With episode three of the Walking Dead season two (entitled, ‘In Harm’s Way’), Telltale continues to impress. Though the first episode was somewhat underwhelming, the second was excellent and this most recent instalment continues this recent surge of quality. Though it’s a lot smaller in scope than episodes before it, and somewhat of a transitory phase in regard to the overall story arc, this episode works out extremely well. The narrowed focus allows the developer to explore a single setting and character very nicely, as well as grounding this slice of the narrative very well. The last episode was really great, but it meandered to different places, lacking an overarching structure. The places it went were fantastic, but it felt baggy at times. This episode has an obvious end point from the start, it is tighter as a whole and this helps the overall pacing. You are confined to one location – a shopping complex turned makeshift fortress – and the eventual goal is to get out of it. This simple set up allows all kinds of interesting things to play out. The path of the episode is clear, you learn about the place you are in and the characters in it then eventually attempt to flee it. This arc is made obvious from the get go, by the context for your arrival and the manner of your stay. You were forcibly brought here by the menacing Carver, who terrorised your group and is holding you against your will. It soon becomes clear that he rules over this safe haven like a dictator. The format is like that of a prison under martial law; you are penned up and forced to work by gun toting guards.
This episode manages to do what great zombie fiction does, it turns the lens back on the people. The zombies are a constant threat throughout this episode, but they are cleverly treated as a mere force of nature and put mostly out of sight (but never out of mind). They are an eventuality that the dialogue intelligently doesn’t personify. There’s a telling segment where a character refers to an approaching hoard as a tide coming that will destroy everything. It’s smart writing that capitalises the idea that the zombies are just there and will just mindlessly destroy everything eventually. This allows the episode to concentrate on the nature of life in the zombie apocalypse. No safe haven is ever safe enough, you have to keep moving onwards – also the real enemy is of course man. The zombies are just an unthinking force, it is humanity that has the capacity for evil and malice. Carver embodies this idea. His idea for survival in the zombie apocalypse is a thought provoking one. The safe haven is well stocked and effectively run, but existing inside it is just surviving rather than living. There’s no quality of life and there’s little reason to prefer this existence over the alternative. The clear positives are its dependability, there’s enough to survive here because they have a consistent supply of the bare essentials, but mere survival here isn’t hugely appealing. You will the characters to escape because their situation is safe but lacking in hope. Just existing here seems like resignation, living a horrible lifestyle purely because it keeps you alive. Its clever use of a prison setting evokes that central tenet of the Shawshank Redemption, the idea of hope. Hope is a dangerous thing, but it’s incredibly valuable. Outside of the walls there is hope, the possibility of something better. It’s not as dependable as the depressing existence within Carver’s walls, but it feels like a gamble worth taking. Struggling towards something like hope is far more commendable than resigning to a life without it.
This stuff is why In Harm’s Way is so good. It’s a very interesting episode that uses a smaller scale to explore some profound things. It requires some reading into, but this profundity is definitely there. It’s also helped by how well realised the constituent factors are. The pseudo-prison setting is pulled off excellently, Carver is always a menacing figure and he rules by fear. He is also not afraid to wax philosophical about how only the strong should survive, going on about an elitist ideology. There are clear fascist overtones and his treatment throughout the episode allows the developers to make some kind of statement about this – it juxtaposes different ways of handling the apocalypse to show which one eventually overcomes the other. It’s not just as simple as this though, like usual there are plenty of shades of grey. There are hints towards the Nietzschean idea that fighting monsters can make you one yourself (and beyond this there are clear leanings to the Uber-Mensch way of thinking from Carver). The game goes out of its way to twist the idea of a strong character. Clementine is purposefully portrayed as a very strong character in this season, superbly grounded and wise beyond her years. Her societal context has made her this way though, a context which literally involves fighting monsters. This has made her extremely capable and is the reason why characters flock to her. However, Carver also sees a strength in her and sees the two of them as somewhat alike, both strong people who do what others can’t (and there’s truth to this). It makes you wonder about the real impact of your choices and perhaps what you could become. It’s a stark reminder that this should be an innocent young girl, but she clearly isn’t. It’s a theme this episode runs with and expresses in lots of interesting ways.
Episode three is a slow thought provoking instalment that goes into some really fascinating areas. It’s intelligently written and plotted out, though is occasionally hampered by a poor supporting cast. Clementine shines greater than ever, and a certain series staple gets an excellent outing, but those around them(bar the fantastic Carver) aren’t always as strong. They aren’t as memorable as season one’s cast, but it doesn’t rely on them as much. There is a weakness here, but so far it has been mostly avoided by playing to strengths. Ultimately, In Harm’s Way is an excellent episode. It’s enthralling in its pensiveness and contains a number of great gameplay sequences. Choice is still illusory, but different options place a different context around the same consequence. You can feel more or less guilt when a thing goes down a certain way, for example. A time when this happened was when my attempts at sparing a character’s feelings got them into trouble that could have seemingly been avoided. If I hadn’t have done this, another way would have been found to get the same result, but the way you get there is important. This all speaks to how well put together this entire product is. This has been a very confident season so far, more so than the last, and with an episode this good Telltale have more than enough reason to feel this way.
This thought provoking episode is one of the most interesting yet - and one of the best.