Before we jump into talking about the second episode of The Walking Dead's second season, I wanted to briefly introduce this feature, and what I intend to do with it. Episodic games are still something of a rarity in the games industry, and how sites choose to cover them is still an erratic thing. Some treat individual episodes as stand-alone products, assigning reviews to each installment as they come along. Here, our general policy has been to wait until a season has concluded before writing a scored review. Ultimately, neither solution is exactly perfect. Which is why I thought it would be fun to try something a little different. Scored reviews for episodic games will still appear on the site at the end of a given season, but for each individual episode release, we now have Previously On. This will be more of a recap-style feature, going over the events of each given episode with an eye toward spoilers being discussed in detail. Obviously, that means this will be something ideal for people who have already played the episodes and want to discuss particular events and plot twists. It's something lots of sites do for TV shows, but not something I've seen done much with games that operate under a similar structure.
Since this is my first attempt at this, feedback in the comments is greatly welcomed. And with that, let's talk about The Walking Dead - "A House Divided"
I remember back when the second season of The Walking Dead was first revealed, there was no shortage of Internet-brand grousing about Clementine as the new playable protagonist. Some of that concern was the result of players feeling like the first season's tragic, but ambiguous conclusion was more than satisfying enough a send-off for the character. I get that perspective, but I also think abandoning Clem's story would have been a terrible mistake. To me, the first season of The Walking Dead always felt more like Clementine's story than Lee's. In those first five episodes, we see Clementine slowly grow from a scared little girl, completely reliant on Lee's strength and guidance to survive, to someone strong enough to do whatever is necessary, even if what's necessary is killing the only person on earth you still have a connection to. While I agree that there would have been a certain beauty to ending Clem's story with her, alone and sad, looking off into the horizon and seeing those two distant figures looking back, I also think that would have been a betrayal of all that time spent teaching Clem what it means to be a survivor in this demented new world. With this second season, now we had an opportunity to see how Clementine put those teachings to use, and I couldn't have been more excited to see where that would go.
There were also plenty of people who seemed to just hate the idea of playing a little girl in a zombie survival game. After all, Lee's physical stature made him a believable enough zombie slayer when the time came to crack some rotting skulls, and Clementine's slight stature apparently left some people wondering how Telltale would make her continued survival sans Lee believable, let alone playable. Considering that The Last of Us (especially in its recently released DLC) featured a more than believably capable teenage girl handling herself amid a different sort of zombie apocalypse, I don't think that point ever held much water. Lee taught Clem how to shoot, how to scavenge, how to exist on her own. And the first episode of The Walking Dead's second season, "All That Remains," went to great lengths to put Clem in situations that demonstrated just how capable she was; arguably too great of lengths.
"All That Remains," like the opening episode of the first season, was a lot of table-setting. It was about establishing Clem's current place in the world, what relationships she still has and what kind of strength she could show in the face of adversity. At times, that came across as reactionary, as though the writers wanted to establish with extreme prejudice that any horrible thing that could have befallen Lee in the first season could happen to Clem. Between Omid's death, Christa's disappearance, the dead dog, and the absolutely wretched way she's initially treated by the survivors she discovers in the cabin, "All That Remains" often felt like a gauntlet of perpetual, overbearing peril, an excuse to show that she could be just as much a badass as her previous protector. By the time she was literally sewing up her own giant, gaping arm wound with no anesthesia, I was starting to worry that this season was going to abandon quieter, character-driven storytelling, and more meaningful choices in favor of an endless series of gory shocks. Certainly the first season had no shortage of horrifying, sometimes outright disgusting moments, but precious few of them came in the opening episode.
Fortunately, "A House Divided" manages to assuage those fears relatively early on. It does a far better job of showing how Clementine has grown as a person, and not just as a physical presence. Where Clem once came across as stoic and hardened, she now seems a bit more like the girl we grew to care about in the first season. "A House Divided" does a far better job balancing moments of human interaction with action and terror. It doesn't overload its plot with zombie encounters, instead choosing to focus on the fractured history of this group Clem has no choice but to take up with. And it's far better for it.
