“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” – Dante Alighieri
There’s something to be said for just staying out of things, keeping your head down and avoiding conflict. Unfortunately, that logic grows increasingly specious when the world has been overrun by flesh-eating monsters and your fellow man begins turning on you at the drop of a hat. The time for neutrality has come and gone for Clementine; now, no matter how dire the circumstances, she must make her toughest choices yet. Choice and consequence have always been the core mechanics in Telltale’s The Walking Dead point-and-click adventure series, and while some of the choices you’ve had to make seemed relatively innocent at the series’ outset, that innocence is nowhere to be found in No Going Back. Season one of The Walking Dead went to some awfully dark places, culminating in Clementine having to shoot Lee, the man who had essentially become her father figure. Season two takes us on an Orphic journey into the gaping mouth of hell itself, but it’s looking increasingly like Eurydice might not exist after all. And that makes for some of the best moments in the series to date.
At the end of Amid the Ruins, just when it seemed like our heroes found a moment of respite, the floor gave out from under them. Clementine’s group was in tatters, the weather was growing colder by the second, they had a newborn baby to care for, and, worst of all, they found themselves held at gunpoint by a group of Russians (including, in my case, the bespectacled teen Arvo whose life I’d previously saved). Rebecca died with her baby in her arms, and the episode ended with Clementine forced to decide whether or not to shoot her before she turned or call out for help. In my game, I elected the shoot and the screen cut to black, the sounds of gunfire and screams intermingling as my stomach ran cold. Episode 5, No Going Back, picks up mere moments afterwards.
Much like Amid the Ruins, No Going Back immediately throws you into the thick of it as Clementine takes cover behind a small stone wall, gunfire flying overhead. After barely escaping with their lives, things go from bad to worse as they are running out of food, the snow is intensifying, and more than a couple in their group need medical attention. To make matters worse, the group is hanging on by a thread and morale is at an all-time low as clear battle lines emerge between Kenny and the others with Clementine caught squarely in the middle. These arguments are often hard to watch, feeling more like family members fighting at the dinner table and saying things they can’t take back, rather than a ragtag group of survivors forced together by circumstance. It’s an uncomfortable position, to be sure, and it’s to the writers’ credit that both sides are able to present such compelling arguments for why their plan for survival is the one that Clementine should back.
If you’re like me, your Clementine watched as Kenny savagely beat Carver’s face until it was a red, wet, bloody pulp not because she endorsed the brutality of it, but because she needed to see what he was capable of. Kenny killed Carver so that he couldn’t do any more harm to the group ever again. Does that make what he did just? Does that make him a realist? An apocalyptic pragmatist? This struggle between Kenny’s icy, increasingly merciless worldview and the others’ growing queasiness with the terrible things they have to do is put front and center in this episode. With every critical decision point, every branching conversation, the game is nudging you towards a precipice from which there is, as the episode title tells us, no going back. In the heat of the moment, people’s true colors will be revealed, and as we learn in No Going Back, we won’t always like what we see, but we can’t look away.
Like most episodes, No Going Back forces you to make some truly awful choices at crucial moments in the narrative. The final standoff is heartbreaking stuff and the ramifications of the split-second decision you make will not leave you anytime soon. Unlike most episodes, the end of No Going Back has more permutations than you’d expect, and some of them get pretty fucking dark. Rather than spoil anything for you here, just rest easy (or as easy as you can) in the knowledge that, for better or for worse, this is the culmination of your journey as Clementine. Whatever happens, whatever Clementine does, whatever action she takes, it’s your doing. It’s weird to think how emotionally crippling and staggering that sort of narrative agency can feel, but from start to finish, this was #MyClementine and I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, mistakes and all. Grisly, gripping, but never gratuitous — Season 2 of The Walking Dead was one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in quite some time, and No Going Back is a real mic drop moment for the series. Shifting the narrative focus from Lee to Clementine paid off in spades, and Telltale continues to prove why they’re one of the best in the business for deeply compelling, player-driven experiences. Now, you’ll have to excuse me while I try to live with what I just did.
Episode Rating: 5 Burritos
I cheated in episode five of The Walking Dead Season 2. Not with a code or a hack that lets Clementine and all of her friends live happily ever after. But I did cheat, or do something that feels like cheating, to me: after finishing episode five, I went back to two moments and did things differently. I sacrificed the purity of the story, the agony of making blind decisions, to see if things would play out differently. I didn’t expect the story to change so dramatically, or that replaying those decisions would completely change how I felt about the episode, but it did.
