This article contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Telltale's The Walking Dead Season 2.
The Wolf Among Us and Walking Dead teams* at Telltale Games must have one hell of an office rivalry. They one-up each other with each passing episode, and in “A House Divided”, The Walking Dead brings its A-game.
Previously on The Walking Dead, Clementine was in the custody of a houseful of people unsure what to do with her. She’d stitched her arm back together after being savagely mauled by a cute doggie, which turned her into kind of a badass. She had learned personal secrets about certain members of the group, and at the end of the episode got one killed (I let Pete die, because he was an asshole).
“A House Divided” opens with Clem and Nick (or Pete) trapped in a moonshine shack while zombies beat at the doors. Nick is the first character we’ve met in this series, surprisingly, who’s straight-up suicidal about the zombie plague. Everyone else has had some vestige of hope or at least determination. Nick? He’s ready to give up, get drunk and die.
We soon meet a character sure to prove significant as this season wears on: Carver. He’s gruff, rugged, and menacing, so Michael Madsen-like as to be played by Michael Madsen. It’s hard to call zombies “villains”. They’re purely instinctual creatures, with none of the genuine ill intent of human villains. Carver, however, is a big, wily, dangerous man with a big, wily, dangerous plan. There’s a sickening power disparity between him and our eleven-year-old protagonist.
Eleven though she may be, Clementine is starting to become a fearsome little force of her own. After last episode’s puppy-slaying and self-surgery, she demonstrates her adeptness in - and lack of emotional reaction to - hammering zombie skulls. Is that burgeoning psychopathy, or just a necessary part of survival in a zombie-infested world? When all the rules change it’s hard to tell. We're seeing a character evolve dramatically, and it's exciting and scary seeing it happen.
The big reveal in this episode is of course the appearance of the freshly-bearded Kenny, last seen vanishing into a horde of zombies in season one. I had Clementine give Kenny a big ol’ hug. The guy’s practically family. Family is all in The Walking Dead - in Clem’s case, a family adopted under difficult circumstances. This is a game about connecting with people. As such, the idyllic ski lodge inhabited by Kenny and his new family provides a rare moment of respite for Clem's. There’s music, food - even power. The biggest challenge is finding a Christmas tree topper, and the weightiest social decision is who to sit next to at dinner. The characters deliver well-written jokes about treehouses. Even Gone Home’s Christmas duck shows up to lighten the mood.
This can’t last.
Subtle cracks start to show amongst the characters. Kenny quickly goes from reunited loved one to that crass uncle who always gets into a fight with your dad over stupid shit at parties. He’s still emotionally broken after the loss of his own child in season one, and a clear disappointment to a Clem desperate for a friendly face. Clementine must also deal with the increasing instability of (in my playthrough) Nick, as he comes to realise that he accidentally shot and probably killed** the fantasy-reading partner of lodge cook Walter. With the storm picking up, the wind turbine accelerating out of control, the conflict between Walter and Nick escalating and zombies approaching, the episode seems close to an unbearably tense cliffhanger. But there's no such release here, as Michael Madsen shows up again, forcing Clementine to make snap decisions with potentially dire consequences. If you're invested in this story, your nerves may not survive the constant stakes-raising.
This series is great at making you feel awful. There are no “good” decisions, and the packed “A House Divided” has plenty of opportunities to hate yourself for making bad ones. That personal stake you hold in events (along with superb writing) is what makes this game better than its TV show and comic brethren. I’d be interested to hear how other playthroughs went - by now, it’s clear that choice in Telltale games is largely illusory beyond short-term consequences, but it affects the tone of the storytelling. What did you do? How did you feel about it?
Looking towards the next episode, where are Clementine and company being taken? What does Carver want with the pregnant Rebecca? How will Clementine cope with the death(s) that are partially on her hands? How many licks does it take to get to the centre of a Tootsie Pop? All this and more, in The Walking Dead 2.03: “In Harm’s Way," coming sometime.
* including staff pets Sir Puppington, Earl of Pupshire, and Zeus, Cat of the Gods!
** We didn’t see a body. He could still be alive.