(Note: This review may contain spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 2: Episode 4 – Amid the Ruins. While I will endeavor to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, there are no guarantees in life, so consider this your fair warning.)
“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.” – William S. Burroughs
These words have never rung truer for Clementine and her intrepid band of survivors than in The Walking Dead Season 2’s fourth episode, Amid the Ruins. Hope is in short supply in our latest foray back into the increasingly bleak world of The Walking Dead. At times, the game almost feels too grim to continue playing, but then I find myself stepping back for a moment and standing in awe at how affecting the story has been so far. With episode four, though, Telltale has outdone themselves, something which I find myself saying quite often with each subsequent Telltale release, but something that continues to hold true. Amid the Ruins is at once heartbreaking and empowering because it hammers home the lesson that Clementine and we have been learning since season one, episode one. She can no longer stand by and watch or rely on other people to survive in this horrific new world; the only one who can ensure her survival is herself.
At the end of episode three, Clementine and her friends made their escape from Carver’s warehouse prison. Although the escape was not without casualties, the moment of escaping out into the cool, crisp, wintry night air felt like a coup. It was a much needed wave of relief for the survivors after suffering so much at the hands of Carter — Kenny getting beaten half to death, Alvin sacrificing his life to give us a head start, and Carlos made to strike poor, sweet Sarah. And just when it seemed as though escape was within their grasp, our heroes, slathered in walker guts and trying to make their way through the herd of zombies, disaster strikes: Carlos takes a bullet from a guard, fatally wounding him in front of his already traumatized daughter. And, perhaps most tragically, Sarita is bitten on the arm by a walker, forcing Clementine to choose whether to sever Sarita’s infected arm or to kill the attacking zombie. I chose the former, leaving a stunned Sarita screaming, which is where last episode closed before fading to black. It’s also exactly where it picked back up.
Hitting the ground running is an understatement as far as Amid the Ruins is concerned. Although I’ve criticized Telltale’s reliance on quick-time events in certain episodes in the past, the opening action sequence makes for a thrilling introduction to the story that immediately sucks the player back in to the brutal world they’ve created. It’s harrowing stuff to see Clementine forced to be the most mature, even-keeled person in a time of crisis, but such is the nature of this bold new world, and Lee taught her well. Whether its convincing the incredibly pregnant Rebecca that she can make it through a herd of walkers or forcing Kenny to leave the love of his life for dead again, Clementine is forced to be the adult in the situation in spite of her years and make decisions that many of us wouldn’t be able to in a similar circumstance.
This reliance on Clem is fitting given the episode’s centerpiece, a Civil War memorial site centered around a statue of a soldier helping a wounded ally to safety. All of these survivors are wounded in one way or another and are looking for help they can’t find on their own. Rebecca needs to find a safe place to have her baby, and the whole group needs to find food, water, and shelter, but far and away, the most wounded of all is Kenny, a man who has endured more suffering, torment, and emotional abuse than any person in The Walking Dead. Having lost his entire family twice, quick to anger, and ready to fight at the drop of a hat, Kenny is a volatile substance, ready to explode at a moment’s notice, something that is made even scarier by the fact that he looks like redneck Big Boss. Every interaction with him feels like he could snap, losing sight of his love for Clementine and becoming a blind rage monster. Of course, we have a degree of patience and empathy for Kenny that the others in the group cannot. They weren’t there in Macon. They weren’t there in Savannah. What Clementine and Kenny share is a nigh-unbreakable bond, but one that is definitely strained in Amid the Ruins.
The episode’s other breakout star was Jane, a rough-and-tumble, taciturn loner who recognizes a bit of herself in Clementine. There’s a definite big sister/little sister dynamic there, and for brief moments it feels like Clementine has found a kindred spirit. Yet, it’s difficult to tell who exactly you can trust in the post-apocalypse, and Jane is too guarded to get an accurate read. Whether its a tender moment in which Clementine helps reassure someone that they’re pulling their weight or a frantic escape from flesh-hungry walkers, the interactions between characters are what drive the momentum of The Walking Dead and elevate the narrative thrust of Amid the Ruins from good to great.
The titles of Telltale’s chapters are always fitting, but Amid the Ruins hits the nail on the head. We’ve spent three episodes this season trying to build something only to have it crumble before us, explode in our faces. Now, we’re standing in the wreckage, standing amid the ruins trying to make sense of what went wrong as the consequences of a season-and-a-half of actions come to bear on us. More than once, I found myself having to the pause the game and let the gravity of what I was about to do wash over me. This is considered cheating by some, and I generally try to avoid it, but some of these choices were so staggering that I had to take a moment to collect myself. Clearly, Clem is made of sturdier stuff than I am, or the writers are paid in schadenfreude. At the end of the day, though, one thing is certain: everything may be ruined, but Clementine is a survivor and no one is going to stand in her way. It’s a cruel world out there, and Clementine isn’t just coming of age; she’s callusing, and we must bear witness.
Rating: 4.5/5 burritos
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