Until this episode of The Walking Dead, I was convinced that Telltale’s narrative power came from the illusion of choice. If you’ve ever replayed any of the Walking Dead’s dramatic decisions, you know what I mean. In most cases, different dialogue choices lead to the same reactions. Saving one survivor over another may affect the short term, but every path, be it bloody or guilty or stoic, intersects eventually. But the story works, because unless you replay those moments, you never know for sure. Maybe I could’ve saved Kenny from a beating. Maybe Luke didn’t have to die.
But replaying those moments robs them of their power, right? That’s what I’ve always thought, which is why I rarely replay sections of Telltale’s games. I would be robbing myself of the impact of a death or emotional confrontation. It feels like cheating in the same way that save-scumming a game with permadeath feels like cheating.
Season 2’s finale No Going Back left me with a different feeling. The climax left me so dissatisfied—and more importantly, seemed to so dramatically affect the outcome of the story—that I decided to retread my decisions. The first time, I played Clementine logically, making the choices that seemed smart, necessary for survival. The second time I played from the heart, and I got a radically different ending. This was not the illusion of choice. This was real.
The first half of the episode is an exercise in inevitability. The overall story arc plays out predictably, following the same framework of a TV drama finale. The characters drag on towards an unhappy ending; Clem, Luke, Kenny, Becky, Mike and Jane have a brief moment of happiness around a campfire before tragedy whittles down their numbers. Clem, like any good protagonist, is injured, but soldiers on. Jane and Kenny, the ultimate survivors, see their character arcs come to a head. The episode is actually more about Kenny than it is about Clementine; it not-so-subtly builds towards the realization that Kenny is a monster, sadness and loss twisting his insides until only rage comes out. Jane, meanwhile, is desperate to be the big sister to Clementine she couldn’t be to her real sister.
The first hour was so predictable I mostly felt bored, like both I and the game were going through the motions. Of course Kenny was going to angrily yell at everyone and be overly protective of Rebecca’s baby. That was all foreshadowed last episode. Of course the group’s moment of happiness is just a lull between bad times and worse. Even the final showdown was predictable, but my appreciation for it flipped completely when I replayed my choices.
In the climax, Clementine has to choose who to trust: the sane-but-cynical Jane, or the unhinged-but-fiercely-loyal Kenny? I just couldn’t bring myself to trust Kenny after two full episodes of him yelling, beating people, and insisting he get his way. I shot him, but his death felt empty. Wasted. Jane forced the fight, and helping her fulfills her character arc. But it also cheats Kenny of a natural conclusion to his. Would he have become a monster on his own, without Jane intentionally pushing him over the edge?
Replaying the ending answered that question, and the answer is no. If Kenny lives, his ending is amazing. Cathartic, tragic, and whole. He completely recognizes what he’s become but keeps fighting against it to be better, and his sacrifice at the end, based on another Clementine choice, gives meaning to all his struggles. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it’s a powerful one.
Playing the endings in the order I did actually made Kenny’s ending more moving; it felt like I’d discovered the “real” ending the second time around, the one that offered the greatest sense of closure. It also impressed upon me how many branching paths Telltale has to establish, and then wrangle together, over the course of an episodic season. And I was surprised by how much more I cared about the ending when I knew I had controlled how it played out. That behind-the-scenes knowledge enhanced, rather than sabotaged, my experience of the story.
I suspect that I got to make those choices because season two’s ending won’t lead directly into season three. In fact, each one seemed like a fitting open-ended sendoff to Clementine’s story. She becomes a fearless loner, or a finds peace in a new society, or strikes out to survive with a reformed Kenny or trustworthy Jane by her side. Perhaps this is it for Clementine. If so, she could’ve had a better final episode—like much of season two, episode five barely offered opportunities to talk to characters during downtime or explore—but those endings will stick with me.
In my mind, Kenny’s still out there somewhere, mending the pieces of himself that broke along the way. I’d be happy if season three let me keep that image and moved on to something new.
I'M SHAKING AND CRYING!! This game is unbelievably good! What were your choices, ONTD??