The episode opens with Clementine and whoever you chose to save from the zombie attack at the end of "All That Remains" holed up as the walkers lurk around outside. For my part, I ended up choosing Pete at the end of "All That Remains," as opposed to Nick. According to Telltale's statistics, that was the only choice in the episode that went toward a nearly 50/50 split, with a slight favor toward Pete. That's interesting, when you consider that Pete was essentially doomed from the moment the bite on his leg was acknowledged. You know Pete's going to die, yet I chose to save him. The fact that Nick is quickly established as a defensive, barely capable dolt probably had something to do with it. Better to go with the smarter, nicer dead man than the living idiot. In choosing Pete, Clem finds herself stuck in an old armored truck crashed out in the woods. Supplies are scarce and the truck doesn't run, so Clem has little choice but to wait things out, hoping that the walkers disperse before Pete turns. She lucks out in that regard, but Pete has no chance to escape on his busted leg, so he makes the decision to cause a distraction, allowing Clem to escape. You have the opportunity to decide whether Pete can try to make a break for it right alongside you or not, but it makes no difference. Pete is doomed, and Clem has no choice but to bolt for the cabin alone.
When Clem does finally return, she's faced with questions about what's happened. Luke and Alvin are already out looking for her, Pete, and Nick. Carlos then takes off with Rebecca and asks you to look after his daughter, Sarah. It's established pretty well in "All That Remains" that Sarah is something of a tragic innocent. Her character shows all the signs of an extreme anxiety disorder, which may either be the direct result of, or simply exacerbated by, her father's tendency toward sheltering her from the reality of their situation. This is the relationship in season two I'm, thus far, most intrigued by. Sarah is, in effect, Clem's polar opposite. She's older but infinitely less mature. As hardscrabble and horrible as many of Clem's experiences have been, those experiences have also made her a capable survivor, the sort of person members of this group, as demonstrated later in the episode, have no issue assigning dangerous tasks to or handing weapons off to should the need arise. Sarah, on the other hand, is a basket case. Her father goes to great lengths to make sure she's protected, and it seems like she's rarely allowed to even go outside, let alone help out with the messy work of protecting the group. You have the option to be friendly or distant to Sarah, but I've always chosen to try and be her friend, albeit with a firmer hand where allowed. When Clem goes upstairs and finds Sarah waiting with a camera, I chose to placate her by taking a picture of her when she asked. I even agreed to show her how to use the gun she'd apparently snuck past her dad, knowing full well that would probably result in some kind of disaster down the road. She's so pitiable, it's hard to say no to her excited, beaming face, even if you know it's a bad idea to do as she asks.
After just a few minutes with Sarah, a man approaches the door. Clem tells Sarah to hide, and you're presented with the choice of opening the door, or trying to lock it. Regardless of what you choose, the man will make his way inside--all you really get out of that choice is the satisfaction of knowing you didn't just let a stranger in (or the shame of doing precisely the opposite). In "All That Remains," the group alludes to another group that's out there, apparently hunting for them for reasons no one will talk about. You don't know much about this group, but given the deeply terrified expressions of those around you, it's safe to say that they live in fear of them and their leader. Though you don't know it at the time, the man who comes to your door is that leader, a gravel-voiced charmer named William Carver. Carver is voiced by Michael Madsen, who I'm pretty sure is the first major actor to make an appearance in this series. Sure, "major" is perhaps a relative term here, given Madsen's predilection toward starring in just about anything anyone offers him over the last decade or so. But more to the point, Madsen's voice is instantly recognizable, something that hasn't been the case with other characters in this series. It's a gamble, since celebrity voices can easily be distractions that pull the player out of the moment, but that doesn't happen here. Madsen slides easily into the role, making Carver seem alternately pleasant and intimidating as he wanders through the house, grilling Clementine about who lives there. Clem can be pretty honest here, but knowing what I knew about anyone who might be looking for these survivors, I chose to posture, telling him that "dozens of people" lived there, and feigning ignorance to his questions about specific people he was looking for.
