[Note: This analysis totally and completely spoils the entirety of The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 1: All That Remains, along with spoilers for all of the first season as well as 400 Days. Our review can be found here.]
So far, Telltale’s The Walking Dead has stuck to a structure; every episode has its own specific theme to cover. A New Day covered family, with the drug store in Macon a crucible for the demons of Lee Everett. Starved For Help covers trust, between Clementine and Lee, the group at large, the Motor Inn and the Dairy Farm. Long Road Ahead revels in death, with the fate of Duck and the brutal murder of Carley shrouding the infamous episode in darkness. Around Every Corner is about the parts of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice to survive. No Time Left covers legacy; with Lee’s fate written in stone from the opening credits, the story shifts to the nearly absent Clementine, and the preparations that need to be made for her ongoing survival, in more ways than one.
Perhaps the strangest thing about All That Remains, then, is that it manages to, in its short two and a half hour span, run the gamut of every theme from Season 1: Family, Trust, Death, Survival, and Legacy. If there is a theme to All That Remains, then it is best distilled in an image repeated multiple times throughout the episode; Clementine, well enough alone, walking in the woods.
That image is the second shot of the season, seen above, behind that of crows flying high and away from Clem, Christa, and Omid, eyeballing the gas station from 400 Days as a place to get cleaned up and rest briefly. Time has passed, but not much. Christa’s pregnancy has accelerated, and a disarmingly charming conversation over what to name their coming child fills the air. Clem carries a gun in her right hand. Things have changed, but not necessarily for the worse. This time, the image of being alone in the woods is misdirection.
Of course, Omid is dead to the bullet of a desperate teenager’s gun in five minutes. This is one of my favorite design decisions in All That Remains; this random woman. The pink jacket, hair long and pulled back, absent of any companions, jumpiness with the gun, she feels like a twisted mirror to what Clementine could have become had no one found her in her tree house the day the world ended.
Then, one of the most effective time skips in gaming history; 16 Months Later. to perhaps the episode’s darkest moment, which goes completely unspoken of. Omid, when he was killed, left behind two children for Christa to care for. Now, there is only one; Christa is visibly no longer pregnant, and in this opening shot, held long and focusing on a visibly older Clementine, there is no baby.
Within the first 15 minutes of All That Remains, the remnants of the family of Season 1 have been finally, inexorably, shattered. Despite Christa’s presence, hovering over a fire in the light, sad rain, Clementine might as well be by herself for all the vast distance between her and her protector. They have become strangers again. The first theme of Season 1 has been covered and dismantled; family, for Clementine, is dead long before she is cast down river whilst escaping an attack that separates Christa from her child, and left alone in the woods for real. Except, once more, she’s not.
If it was a hammer that destroyed family, then it is an anvil that next tries to destroy trust for Clementine with the dog. This fucking dog. I don’t think any other developer could handle the tonal whiplash involving Sam like Telltale does here. In this brief, 15 minute segment, Clementine is given a companion in Sam, someone to trust, and you throw a Frisbee and he catches it and Telltale knows what you expect of this story. You expect Old Yeller, and yet the horrifying reversal at the campsite is one of the most ingenious moments of storytelling Telltale has come up with so far. What can be trusted in this world if not the dog, who leaves a vile gash on your arm when you extend kindness towards him?
This is Telltale’s brutal, even by The Walking Dead standards, violation of the trust you imbued Clementine with throughout the first season. Once more, Clementine is strewn out into the wild, and this time, being well enough alone in the forest is no fake out. All that you fought for in Season 1 could end in the middle of nowhere. Death pervades over the hour once again, and you are met with a horrifying realization; Clementine is dying, and she could die alone.
Its here though, that All That Remains, in its darkest moment, hits its stride. Its here, with Clementine in tears, curled up against a rock, exhausted, that she finally begins to become the main character of The Walking Dead Season 2.
Telltale employs an exceedingly clever trick during the first hour of All That Remains; you never truly feel like you are controlling Clementine. Telltale goes to great lengths to impress upon you the feeling of being an observer to a story in progress. The dialogue of the opening scene is crafted in such a fashion that you maintain some distance from Clementine, who is very rarely the center of attention. Omid and Christa are the focus of the opening, and it is their tragedies that are front and center.
At the campfire, the shock of the 16 month time skip replaces the central event becomes to trying to figure out what has happened in the last year and more, and controlling Clementine there simply feels like viewing somebody else, rather than being them. Even with Sam, the environment in which you scavenge for food is designed so that the abandoned camp is the main character, and you are just the observer, wandering your way through the wreckage of somebody else’s life. Sam, the truly active character of the scene, is the only real living remnant of, making him sort of the true focus of the scene.
Its only after Clementine gets her scar does the shift occur. Its at this crucial moment where she almost falls and is saved by Pete and Luke in the forest, that the game changes. This is the same situation as before, where Clementine is the one who wandered into another’s struggles, but this time, the source of the drama, of the plot, is her. The bite makes her the center of attention, the driving force of the drama.
During this crucial fourth act of All That Remains, Clementine goes on a mission of self-support; no friends, no aid, no back-up, and for no one but herself. It is only her, and by proxy, it is only you. From this moment on, for the first time in the episode, you feel like you’re making the decisions that matter. You’re molding this character into whom you want, and need, Clementine to be. To be strong and swift and brave and good, to retain her basic humanity that made her the life blood of Season 1, the person who gave hope to Lee Everett and to every player of the first season.
In the shed, well enough alone, brutally stitching her arm back together, Clementine also stitches back together The Walking Dead. From the little girl lost in the woods, alone and nearly dead, to the girl who jams a hammer into the head of a walker and proclaims to those who locked her away in fear one of the most powerful lines in modern gaming:
“I’m still. Not. BITTEN. I never was. And you left me out here to DIE.”
With those words, All That Remains, its lead character, the season, and the player found its place. Where the episode previously demolished the themes put in place by its first season, it begins finding new ways to reinforce them as the tenets necessary to remaining human. It found that the things we will do for survival do not have to make us monsters. It found that death did not have to permeate all things. It found that honor did not have to die out simply because the world ended, and that trust does not sleep and family is everything we’ve got. It reaffirms, reignites, and re-excites us, giving us that trademark Walking Dead glimpse of hope.
All That Remains found that Clementine is still not done yet. We weren’t done yet. We were well enough alone no more. Or at least, for now. This is The Walking Dead, after all. Nothing is set in stone. And if the cliffhanger is any indication, Clementine’s second chapter appears to follow up on that other trademark of The Walking Dead; no peace gained is an easy peace to keep.
Season 2, episode 2, A House Divided, is coming tomorrow worldwide on PC and to the PS3 in North America, and other platforms and regions are coming later this month.