It’s been almost a week since I first got my hands on the latest episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it.
What I can tell you though, is that In Harm’s Way is easily the bleakest episode yet, of either season. The ending of Episode 2, if you’ve played it, should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from the new chapter. Things take a turn for the worse for Clementine and her ragtag band of survivors, and the tension doesn’t let up for a moment until the final credits roll, accompanied by a stunning piece of music.
This is both to the episode’s benefit, and its detriment. On the one hand, it claws at your emotions in a way that we’ve come to expect from Telltale. So effectively, in fact, that at one point I felt physically ill and wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep playing (there is one unsettling scene in particular). When was the last time you had such a visceral reaction to a game?
And yet, the chapter’s attempts on your feelings are subject to diminishing returns in a way that previous efforts have cleverly avoided. Other episodes of The Walking Dead have typically covered a full spectrum of emotion; the calm, happy, hopeful parts stand in contrast to the intense, gritty scenes, and both sides of the coin are more impactful as a result.
This isn’t so much the case with In Harm’s Way, which more or less maintains its grim, depressing tone from start to finish. The result? An early scene creates such a strong emotional reaction that I felt sick to my stomach, but I didn’t bat an eyelid at a scene near the end that should be just as gut-wrenching.
The new episode also introduces something that The Walking Dead hasn’t really seen before - a real, no-nonsense villain. Conflict in the series is generally situational; the zombie apocalypse causes all manner of problems, and often leads to people doing less-than-moral things. But there’s always a sense of desperation, that these are good people doing bad things out of necessity. This is a game whose characters are human and complicated with no moral absolutes.
Enter Bill Carver, who is the kind of person upon which you’d wish eternal knee-pit sunburn - an irredeemable sack of shit. However, like the rest of the episode, he starts out strong but falters before the episode’s conclusion. Voiced stunningly by professional psychopath actor Michael Madsen, Carver’s take-no-prisoners approach is clear from the outset, whetting your appetite for more insight into this heartless monster and the colony he runs.
Only, the game never delivers on that tease. All of Carver’s screen time is dedicated to showing just what a terrible person he is, rather than offering insight into why. This might be par for the course with video game characters in general, but it puts him in stark contrast with just about every other character in the series to date. The end result? A forgettable villain, and a missed opportunity, especially considering the calibre of voice talent and phenomenal performance by Madsen.
On the flipside, In Harms Way does wonders for Clementine. We’ve tracked her growth from naive child to hardened survivor, albeit still with a sense of childlike innocence and hope, over the course of the last season and a half. But the new chapter really solidifies just how tough she has become, and shines a spotlight on the strength of her character and convictions. She might be the youngest in her group of survivors, but she is undoubtedly the leader and the glue that holds everything else together.
So, back to the ever-present question: how does In Harm’s Way stack up to the previous episodes? That’s probably subjective, even more so than than the “is it good?” question generally is. This is certainly the most confronting chapter so far, which some will love, but may put off others (like it almost did me). Clementine continues to grow, and her strength is put squarely to the test, but in other aspects, Episode 3 just doesn’t hold up to what’s come before.