For a while, that seemed to be working. Until, of course, Sarah darting into an upstairs bedroom caught Carver's attention. There was no stopping him from ascending the stairs, and though Sarah managed to conceal herself underneath the bed, Carver's last glance downward caught the photo Clem had taken of Sarah. Had I not taken that picture, and had it not been seen by Carver, I expect the end result would have been much the same, but I couldn't help but feel guilty for absent-mindedly just agreeing to the photo. When Carver asked about the girl in the picture, I remained tight-lipped, even though he clearly recognized her. But instead of turning violent, Carver exits, leaving only a warning that trusting these people might not be in Clem's best interests. When the group returned, all it took was a brief overview of what had happened to send them into near hysterics. It's quickly decided that they'll leave immediately, without any strong idea of where they're headed, outside of a generalized desire to head north. After a brief detour back to the truck, where Clem discovers Pete's zombified corpse felled by a mysterious bullet, the group is off in search of a new place to hide.
Here, the story jumps five days in time. The travelers are weary, but in the distance lies a bit of potential hope. Coming to a valley that's connected by an old but still intact bridge, Clementine spots a massive ski lodge on the other side, as well as a small house at the end of the bridge. Luke, who over the course of the episode seems more and more eager to have Clementine participate in more dangerous tasks, offers to take Clem across the bridge to clear the path of any walkers. Without question, the bridge marks one of the better, smarter moments of combat in the entire series so far. With this sequence, Telltale manages to both demonstrate Clem's strengths and remaining weaknesses through simple, believable action. Upon arriving on the bridge, Luke and Clem quickly take out a pair of walkers that never even saw them coming. There's a confidence in their approach that gives you the impression walkers aren't even that big a deal to seasoned survivors like them anymore. That quickly changes when, halfway across the bridge, a pair of walkers start stumbling toward them from one end, and another comes from behind. Out in the open and without the element of surprise, chaos quickly takes hold as Luke steps through a board on the bridge and nearly falls to his death, leaving Clem to try and dodge the remaining walkers. It's harrowing in every way that initial encounter was not, and shows that no matter how far Clem has come in her role as a survivor, calamity is always just waiting around the corner, threatening to make her a meal.
Luke holds on and survives, and the walkers are eventually dispatched. But from the distance, another figure approaches. This one is a living person, one with a gun pointed directly at Clem and Luke. He approaches with caution and not intimidation, however. After explaining who they are, he lowers his gun and proceeds to offer them and their friends shelter where he's staying nearby. But before Clem and Luke can agree, the man hastily raises his rifle again. Behind them, Nick has arrived, aiming his rifle at the man nervously. Whether you have Clem call out in time to stop him from shooting or not, it doesn't matter. Nick eventually fires, piercing the man through the neck and killing him. Luke is furious, Nick goes on the defensive again, and all Clem can do is plead for them to stop fighting. Eventually they do, the group joins them across the bridge, and Clem is left to search the small house for supplies. Here she finds an old knife with unfamiliar initials on it, and a trunk with a few cans of peaches. Alvin walks in and sees you with the food, and asks if he can take one for Rebecca. Another choice is presented where you can agree to keep it between the two of you, deny him altogether, or simply say it's up to the group to decide how the food should be split. I chose to defer to the group, which Alvin understood, but before anything could come of that, a herd of walkers began shambling off the bridge and the entire group had to bolt up the mountain.
I expect many players may be divided by what takes place next. Upon arriving at the ski lodge atop the mountain, Clem scrambles up a nearby chairlift to scout the area behind them. She spots some flashlights darting around on the other side of the bridge, but before she can get Luke's attention to warn him, she sees him scramble off to the deck of the lodge, where the rest of the group is arguing with another, unknown group of people. Upon rejoining the group, Clem is astonished to see that one of the members of the other group is none other than Kenny. Yes, THAT Kenny. There are some dialogue choices here, but all I saw was the button marked "HUG KENNY" and I pressed it without even considering other options. If you give me a hug button, I will press it 100% of the time.
