For as much as Telltale's The Walking Dead is about making tough choices, it's equally about suffering the consequences of those choices. Consider a line Carlos delivers in "In Harm's Way." Clementine and her friends have been captured by Carver, the vile autocrat at the head of a group of survivors some of Clem's crew once were a part of. Finding themselves essentially imprisoned in what Carver affectionately refers to as "their new home," Kenny, ever the emotional creature, is frantically trying to plot their eventual escape. Carlos confronts Kenny with the reality of their situation by chiding him for wanting to act without thinking, explaining that making rash decisions in a world this dangerous often leads to people getting killed.
He's telling Kenny this mostly out of the very specific fear of what might happen to his daughter if they're caught, but in effect, he's summarizing the guiding principle of this series for the player. In The Walking Dead, you are presented with choices and often not a great deal of time in which to think them out. Some choices might seem inconsequential, yet may still result in someone dying--or, at least, dying sooner than they would otherwise. In an ideal world, you'd take all the time you could to carefully consider every possible outcome of every presented scenario, but rarely are you afforded such in this world. The best you can hope to do is learn from your errors, remember the advice people give you, and try to think things through with what little time you're afforded. The world around you is going to do whatever it's going to do, and most likely what it's going to do is something horrible. In the face of that reality, all you can do is try to make the best decisions you can when your back is against the wall, and rarely are the best decisions made in haste.
Sometimes, even thoughtful decision making isn't enough. In the last episode, I thought I'd made the best decisions I could given the circumstances. I went with Pete when he got bit, tried everything I could to save him, but it just wasn't to be. When I convinced Walter not to kill Nick, I had hope that maybe there could be some reconciliation down the road. Then along came Carver to put the kibosh on any such thoughts. When I convinced Kenny not to shoot Carver while he had a gun to Alvin's head, I'd just hoped to spare Alvin a pointless death. Little did I know what was in store for him after the group arrived at Carver's compound. Sometimes even the best choices just belay the inevitable.
Sometimes that sense of inevitability can be an issue in this series. As much as these games want to make their choices meaningful, it's hard to completely shake the notion that you're just dancing around eventual fated tragedies you'll have no control over. It's a credit to the writing and direction in "In Harm's Way" that I never really felt that way throughout my playtime. All throughout, "In Harm's Way" takes its sweet time to build to its almost ludicrously tense conclusion, constantly teasing the many ways everything could go horribly wrong for what feels like an eternity, before finally throwing everyone into a meat grinder. This is a terrific episode, and a dense one, packed with intense character moments, strong action, and a great deal of plotting. Not in the sense of the actual story plot, but rather in regards to the many different plans these survivors consider as they try to find a way out of this place.
Initially, you might start to wonder why they'd be so desperate to escape, given the relative comfort and security Carver's repurposed home improvement store affords them. Carver's crew is well stocked with food and other supplies, and they've built a decently formidable fortress out of it. The problem, of course, lies in Carver himself. All those hushed tones and terrified faces any time Carver's name would come up in previous episodes are well justified here. Initially, he tries to play things cool, sending the new arrivals to the outdoor area where "problem" survivors are required to live until they can prove themselves "worthy" of joining the main group. There, they meet Reggie, an affable, one-armed survivor (voiced by comedian Kumail Nanjiani). Reggie was instrumental in helping the now recaptured survivors escape in the first place, but he's apparently had a change of heart since then. He's desperately trying to work his way back into the main group any way he can, and in this case, he's been tasked with watching over these new arrivals and making sure they do what they're told. Reggie becomes your supervisor of sorts, though your group isn't the only one out there. You're joined by Mike, a gruff, largely mysterious man who we're told chopped off Reggie's arm following a walker attack, and Jane, a mostly silent presence who doesn't seem terribly happy to be there.
At the outset, the survivors are put to work in various areas of the camp, reenforcing walls, fixing up an addition to the settlement, and the like. Clem initially finds herself working with Bonnie to load empty gun magazines, and here we're afforded a chance to get to know her character a little bit. Given that I chose to be kind to her in the last episode and offer her supplies, she approaches Clem with similar kindness--and a tinge of guilt--in this encounter. I choose to be up-front with her about Carver killing Walter in the last episode, but she seemed incapable of grasping the true cruelty of Carver's character. It doesn't take long to change her mind.
