Editor's Note: As always, this is a spoiler-heavy discussion of the events that take place in the latest episode of The Walking Dead. Still intend to play this yourself? Then don't read this yet!
The Walking Dead's success (and, really, the success of any of Telltale's choice-focused adventure games) falls upon how well it crafts the illusion that your choices have a meaningful impact on how the story progresses. This season has been a bit less successful at maintaining that illusion than the first, but by and large it's done a good job of establishing believable stakes for Clementine and her new group of survivors to reckon with, and provided enough seemingly important decisions for the player to make. "Amid the Ruins" is the first episode of this series that I felt failed to deliver on those elements. There are tangible dangers and some troubling choices to make, but cracks begin to form in the framework of the story almost from the beginning, and by the time the credits rolled, I found myself feeling more manipulated than intrigued by what had taken place.
Case in point: the episode's opening salvo, in which you pick up right where the last episode left off. In my playthrough, Sarita has been bitten, and I opted not to chop her arm off as the last episode wrapped up. I was regretting that decision right up until "Amid the Ruins" kicked off, expecting to suffer some terrible consequence for not having learned one of the key lessons of the last episode (I.E. the example of Reggie's missing arm). Instead, I soon discovered that the choice really didn't make much difference. Because I killed the zombie and didn't chop off her arm, Sarita escapes through the horde of walkers along with most everyone else, but ends up infected and dying by the time Clementine arrives at the planned meeting place. Upon arriving there, we find out that Kenny is steaming mad, and when Clem approaches him, he snaps, launching into a tirade about how just because she's a little girl, she doesn't get to skip out on blame when she gets people killed.
This is odd, because apart from not cutting her arm off, Clementine didn't actually do anything other than kill the walker that attacked her. In reading up on how things would have played out otherwise, it turns out that if you cut Sarita's arm off, she ends up swarmed by more walkers and eventually dies in the middle of the fracas. That scenario feels much more like the kind of situation Kenny would blow up over, but that's not what happened in my game. In my game, Sarita is infected and dying in Kenny's arms, and he's still yelling like her death is all Clem's fault. One could chalk this up to Kenny just being angry in general, but some of the dialogue still feels too specific to fit the situation I just played through, which took me right out of the scene.
If that were the only scene that felt off, I'd probably have just ignored it and been fine, but it's far from the only example. Some of that "off" feeling undoubtedly comes from the episode's drastic shift in energy from its predecessor. After spending hours dealing with Carver and his band of misfits, as well as the massive horde of walkers that attacked their home base, "Amid the Ruins" is a much more sedate episode, focused on Clementine's relationships with her few surviving friends. Most of the episode takes place in and around a single location--a Civil War memorial site and the few buildings that sit around it--and save for a single detour to rescue Luke and Sarah, there's not a lot to do until the final minutes of the episode.
Some of that downtime is at least of interest. When you go hunting for Luke and Sarah, you're paired up with Jane. Jane's had little meaningful screen time up to this point, and "Amid the Ruins" does flesh her out into something of a surrogate sister for Clem. She's every bit the loner she makes herself out to be, but you learn a lot more about why she's become that way as she teaches Clem some of her best zombie killing techniques. You learn that she's grown to not trust groups of survivors--in her mind, they all inevitably turn on each other--and that she once had a sister very much like Sarah. Her trust issues and lack of faith in other people prevent her from getting too attached, and though she tries to impart this wisdom on Clementine, I couldn't bring myself to take it entirely at face value. After all, my version of Clementine has, up to this point, still retained some basic ideas of right and wrong. So when it comes time to save Luke and a decidedly catatonic Sarah from a group of walkers, I didn't just leave Sarah there, as I had the opportunity to do. I had promised to look out for her, to be her friend, and if that meant slapping the shit out of her to get her to wake up and move, that's what I was going to do. Jane unsurprisingly admonished me for risking my own life for someone who had clearly "given up," but I couldn't just quit on her.
Unfortunately, Jane is the only character who gets much in the way of advancement in this episode. Apart from another, better scene with Kenny--where he wistfully describes what it's like to be beaten almost to death--and a couple of small moments with Rebecca, everyone in this episode essentially treads water, or ends up markedly worse off than before. A scene with Bonnie and Mike goes pretty much nowhere, and appears to only exist to add an additional Major Player Choice (do you agree to crawl through a small space to unlock a door, or not) and a cute scene with a family of raccoons. Luke, who once seemed like a more promising character, has suddenly turned into an only slightly less frazzled Nick, making lousy suggestions and actually ignoring his walker guarding duties at one point to share some brief, post-apocalyptic intercourse with Jane. It's a strange turn that doesn't fit too well with what the character has been portrayed to be thus far. Maybe this is the build to some realization that he's been putting on an act of confidence up to this point, to hide his own insecurities and character failings, but it still comes across like the writers decided he needed to be Nick now. Which is to say nothing of Nick himself, who dies rather unceremoniously early in the episode.
Unceremonious death is not a new concept in these games. If you've played both seasons, you know full well that characters you work hard to try and save probably won't survive to the season finale, let alone the next season. The difference is that in "Amid the Ruins" deaths feel less like calculated plot points and more the writers just trying to hastily remove personalities they no longer know what to do with. Nick never got much of an arc beyond his accidental shooting of Walter's partner in episode two, and losing him didn't exactly leave much of an impression on me. I felt similarly about Sarita, who has spent the last two episodes either talking about Kenny, crying over Kenny, or a combination of the two, and not doing much else. There were glimmers of more interesting personalities in both cases, but we never got to see them.