Considering we'd believed Kenny dead following the end of season one, his reappearance here could possibly come off as an overly convenient choice, a quick-and-dirty bridge between Clem's old life and her current situation that maybe doesn't make a ton of logical sense. Fortunately, the scene is handled about as deftly as you could hope for. Kenny reveals that he's been traveling with the one woman of the ski lodge group, a friendly, motherly type named Sarita, while remaining purposely opaque about what, exactly, he's been up to all this time. Kenny and Sarita are joined by Walter, a former teacher who has been surviving alongside his partner Matthew, who is mysteriously not present. The trio are extremely friendly, offering to let the group stay and share in their supplies for as long as they need. And for a while, the lodge seems idyllic. Christmas decorations are hung everywhere, the building actually has functioning electricity (thanks to a wind turbine outside), and supplies appear plentiful. There's a sequence where Clem just walks around the lodge, exploring and talking to people, and it's the first moment of genuine safety this season has yet offered her.
Of course, moments of safety in The Walking Dead are often fleeting, and usually ripped away by moments of extreme savagery. So seeing Clem come to this warm, comfortable place immediately signaled alarm bells that this was all going to end very, very badly. Still, it was nice to catch up with Kenny, which I chose to do when the game offered me the choice of dining with him and the new survivors at their table, or joining up with my previous compatriots. Luke gave Clem a look of disappointment, which struck me as a bit heavy-handed, considering this poor girl has just found a friend she'd thought had been eaten alive by a swarm of corpses. It becomes apparent, however, that Kenny is still deeply troubled by the events of the first season. He expresses an almost enraged surprise when I had Clem tell him I didn't plan on just staying there with him and ditching my group (I could have told him the opposite, but that felt wrong), and at one point, he caught himself calling Luke "Duck," implying that his psyche still hasn't reconciled the death of his family.
Not long after this, Kenny becomes the least of your worries. All this time, people keep mentioning this mysterious Matthew, who apparently likes to take long walks around the area. Long after dinner is over, Matthew still hasn't returned. By this point, I'd pretty much figured out who Matthew actually was. It's not hard to guess, since there aren't exactly a ton of survivor settlements around. Luke is the first to put two-and-two together after finding a photo of Walter and Matthew together. He pulls Clem aside to tell her that knife she picked up has Matthew's initials on it, and that she needs to hide it before Walter finds out, while implying that Nick should be kept in the dark. You can agree with him on that last point or not, and I chose not to. When Nick predictably ambled up wanting to know what was going on, I showed him the photo and told him he should tell Walter what had happened.
If this were the first season, and I were still playing as Lee, I might have handled this differently. With Clem, I've generally opted throughout this season to be honest with the people I want to trust me. In this case, I had the sinking feeling that lying to Walter would result in terrible things, should he ever find out. Just before Pete's death, he made Clem promise to take care of Nick as best she could. That had struck me a strange request at the time, asking a young girl to look out for someone many years her senior, but as mentioned before, Nick is kind of an idiot, and obviously has a tendency to make bad choices, even if he means well. In my mind, the best way to make good on that promise was to make Nick fess up to the crime. As it turns out, Walter had figured things out before he could even get the chance. He'd found the knife in Clem's bag, which put Clem in the troubling position of having to talk him down. Walter asks Clem point blank if Nick is a good person, and without hesitation, I said yes. He might be rash and dumb, but he's not evil.
That choice ultimately saved Nick's life later on, after the wind turbine began to spin out of control from oncoming storm winds. After a brief puzzle sequence in which you are, strangely, tasked with shutting it down yourself (they really trust this girl to handle things, don't they?), a swarm of walkers descends upon the lodge. As Clem darts and dodges between walkers, Nick finds himself entangled with one, and Walter has the choice to shoot it, or let Nick die. Because I vouched for Nick, Walter saved him. Whether saving him proves to be to the group's benefit or not down the road is anyone's guess, but at the very least, I felt like I'd made good on the promise I'd made.
