the writers have gotten the pacing of emotion and tension just right”
Spoiler warning: This review contains significant plot details, because I didn't feel I could do the game, or the review justice, without exploring them in some detail. The relevant parts are clearly marked and sectioned off, and the rest of the review is spoiler-free.
The journey that has been The Walking Dead: Season Two has finally come to a close, and it's been something of a strange one. Lengthy wait times between episodes meaning fans have had something to look forward to for the better part of a year, but also that the anticipation for the next part had more time to decay than it should. The quality of writing has been a rollercoaster, with decidedly average episodes book-ended by the season's best. And it's had a strange relationship with it's older sibling - the masterpiece that is Season One - as it tries to capture that elusive something that made the first season so memorable, while also carving its own path.
Episode 5: No Going Back is the epitome of these paradoxes. In some ways, it's the best episode of the season; in others, the worst, and it all wraps up in a way that's surprising and powerful, but also felt like a missed opportunity.
If you're caught up on The Walking Dead, or have at least played the first season, you'll be familiar with the premise: there's a zombie apocalypse causing all manner of problems - not least of all, conflicts between friends, allies and acquaintances. As the young survivor, Clementine, you're navigating these relationships, with the constant threat of Walkers as a backdrop, as your group moves from one nightmare situation to another.
In that regard, No Going Back is more or less the same as any other episode. One thing leads to another, but it doesn't really feel like a season finale until the closing half hour or so - and this is where the chapter's greatest strength lies. The pacing is absolutely spot on; the ending doesn't feel dragged out, and everything leading up to it feels like a natural progression of events, not some kind of filler. More importantly, the writers have gotten the pacing of emotion and tension just right too; something that Season One excelled at, but Season Two has struggled with so far. There's plenty of drama that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but you're given enough respite to keep that drama from losing its impact.
This is helped by a group of protagonists that feels much more organic and fleshed out. So far, the season has struggled somewhat with its ensemble cast, with some of the characters seemingly there for the sake of it. This time around, we get a much better insight into the likes of Bonnie and Mike, and at the group as a whole, rather than a mismatched collection of parts.
Unfortunately, this comes at a cost: this is the weakest episode to date as far as Clementine's characterisation goes, which is more than a little bit unexpected considering Telltale's #MyClementine social media campaign leading up to No Going Back. You get plenty of opportunity to define the kind of person your Clementine is through your responses to various situations, but they're largely superficial. For the most part, she feels like a second-person narrator rather than the main protagonist, which is a bit of a let down.
To be fair, this changes towards the end of the episode, with three very different endings depending on a series of your (and by extension, Clementine's) choices. It's too little, too late though, and the plot still ultimately hinges on secondary characters more than it does Clem.
Spoilers start here
Although you play as Clem, this episode is really about Kenny. In the same way that Season One was a story about Clementine, told through the eye's of the player's character, Lee, the end of Season Two amounts to a story about Kenny, told through the eyes of Clem. He's a man who has lost everything he's ever loved - his wife, his kid, his second wife - and No Going Back continues the plotline that started in Episode 4, tracing his descent into complete and utter despair. It's an interesting, compelling tale, there's no doubt about that. But I can't help but feel that Clementine - the awesome, loveable Clementine, who has been the glue holding this season together - got the short straw in the end.
Which brings me to the ending, which has left me more than a little conflicted. By the end of the episode, there are only four people left - Clementine, Kenny, Jane, and the baby, Alvin Jr. By this point, Kenny is a broken man, but Alvin Jr. is the one thing keeping him going. His sole focus is on finding Wellington, a town in Florida fabled to have supplies and a more or less functional community, to give the baby a half decent shot at life.
Jane, however, is scared of Kenny. She's scared of what a man like him, defeated by life, can become, and scared not just for herself, but for Clem's safety. In an effort to prove her point, Jane does something awful – she pretends to have lost Alvin Jr., sending Kenny into a murderous rage that ultimately leaves Clem with a horrific choice: shoot Kenny, or watch as he murders Jane.
There's an obvious and clever parallel to the first season's finale here, as Clementine is forced to decide whether or not to kill someone she loves, who is on the verge of turning into a monster. In Season One, that monster was literal - Lee was bitten, and was about to turn into a Walker. In Season Two, that monster is more figurative: an angry man who has lost all hope and given up on life. It's a powerful underscore to a theme that's been running throughout the whole of The Walking Dead - zombies are one kind of monster, but the real threats are normal people pushed to the brink.
As impactful as this is, to some extent, it left me wanting. The callback to Season One was clever, but it also gave the ending a feeling of being a retread. And, like I said before, the whole thing became about Kenny. Sure, Clem is the one who pulls the trigger (or doesn't), but having to make that choice doesn't carry the same kind of weight as it did in the first season because Clem and Kenny just don't have the bond that Clem and Lee had.
Spoilers end here
Overall, No Going Back is a fitting end to the second season of The Walking Dead. It's well written, expertly paced, and comes to a conclusion that is surprising, distressing, and pays a clever homage to Season One.
But therein lies the rub: Season Two is good, and great at times, but it never reaches the lofty heights of its predecessor. To be fair, the first season was a masterpiece that would be difficult even for its own creators to emulate, and while the second season doesn't quite hit that benchmark, it's still a tale worth telling.