, but it's significant that we are supposed to believe (and I did) that Jane murdered a baby or abandoned it in the snow. Can Kenny really be worse than that?
The choice between them is never made easy, and I wavered all the way to the end. There are three radically different outcomes, but the one I chose – just before the timer ran down – contained an echo of the last moments of season one, when I killed Lee for his own sake, because he was turning into a monster.Some going back
Season two of Walking Dead hasn't been as emotionally draining as season one, but it gets close in this episode, thanks to a devastating flashback sequence in which Clem and Lee are together in the back of an RV driven by Kenny, with Duck lying ill on Katjaa's lap in the passenger seat.
After experiencing violence, cruelty, hunger, desperation, and loss for a whole season an unconscious Clem is briefly in the bubble of Lee's custody again, re-living an old memory, albeit with all of the terrible intelligence she's since acquired. It's a glimpse into Clem's inner world, suggesting that she still yearns to be a child, in Lee's care, despite having grown into a formidable adult over the last five chapters.
Of course, you might draw uncharitable conclusions from the fact that the most touching sequence of season two is a sequence taken wholesale from season one, and while this would be slightly unfair given how differently the scene works in this new context, you'd also have a point.
Season two wasn't as good as season one. Partly that was down to the change in perspective, from alpha child protector to semi-impotent child. It was problematic in a game about making choices to play as somebody whose choices were often fairly inconsequential, and rarely penalised. As a result, the tension of the first season just wasn't there.
But Clem's dream sequence also serves to demonstrate just how powerful Walking Dead can be in a medium that isn't known for its ability to engender strong or complex emotions.
For all that season two wasn't able to meet the standard set by season one, it still achieves what most games don't.
And there's reason to be optimistic about the future. Walking Dead is a series in which nobody is safe, and so Clem's guardianship of little orphan AJ could make for a nerve-shattering season three.Screenshots taken from PC version.