Things take a turn toward the end here. A hail of gunfire comes from the treeline around the lodge, and suddenly Carver appears with members of his group, all heavily armed. They take most of the survivors inside, though Clem, Rebecca and Alvin escape his grasp, and hide up on the second floor. Carver is clear that he's looking for Rebecca, and pulls Carlos into the center of the room and begins torturing him to get them to reveal themselves. You have the choice of just giving up, or escaping out a nearby window to look for Kenny and Luke, who had gone off on their own before Carver arrived. I chose the latter, which apparently most people did not. The only difference in this sequence is whether you're with Kenny when he begins firing into the cabin, or already captured at the time. Since I was with Kenny, I had the option to try and stop him from shooting or egg him on. I chose the former, which initially he ignored, killing one of Carver's men. This prompts Carver to execute Walter, and then threaten to execute Alvin. Apparently, Alvin can die here. I chose to ask Kenny to surrender, and by doing so, Alvin is spared.
With everyone but Luke rounded up by Carver, he briefly alludes to taking you all back "home." Where home is, we don't yet know, but presumably it's where all of these survivors originally came from, before they set out on their own. The Walking Dead has a checkered history with cultish survivor groups. Woodbury certainly comes to mind. All you get from the brief teaser that follows the end of the episode is a speech from Carver pleading with his flock (which apparently occupy an old home supply warehouse in a strip mall) to forgive those that have strayed, and allow them to reenter their society. Something tells me that this new home won't be quite the beatific ideal that Carver seems to want to paint it as.
Regardless of where this season goes from here, "A House Divided" at least gives one the feeling that it is going somewhere. Where "All That Remains" felt lacking in choices that impacted the story, "A House Divided" gave Clem the ability to save two different lives. Of course, both those lives could end up forfeit within the opening minutes of the next episode, but I don't necessarily get the impression that will be the case. Most importantly, "A House Divided" found ways to make you care about the characters that surround Clementine, giving her a real stake in something beyond mere survival. I can't wait to see where this is all headed.
- PHEW! That was a long one. I promise not all of these recaps will be quite so wordy. Since I had to catch-up on certain elements from the first episode, I decided to just let this one ramble on a bit longer. I'll probably do the same for the next episode of The Wolf Among Us as well, but beyond that, I'll try and keep these a bit more concise.
- "A House Divided" marks the first acknowledgment of the events that took place during the 400 Days DLC. There's a brief section where you discover Bonnie peering through the window of the lodge. It's played as an innocuous moment, but it pretty plainly telegraphs her later appearance in the episode as one of Carver's thugs. Apparently the camp Tavia was inviting the survivors from that campaign to was Carver's. I'm sitting here, racking my brain trying to remember who else from my playthrough of the 400 Days went to the camp, but I just can't. Then again, 400 Days wasn't an especially memorable piece of DLC, so maybe that's to be expected.
- There are a number of good character moments throughout the episode that help flesh out these survivors' motivations. Rebecca in particular comes off a lot better here, especially if you take the time to talk to her in the lodge. I made the choice to listen to her baby kicking when she asked, and it seems like she and Clem have begun to bond. A far cry from her shrill dislike of her in the season premiere. Sarah, Nick and Walter also have some strong moments (though obviously Walter doesn't get a ton of screen time). I'm still left fairly unsure of what to make of Carlos, Alvin and Luke, though Luke does at least seem like the one with the best chance of surviving past this season, assuming anyone besides Clem does.
- Speaking of Rebecca, the baby's probably Carver's, right? The elusiveness with which she handles any questions about who the father is, coupled with Carver's apparently crazed possessiveness over Rebecca would seem to suggest as much. Or maybe he's so possessive because he feels that way about all the members of his "family." I'm guessing we'll find out in the next episode.
- Some might bemoan the scarcity of zombie encounters in "A House Divided," but I'm not one of them. The undead are best used in this series as a looming threat that should only be engaged when no other choice remains. This episode does a much better job with that than the first, which felt a little action-heavy for how enjoyable the action in these games tends to actually be.
- It's weird to have Kenny back in the mix, but I'm glad to have him around. I always appreciated his unpredictable presence in the first season, even when I hated the things he was saying and doing. He makes for a believable wild card that you can still empathize with, and he's a lot less whiny than Nick.
- CHRISTMAS DUCK IS IN THE WALKING DEAD. So now we just need season three of The Walking Dead to take place in the Pacific Northwest so you can walk through the ruins of the Greenbriar home again.