Clementine kicks ass. Episode two of the second season of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead adventure series may be about more than just this pint-size survivor of the zombie apocalypse impaling undead skulls and blasting away with a handgun. But the lasting image that I'm taking away from A House Divided is of the lovable moppet whirling around like a ballcap-wearing ninja who can clearly take care of herself better than any of the adults she encounters.
This isn't a problem for me. As much as Clem's action-hero moments strain believability a bit, her zombie-slaying skills are offset by how much this lonely little girl depends on the kindness of strangers, and by a reminder at the conclusion of just how vulnerable she still is. The result is a superb episode that balances action with a story that picks up the pace from the snoozy episode one and serves as both an intriguing foundation for the season to build upon and a satisfying one-off story in its own right.
Nevertheless, storytelling is still settling in for the long haul. Just like Clementine, we are still getting to know this new group of survivors that she hooked up with in episode one. There isn't any easy empathy for the plight of this group. Still, personalities are developed much more thoroughly here. Pregnant Rebecca is no longer a one-note misanthrope. Nick isn't just a teen rebelling against whatever you've got. Luke seems like he could become a reliable friend, or even something of a younger Lee substitute. Alvin and Carlos are no longer wallflowers. Only Sarah remains the same, and even her childlike attitude is expanded upon in a couple of scenes that make it clear she had problems long before the "hell is full, dead will walk the earth" stuff went down.
Even better, the situation is taking on a personality of its own, and a cloud of mystery and dread hovers in the background of everything. Fear of other people and always taking account of where you are and how much you can safely let your guard down with strangers have been major themes in the Walking Dead game series, but here, everything goes into overdrive. Clem is completely on her own, cut off from all of the support she had during the first season and even during the start of the last episode when she was still traveling with Christa. Her isolation is underlined even further when she meets what should be an old friend, only to find out that this former pal is no longer the same person that she knew. (Also, keep an eye out for the appearance of some other old acquaintances from the 400 Days episode released as a stand-alone installment last summer.)
With A House Divided, season two of The Walking Dead is up and shambling.
Clem is forced to constantly ask herself whom she can trust, if she can actually ever trust anyone in a world where a can of peaches is the difference between life and death. Fighting zombies is easy, even in the white-knuckle brawls highlighted here, such as the railroad bridge showdown and the climactic shootout at the ski lodge where Clem whips under a picnic table and spears a zombie like a fish. What's tough is dealing with other human beings. Dialogue choices get tougher and more pragmatic as the episode goes along. Most of the time it seems like the only sensible option involves telling someone an unflinching truth or taking a hard line that everyone is better off thinking of themselves first. Clem seems to be applying the harsh lesson that she learned from Sam in the first episode to everyone she encounters now, which turns the entire game into one long, absorbing existential crisis. I was almost expecting True Detective nihilist Rust Cohle to be waiting for Clem in the ski lodge, sitting at a picnic table with the world's last six-pack of Lone Star, ready to deliver a lecture about the pointlessness of it all.
You can't say that Clem's pessimistic approach is wrong, either. Something is wrong with this entire group. Bad things happen to everyone they encounter. And they are hiding something, especially when it comes to the mysterious Carver, who makes his first appearance here after being the subject of ominous discussions in the last episode. Thankfully, Carver debuts as a multifaceted villain. He seems motivated by a desire to bring the group to a safe settlement, yet bodies still mount by the end of the episode. Carver has no problem threatening to kill Clem to get what he wants. So he's still a bad guy, albeit a potentially sympathetic bad guy with tinges of a messiah complex reminiscent of a cross between Rev. Jim Jones and Negan, the megalomaniacal monster in the current Walking Dead comics.
The bleakness is so overbearing, in fact, that A House Divided steps perilously close to monotony. Every kindness is rewarded with brutality. You just know that any act of generosity will soon be followed up with either a bullet to the head or a bite to the neck. The guy at the ski lodge is willing to give a box full of food to a stranger he just met? OK, just throw yourself off the mountain already, pal. This sort of thing has gotten so predictable that it wouldn't be a bad idea for the developers to pull back from the brink in future episodes before the series ventures into self-parody. Grim is one thing; slaughtering every guy who offers you a friendly smile along with some peaches and beans is something else entirely.
With A House Divided, season two of The Walking Dead is up and shambling. While the first episode was too perfunctory in how it set the stage and got everything into motion, you can now see both the story and the characters taking shape and evolving. This slow-burn approach should continue to pay dividends as the saga matures in future episodes.