The first real choice of note you're given in "In Harm's Way" sees Clem, alongside Sarah, tasked with picking berries off plants in a rooftop greenhouse, while under Reggie's supervision. Sarah's still a mess, of course, and even more so by this point in the story. Earlier that morning, during Carver's vaguely threatening "pep talk" to the newcomers, Sarah won't stop chatting with Clem, and Carver flips out over it. He forces Carlos to punish her for her transgression, but a simple apology won't do. He's forced to hit her, hard, and no matter how many ways you try to take the blame yourself, it does no good. The hit Carlos puts on Sarah puts her into a near catatonic state, so when she's sent up to work, all she can do is stare at the pruning shears. You can choose to just focus on your own work and leave her to her own devices, but in trying to maintain some sense of empathy for her, I chose to help her. This resulted in my own allotment of plants going unpicked, and Carver's arrival signaled that some kind of doom was right around the corner. Once again, I tried to take the full blame, but Carver wouldn't hear it. Instead, he blamed Reggie, and that blame resulted in Reggie taking a header off the roof.
This should have been no surprise. Carver's distaste for "weakness" in those under his charge has been readily apparent, and it's not as if we haven't seen him kill indiscriminately before. Still, the moment is shocking, if only for how much of the early goings is dedicated to Reggie. As weak-willed and bought-in as he is, he's still as friendly a face as this series has had in ages. Then you think about it and yes, of course, how else could things have possibly ended up for such a character? If there's one constant in this series, it's that the nicest people are usually the quickest to die.
If there's another constant, it's that Clementine has a strange way of inspiring confidence in others. "In Harm's Way" is a title that certainly applies to all of the survivors here, but it's especially true of Clem this time around, as she finds herself almost solely responsible for any hope of escape. Some might find the kind of confidence her fellow survivors put in her unrealistic, but ever since Clem and Lee parted in the most painful of ways, Clem's been forced to survive on her own, and the simple fact that she has survived this long is reason enough to trust her abilities.
That ability is something even Carver recognizes in her. After Reggie's death, he calls Clem into his office (where Clem finds an unconscious and badly beaten Alvin, who had been segregated from the main group after their arrival). As angry and defiant as Clem is to Carver, he never lashes out at her. Instead, he tries to reason with her, telling her how when he first met her back at the cabin, he could tell she was scared, but was impressed by how she stood her ground. He sees something of himself in Clem. He sees in her what he'd want to see in his own child, a comment that understandably horrifies her. But he's not exactly wrong. Strength is what it takes to survive in a world like this. Clem has demonstrated it throughout the series, and Carver, for all the terrible things he's done, is certainly not lacking in conviction. The difference, of course, is one of empathy. Clem isn't a murderer, but Carver thinks the line that separates them is thinner than she realizes. As weird as it is to have a grizzled old sociopath relate honestly to a preteen girl, this is easily one of the strongest, most thoughtful interactions between two characters anywhere in the series. A good villain always finds a way to relate to the hero, and Carver proves himself in "In Harm's Way" to be the most effective villain the Walking Dead games have yet had.
By this point in the story, everyone's ready to escape, but there are wildly differing opinions on how that should take place. Luke reappears not long after Reggie's death to pitch Clem on his plan, which involves a couple of stolen walkie-talkies and Luke monitoring the guards while looking for an opening. Meanwhile, Kenny has his own plans, as he is wont to do. He wants to use the store's speaker system to alert a herd of nearby walkers, then escape in the ensuing chaos. An okay plan, except that the herd in question isn't just a small grouping. It's a massive number of zombies, the likes of which could easily overwhelm the defenses of the settlement. All throughout the episode, Carver and his cronies speak of this herd as a looming threat, while silently praying that they'll wander past them entirely. Kenny wants to bring them straight here, while others would rather play it safe with Luke's plan. I had Clem pipe up with the proposition of combining those plans. Have Luke keep an eye on the coming herd, then having him signal with the walkie talkie when it was time to use the loudspeaker. As for getting past the giant herd, the previously silent Jane tosses out the idea of using zombie guts to mask everyone's scent. If you've played the first season of The Walking Dead, you'll remember that this is a surprisingly effective strategy.
