The Walking Dead: “No Going Back” Review
(Warning: the following review contains spoilers in the form of a recap of events in the episode, and also refers to the past season. I do not reveal the ending or any major decisions, but if you haven’t played and want to be surprised, I’d recommend reading this after you’ve had your chance to play.)
Clementine was a few months shy of nine-years-old when the world fell apart. Lee Everett found her hiding in her tree house after her beloved babysitter had been turned into one of the many flesh eating monsters that now roamed Georgia and, as we would soon come to realize, the rest of the world. From the start of season one, we’ve had three main goals: survive, protect Clementine, and keep the other members of the group safe. Most of the time, those priorities were imbalanced, as we often had to risk everything or sacrifice another completely just to do what felt right. In a time where humanity was stripped down to little more than primal instinct held together by the fraying threads of morality, you’d expect choices to be simple. Kill, or be killed. Protect, or die trying. Only it’s never that easy, and Telltale Games has proven that unforgettably in the season two finale of The Walking Dead series.
Fast forward nearly three years from when we first saw Clementine peering at us from beyond the kitchen window, clutching her walkie-talkie. The shy, fragile girl with her wide eyes far too soft for the harsh new reality of life and thick, dark curls has aged far beyond her twelve years. We see her in the aptly titled fifth episode, No Going Back, on the snow covered ground as gun shots fire mercilessly overhead. Depending on your final choice in the last episode, she’s either just watched a member of her group be shot in the head, or delivered the shot herself. Now, she ducks for cover as the people who she has cheated death with innumerable times in the past year try to protect themselves from another group who is out for revenge. The callous brutality with which both sides attack one another is startling, and made me realize early on just how much the events that have transpired up until now haven’t just changed Clementine, but me as well. A gun fight would have been a terrifying thought back in season one. Someone could die. Their blood could wind up on my hands. Now, while I did found myself struck with sympathy for the youngest of the enemy group as he sobbed over his sister’s corpse, I didn’t think about any of the others. I wanted one thing. Exactly what everyone else did. To survive, even if it came at the cost of a stranger’s life. When you realize that this is the logic your foe shares, it leaves your stomach in knots. It doesn’t hit you until you see Jane again, after she had initially left the group. The act of her standing there isn’t so much of a shock as the reason why. She’s just lodged her knife into the back of a man’s neck, and now he sinks to the ground before you, choking to death on his own blood. When Kenny walks up and shoots him in the head, you’ll be both horrified and relieved – at least the man’s suffering is over.
Somehow, miraculously, the group has survived. Even Rebecca’s baby, whose mere existence is an anomaly in such a world, is okay…for now. The dynamic of having an infant is intriguing, and something I am eager in seeing it developed further next season. Clementine has been the child since day one. Even as the protagonist of this story, as a player you feel protective of her. Lee’s role as her guardian has shifted to our shoulders. Now there’s an even more fragile, completely helpless being and it’s undoubtedly going to befall upon Clementine to assume the role of caretaker and watch out for him.
The priorities remain blurred and shift once again as the group contemplates their next move. The survivor of the attack, Arvo, claims he can take them to a house and they can have their helping to the stock of supplies. Initially, I didn’t want to believe him. We’re responsible for his sister’s death, and now he’s not only totally alone, but also one wrong move away from having his head blown off by an increasingly unstable Kenny. Why would he want to help? He could lead us into a trap. But it’s food, and the temperature is declining by the minute. With an infant to care for and members wounded, this long shot is their only hope at surviving another night in the harsh winter.
Telltale has managed to create an arc that permeates every aspect of the episode. Every conversation and seemingly small decision is overshadowed by a sense of anxiety. The future is an uncertainty so large that it doesn’t even exist. It’s a blank, incomprehensible idea, as white as the snow that blankets the ground and falls from the sky. I remember wondering in previous episodes where Clementine would move on to next, and how she’d get there. In No Going Back, there it’s impossible to think outside of the present. The pure sense of uneasiness I managed to feel in my own body as I watched the events unfold left me in awe. This is the most engrossed and deeply affected I’ve ever felt playing a game.
I feel every single second pass as the group tries to cross a large, frozen lake: the only obstacle that now stands between them and the unfinished house Arvo has lead them to. With dread, I direct Clementine over the ice. Each tiny crack or groan from beneath her shoes sends a wave of panic through me. Please don’t fall, please don’t fall, please don’t fall. I don’t worry just for her, but for everyone making their way toward the shelter.
I know what is coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
The grunts and groans announcing the arrival of a small herd of walkers would normally incite fear and cause everyone to speed up or draw their weapons. This time, their dry, lifeless moans are drowned out by the far more sickening crack as the ice gives way beneath someone’s feet. With zombies closing in, Clementine has her first choice to make. Both involve risking her life, but the difficulty doesn’t lie in but I found that the hardest choice was choosing whether or not to put her in certain harm. A part of me wanted to. Even if she got hurt, she would be doing it for someone who matters to her. Someone who would probably do the same. But this person is pleading for her to just cover them – just take out the walkers and buy them enough time to pull themselves out. So I chose the latter. I followed their wish, stopped every zombie with a shot to the head, and it still wasn’t enough. That feeling of loss and guilt, of failure, is nearly tangible. I cried as Clem frantically pounded against the ice, trying one last time to save them to no avail. I won’t reveal who the victim is for those who haven’t played, but I will say that if there is one thing The Walking Dead has taught me, it’s that death – no matter how predictable, anticipated, or honorable – will never be an easy pill to swallow.
At this point of the game, the events that unfold rapidly one after the other build up to the pinnacle moment in which Clementine is forced to make a split, life-altering decision. Depending on your choice, the game will branch off in several directions. By the time the end credits roll, you’ll be left wondering what comes next and what things would be like if you’d chosen just one thing differently. While I did take a few moments to reflect as the closing song played through my computer speakers, I wasn’t exactly satisfied. This ending, although intriguing, lacks the emotion of the first. I think it is due to the overall lack of development and sometimes forced characterization that took place over the course of the past five episodes. In season one, I believed that everyone who changed did so with reason. When Doug sacrificed himself to save Ben, it didn’t seem unnatural. Doug’s greatest strength hadn’t lied in is physical capabilities or any survival knowledge. It was his compassion for others and dedication to the group that lead to his death, and in the end it was a plausible, noble end to his life. In season two, it too frequently felt as if certain events transpired solely for the purpose of creating tension and division among the group. Some of the sides Clementine had to choose between didn’t just feel difficult, but just downright unnecessary.
No Going Back is undoubtedly well executed, beautifully designed, and kept me entranced from the very beginning. Season two as a whole, however, falls flat in comparison with the first finale. That struck a chord that reverberated for months. As I awaited the next season, I found myself thinking back to that terrified little girl pointing a gun at the head of a man who had become like a father to her and fight heroically and tirelessly until the end. Clementine was first left alone in a field, out of ammo. This conclusion, although it places her somewhere more stable, feels less like a proper end and more like a prelude. While it does disappoint me I’ll be waiting a while to see what happens next, I know what Telltale is capable of, and am looking forward to stepping back into Clementine’s shoes and finally gaining some clarity on that impossible future.