(Note: This review may contain spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 2: Episode 5 – No Going Back. While I will endeavor to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, there are no guarantees in life, so consider this your fair warning.)
“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
Season Rating: 4.5 Burritos
The Walking Dead Season 2: Episode 5 – No Going Back is available today on PC, Mac, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita. Tomorrow, it comes to Xbox 360, and on Thursday, it comes to iOS.
What was your Clementine like? Share your stories with us and your thoughts on this episode/the series in the comments below!