From here on out, Clem is repeatedly tasked with tough jobs that could easily get her killed. She has to clamber up to the roof, avoid guards, and steal the walkie-talkies while Tavia (who you may remember from The 400 Days) is distracted. She does so, but less than a day goes by before all those plans are destroyed. Luke is caught, Carver is livid, and you're forced to decide what to do with the one undiscovered walkie-talkie you still have. I tried to own up to it, given that Carver has shown reluctance to attack Clem in the past. But before I can do it, Kenny interrupts and takes the blame for himself. Carver responds by laying a tremendous beating on him, the likes of which I don't think I've ever seen in this series--yet isn't even the worst one in this episode. I made the foolish mistake of trying to help Kenny as he was attacked, and took the butt of a guard's gun to the face for my trouble.
This assault lends some immediacy to the group's need to escape. Fortunately, after telling Bonnie about what happened with Reggie, and her witnessing Carver's assault on Kenny, she makes the decision to help the survivors that very night. This sends Clem on yet another dangerous assignment, heading back up to that rooftop to flip on those loudspeakers and send the herd our way. Both of these sequences--the stealing of the walkie talkies, and the stealthy incursion into Carver's office--are done exceptionally well. Again, had the first two episodes not gone to the lengths they did to show Clem's capability in the most dire of circumstances, it'd be hard to fathom the group trusting her with all these tough tasks. But with that build-up, it's immensely satisfying to put Clem through those paces and come out successful. That satisfaction is only negated somewhat by the eventual death of Alvin, who wakes up just long enough to say goodbye and put a bullet through one of Carver's guards as Clem is escaping his office. We didn't get to know Alvin very well, and it was obvious his body was broken beyond repair. But it was nonetheless sad to watch him go.
Less sad is the following sequence, in which you are allowed to (finally!) get the best of Carver. He's alone, pointing a gun at your friends after the loudspeakers have gone off, and you get to pounce on the bastard, allowing your friends to grab his gun. One of the darkest choices the series has ever offered comes next. Kenny, who may be suffering from lingering head trauma (and is definitely suffering from permanent eye damage), grabs a crowbar and asks everyone to leave the room. You can choose to stay, and watch what Kenny does, or you can leave immediately. Initially, I chose to stay, but after hearing Carver bark at Clem about how she should see this, because that sort of violence shouldn't bother people like them, I took the last minute option to walk away. I'm told the scene that unfolds if you stay is as grotesque and horrifying as anything the series has done to date, but no matter how strong I might believe Clem to be, I couldn't bring myself to just let her watch it unfold. I don't regret that choice, and I'm glad I thought it through.
For how satisfied I felt at my decision making in that moment, I felt equally as dispirited at the choice I was forced to make next. In the chaos of the swarming zombie attack, gunfire erupts from Carver's remaining guards, which keeps most of the zombies distracted and away from the group. The few stragglers that do come toward the group are quickly dispatched and used for their guts. Sarah is, again, panicked, but manages to keep it together just long enough to allow Carlos and Clem to slather her in zombie entrails. Initially, the plan looks like it'll work just fine, but then all hell breaks loose as Carlos takes a stray bullet to the head. Sarah flips, screaming bloody murder and alerting all the nearby zombies to their presence. Clem tries to calm her, but it's too late. Sarah bolts off into the woods, and the walkers start bearing down. In the chaos, Sarita is bitten, and Clem has to quickly decide to kill the zombie attacking her, or cut her arm off. Without thinking things through, I killed the zombie.
