One of the first choices Michonne has to make in her first solo Walking Dead story is whether or not she should blow her brains out. In the five or so minutes preceding the moment of truth, we’re presented, in an utterly spectacular bit of direction and editing, with abstract pieces of Michonne’s troubled past. She isn't weighing her own death against being turned into a zombie; she's weighing whether or not life as she knows it now is worth fighting for at all. The crux of The Walking Dead: Michonne seems to hinge on that question, and while there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Telltale will eventually provide an answer, this episode is little more than a protracted setup. It’s not necessarily a bad setup, though it is an unsurprising one.
In game, the decision of whether or not Michonne’s story ends by her own hand is interrupted by Pete, a fellow survivor who comes across Michonne at her rock-bottom moment. The game fast-forwards to Michonne now living onboard Pete’s boat with a few other hardy shipmates. Pete is trying to reach another group of survivors he trades with regularly, but is only able to pick up a distress call from a nearby abandoned ferry. From there, followers of the show, the games, or the comics can pretty much guess how things go down. Walkers eventually attack, the quest for resources takes a turn for the grim, and the armed/dangerous human element makes the walkers look relatively low-key as antagonists.
Telltale’s execution is affective. Every conversation maintains a delicate balance of emotional responses, crafting an attitude for Michonne that vacillates from carefully guarded and cold to foolishly optimistic and brave. Each path is rewarding in its own right, with both levity and appropriately nihilistic moments adding much needed texture to the story.
In addition, Telltale continues to refine its quick time events; it helps that the action here is harsher than usual. One particular kill involving a cash register is brutal on a level we haven’t seen since The Walking Dead: Season One’s horrifying salt lick moment. We also get a tip of the hat to the fighting game-style QTE from Tales from the Borderlands’ final episode, even though it feels less apropos here.
There are also a few tense conversations in the latter half of this episode, but it’s not enough to support a narrative that will wrap after three episodes. Episode 2 will have to lower the boom exponentially to get to the same point of dramatic tension other Telltale series have typically established by now. Judging from the preview of Episode 2 at this episode's end, it is certainly a possibility.
The true power of the episode, and the reason it remains worth the play regardless of its narrative shortcomings, boils down to Michonne herself. The character is already a fan favorite of the AMC show and the comics, so Michonne in video game form is a godsend. It prominently features a powerful, layered black woman with depth, who is given every opportunity to play off of that subjective pain with poise, heartbreaking remorse, a subdued mirth, and occasionally, an unrelenting machete to the face. So much of the weight is on Orange Is The New Black actress Samira Wiley to perform the vocal gymnastics of keeping Michonne away from being a caricature. Wiley succeeds with flying colors, easily taking her place besides the masterful work we’ve seen from Telltale’s seasoned leads thus far. Michonne is a character worth inhabiting just as much as she is worth watching or reading every week in other media, and this episode is kept afloat by her mere presence.
Michonne’s humanity already hangs by a thread, and In Too Deep does comparatively little to rebuild or cut away at that thread.
Whether the series can capitalize on what they have here in Michonne remains to be seen. The story in this first episode is captivating enough on its own terms, but in context of being yet another story of human nature in the face of a zombie menace, it’s territory that’s been tread far too many times before. Where Telltale’s Walking Dead stories prior have typically hinged on the sanctity of humanity in those facing unspeakable trauma, Michonne’s humanity already hangs by a thread, and In Too Deep does comparatively little to rebuild or cut away at that thread. In light of having a kind of protagonist we’ve seen far too little of in gaming, Walking Dead: Michonne can and should go to narrative places we haven’t seen before.