The irony of a game about the zombie apocalypse dying an unnatural death only to be resurrected later shouldn't be lost on anybody, nor should the fact that The Walking Dead returns with a story that is very much about the latent humanity present in even the shambling corpses roaming the Earth. It is, for certain, a game worse for wear, limping on to a long-overdue finish, but it's a game full of purpose.
Broken Toys picks things up in the direct aftermath of Episode 2's climactic battle. Lilly and her underlings have taken a few of the Ericson Boarding School kids hostage to be traded and trained as child soldiers. Clementine has Abel--the grungy drifter who's been tormenting her and A.J. since Episode 1--hostage, the only lead as to how to get her new friends back. The interrogation of Abel is the closest Broken Toys gets to well-trod, familiar territory. Clementine has to walk a careful line between presenting a serious threat to a man who's clearly ridden this bloody merry-go-round a few times before and setting the best possible example for A.J.
By way of Abel's distinct character traits, this episode is more introspective and pensive than the series has been for some time. Abel's not afraid of dying; he's afraid of turning for a reason that eventually comes to define Broken Toys as a penultimate turning point and the likely set up for the finale: the idea that there is still something human in the Walkers.
Abel simply doesn't want to become trapped in a zombie body. But to James, the Walker Whisperer introduced in Episode 2, it's also a reason to show mercy and pity towards the Walkers. Naturally, the game gives you plenty of leeway to consider or discard this possibility out of hand. James' proof, after all, is tenuous, presented in a strangely poignant moment where Clementine must walk amongst the Walkers. And yet, the episode's script, credited to Lauren Mee and Mark Darin, does powerful work bringing the idea home to Clementine in other ways.
This is the episode where the theme of the whole series starts to take shape. An older generation full of perpetual fear and greed is making way for one where each others' humanity and ability to adapt and compromise is recognized, acknowledged, and nurtured without the need for bloodshed. The grudges and enmity of the world before Walkers don't seem to apply to these children, or, really, any of the children growing up knowing little to nothing else. We've seen this stretching all the way back to Gabe and Mariana in New Frontier, and, conversely, in Season 2's Sarah, a girl sheltered from the way the world is and mentally shattering when exposed to it.
The standout moment of this episode is right in the middle: an impromptu party for the Ericson kids to remember what they're fighting for before wandering into the lion's den. The kids who were actually students at Ericson before the Walkers all still have delinquency files stored that they start reading off, but after it becomes clear just how many children in the file are dead and how little the people they used to be even matter anymore, the box is put away. They sing. They hold each other. They move on. Together. It's a powerful thing, and presented in stark contrast to what Lilly's people are going through just down the river, rehashing the same old petty fights Clementine's seen her whole life. Clementine's found home and peace with her own generation, one that has known nothing else but death, and the greatness of the episode lies in watching her choose to nest in it, for her and A.J. to feel like there is a future.
This is the episode where the theme of the whole series starts to take shape.
However, that still means one hell of a fight to protect it, and the latter half of the episode is a descent right back into darkness. All the skills acquired from the previous episodes come to bear in the assault on Lilly's boat. The lack of impact from Clementine's bow is still a factor, but it's also much less of a linchpin on the one major Walker battle in the episode. Instead, the action side of things is hampered by some painful dips and judders in frame rate, the likes of which we haven't seen since Telltale's early days. Considering the fraught development history of this episode, it's understandable, but it's nonetheless a hindrance from time to time.
As far as the final stretch of the episode goes, it wouldn't be The Walking Dead without things falling apart for the survivors in horrible ways, and Broken Toys saves the worst for last. The last 20 to 30 minutes are full of double-crosses, horrifying mutilations, a breathless Mexican standoff, and a moment where Clementine must decide the fate of A.J.'s soul faster and with more urgency than anything presented in the series prior--and with devastating emotional fallout.
It's all set up for a finale that, if all goes to plan, hits two months after this one, and finally brings The Walking Dead in for the landing it deserves. But despite the blood and bombast that ends the episode, there's another moment in Broken Toys that does more to show you the light at the end of this bleak tunnel: a dream sequence, flashing Clementine back to the little girl who sat with Lee on a hijacked train in Season 1. She just got her hair cut and learned to shoot because she was worried about the future. In Broken Toys, the voice may be that little girl's, but the words are a woman's. A reluctant leader's lament for all that's been done, the emptiness that could be, and the weariness of what must be done to get there.
And yet, smartly, this ghost of Lee isn't crafted as some all-knowing magical father who tells Clementine exactly what she wants to hear. We're forced to remember Lee was making it up as he went along, that his road to being the person Clementine needs was paved by his--and by proxy, your own--mistakes. But there was love, and there was hope, and for the first time in this series, Clementine being ready to face the uncertain future has nothing to do with being able to shoot or how short her hair is but the fact that she is surrounded by people, a place, and a purpose like never before. Whatever awaits Clementine at the end of this road, she goes there with a full heart. If the finale lives up to the future set up in Broken Toys, so will we.