I don't know why I picked the zombie. It's not like the evidence to support cutting Sarita's arm off wasn't staring me right in the face for the first half of the episode. Reggie lost his arm mid-zombie attack and survived. There was ample reason to assume the same would happen to Sarita. Or maybe she would have just ended up bleeding to death five minutes into the next episode. Regardless, the end of "In Harm's Way" felt like a lesson very much not learned for me as the player. I didn't think my action through. I instinctively went for the creature biting Sarita, instead of for her arm, and I may have doomed her in the process. Carlos' voice telling me about the grave consequences of rash decisions kept echoing through my head. I had listened to him. I had observed Reggie. I knew what I had to do. I still reacted without consideration, and I have no idea what the fallout from that choice will be.
It's a fantastic and brutal ending to one of the absolute best episodes in this series. "In Harm's Way" manages to deliver one of the most engrossing stories in the series to date, and also manages to make preceding episodes seem a bit better, mostly by virtue of how well it pays off all that character building for Clem in in those early episodes. Some might take issue with how far into the background many of the other survivors get pushed in "In Harm's Way," but truthfully this season has never really been about them. This season isn't about how Clem is affected by a new group of fellow survivors, but rather how other survivors are affected by Clem. Everyone--except Carver, interestingly enough--underestimates her, but finds that harder and harder to do as she takes on tough task after tough task. By this point, Clem is practically this group's leader, a dynamic that would sound ridiculous if not for all that's taken place over these first few episodes. With two more episodes left to go, I'm equally excited and terrified to see what comes next.
- Let's pour one out for Carver. Yes, he initially came off like an also-ran of the Governor from the comic book, but Michael Madsen did a lot to give this character some distinctive personality, and he was a perfect piece of shit to work against in this episode. I'm not going to say I'm sad he's gone, but I wouldn't have minded if we'd gotten one more episode with him before finally turning his face into a bloody pulp.
- Not a ton of action in this episode, outside of that excellent end sequence. The only other stray zombie encounter featured Clem running away from some walkers that broke into the settlement extension, and getting a few ludicrous zombie kills in the process. Again, action is not generally this series' strong suit, so I'm really just happy that the end bit was so good, versus wishing there was more zombie killin' early on.
- Apparently the only other character that went with Tavia at the end of my 400 Days playthrough was Vince. He shows up during a couple of sequences in the episode, but doesn't really do anything of note. Given that we don't see any of Carver's other soldiers die, I expect there's a good chance they'll pop up again. Still wondering if we'll ever see the other characters from that episode that didn't abscond to Carver's settlement.
- Bonnie has some good bits in this episode, and we learn that she was originally supposed to escape with the other survivors, but chickened out. I don't get the impression she's long for this world, but I liked the bits she had with Clem in this episode.
- Poor Sarita. She's got so little to do in this episode, save but to freak out when Carver is beating Kenny up, and then to just get bitten like that. It's not like Nick or Rebecca have much to do either, but at least they come out mostly unscathed.
- I was one of the less than 30% of players who killed the zombie instead of chopping Sarita's arm. Interestingly, I was also in the minority of players when it came to watching Carver get fustigated, though that was closer to a 50/50 split.
- No idea whether or not Mike will turn out to be a worthwhile character or just another body to eventually get eaten. I get the feeling Jane will stick around, though. She seems like exactly the type to take Clem under her wing and show her a few new survival tricks. Plus, she gets one particularly rough moment at the end with one of Carver's guards, who she apparently had some previous not-so-great interactions with. He shows up and tries to stop them, and she comes at him all gentle-like, telling him he can come with them, that it'll be like they had previously planned. Then she shoots him in the groin and leaves him to be mauled by walkers. Ouch.
- Given that the survivors all come together on a meet-up spot if everyone becomes separated, there's reason to believe Sarah may come out of this okay. That said, "okay" may still be "traumatized beyond repair." I have been as good a friend to her as I could up to this point, but if she comes back, I may have finally run out of patience for her inability to handle her shit. Yes, I know, her dad just died right in front of her, and that's super horrible. But I think my version of Clem's friendliness tank has about run dry.
- If this season is all just a big build-up to Sarah being the protagonist in season three, I'm quitting The Walking Dead forever.