And then there's Sarah. Whether you found her crippling anxiety pitiable or just plain annoying, there's no denying that this season seemed bent on trying to make you feel something for her. She never came across like a throwaway character, given that her actions--taking the picture of Clementine, whispering during Carver's speech, refusing to do the plant shearing--often were the catalyst for one bad situation or another. Again, I spent a lot of time trying to comfort her, while also trying to snap her out of whatever fear-induced paralysis she'd fallen into. I saved her time and time again, and the reward for doing so? Watching her die helplessly in a situation I had zero control over.
Near the end of the game, you're surrounded by walkers as Rebecca is delivering her baby in a second-floor gift shop. Outside, you and other survivors are shooting away at a swarm of walkers that are trying to crash through the gate. In the process, a wire used to hold up the wooden deck outside the shop gives way. Sarah falls, pinned underneath pieces of the deck, while Jane hangs by Luke's hand. There appears to be a choice here, where you can grab Jane's hand and help her up, or try to get her to save Sarah below. That this is not actually one of the Big Five choices of the episode says all you need to know. There is no way to save Sarah. This is how she dies. In some way, it's probably my fault for allowing myself to ever get attached to her. Between Jane's warnings and actually just about everything else that's ever happened in this series, I probably should have learned that building relationships with characters like this is only going to result in disappointment. For my part, the second she went crashing to the ground, I knew it was over. I didn't even send Jane down to try to rescue her. I just grabbed her hand, and resigned myself to Sarah's terrible fate. I'd promised I'd take care of her, that I would protect her, that I would be her friend. If the point to Sarah's arc was to harden me, to make me wary of ever promising to protect anyone ever again, then I suppose mission accomplished.
Except, I expect this won't be the last time I'm faced with making that kind of promise this season. After all, there's still Rebecca's baby to worry about.
Yes, the baby is successfully delivered, despite the onslaught of walkers and everything else. Kenny looks happy for the first time in ages, Rebecca looks exhausted but okay, and Jane finally decides that it's time to up-out. She and Clem exchange a short, terse goodbye, wherein Jane presents her with a nail file (a very useful tool, you see). This leaves an even smaller group to try and decide what to do from here. You can choose to leave the next morning, or take Luke's suggestion to stay an extra couple of days so Rebecca can rest. It's getting colder outside, and snow appears to be on the horizon, but I opted to stay, because up to this point, it felt like every decision I made would end up with some terrible outcome regardless. Turns out, I was right!
Cut to the survivors crossing over a snow-covered field, Kenny righteous with indignation over how right he was about wanting to leave right away. Rebecca looks even sicker, Kenny and Luke won't stop arguing, and suddenly, a lone figure appears. This is Arvo, a character you briefly encounter earlier in the episode with Jane. He happens upon you while you're searching buildings, and you end up surprising him. Jane easily disarms him, and discovers that he's carrying a bag full of drugs. He claims it's for his sick sister, and you can't tell if his nervousness is due to his less-than-firm grasp of the English language, or if he's just a liar. This Big Choice forces you to decide if you'll steal his drugs or not. I chose not to. Why? Because of what took place in the first season, where the man whose supplies we inadvertently stole came back to haunt us. As much as my group might have needed those drugs, I just felt wrong stealing them from him outright. I thought maybe my act of kindness would come back to benefit me in a dire situation later on. Not so much, sadly.
As Arvo approaches, we quickly discover that he's just a scout for a group of (Russian? Eastern European?) thugs. Arvo is the only one who speaks English, and somewhere in there he drops the tidbit that he recognizes you as the girl who robbed him. I protest. I did not steal from him. The only thing either Jane or myself took was his gun, and she's long gone. No matter. Whether it's because Arvo is a liar who took the drugs for himself, or because the story itself couldn't find a way to make this final scene go without Arvo accusing you of stealing, it does not matter. With guns drawn on all sides, Rebecca slinks to the ground. She has died, and within seconds she begins to resurrect while still holding the baby. Here you can just shoot her, or you can cry out for help. I cried out, which led to an instantaneous shot by Kenny straight to Rebecca's skull. Another unceremonious death of a character we only got to know a little bit about. And if the numerous gunshots that rang out as the screen cut to black are any indication, I expect the season finale will feature at least a few more of those right out of the gate.
If I'm down on "Amid the Ruins," it's probably at least in part because it has the unfortunate distinction of following one of the very best episodes in this series. It's a come-down that also regrettably features some of the least-engaging storytelling of either season. With a suddenly huge void left by the death of Carver, the writers struggle to come up with conflicts that carry similar weight, and end up with a story that feels like a lot of wild stabs in the dark toward dramatic tension, with only a few that actually connect. The ones that do connect are genuinely terrific, mind you. Jane's presence throughout the episode is wonderful, and as off as that first Kenny encounter came across, his intensity throughout the episode is equally gripping and terrifying. Elsewhere, the remaining characters feel lost in the shuffle, both figuratively and literally, and the plot sputters as it tries to build tension toward what should be one of the biggest moments of the season. Suddenly, The Walking Dead feels like it's backing into its finale, a far cry from the flawed, but incredibly tense penultimate episode of last season. Given that this season has largely been very good, I'm hopeful that this is just a bump in the road, and that the finale will recapture the intensity that "Amid the Ruins" mostly lacks.
- I don't have a whole lot left to add on this episode, but I will make one VERY EXCITING FINALE PREDICTION. Though I don't know how it'll get there, my theory is that the season ends with everyone but Clementine and the baby dead. Season three (assuming there is one) is a several-years-older Clementine trying to raise a child in a doomed world, effectively making her the new Lee to a new Clementine. Please to be putting your own theories in the comments below. I would love to see what everyone else thinks this is all building to.