“You’re a good girl, Clementine.” This moment of reassurance that comes halfway through The Walking Dead Season 2’s penultimate episode is horribly necessary. Few video game protagonists have gone through what this 12 year old girl has. And the impact of the myriad horrors faced by Clem have taken their toll.
Amid the Ruins feels like the peak of the pint-sized survivor’s development. After the brutal trauma of the previous episode, we get to decide, or at least influence, what she will be like in the finale and how she’s been transformed by the events of this second season. Every moment is a struggle between Darwinism and kindness.
But she’s damned either way.
The group’s in bad shape. Kenny’s a wreck, Rebecca is very, very pregnant and everyone else is on edge. Clem, in her role as soft-spoken mediator, has to hold the fractured band together. It’s been fascinating to watch these characters grow to not just trust Clem, but utterly depend on her. She’s left childhood far behind her.
This is never more clear than in her interactions with Kenny and Jane. Kenny’s grown into an absolutely wonderful, nuanced character - a far cry from the angry redneck Lee meets back at the start of Season 1. He’s seen so much loss and death that it’s amazing he can stand up, let alone protect the group. But he does, anyway.
Clem and Kenny’s shared past is at the forefront of Amid the Ruins, with both of them leaning on each other during what must be the lowest point in both their lives. Their burdens have hardened both of them, but Kenny is ultimately further along. In many ways, his actions are warnings. He gives into rage and sorrow freely, and that can start to rub off on his young friend.
Jane was a bit of an enigma in the last episode, but really comes into her own here. While trust is hard to come by in the zombie apocalypse, Clem is always trying to make connections, and in Jane she finds a big sister. Despite being your archetypical lone wolf, the angry loner rapidly becomes a temporary mentor.
At first it’s heart warming, with one particular moment putting a smile on my face even amid all the crises. But there’s also something unsettling about their friendship, as Jane encourages Clem to become cold and hard just like her. It’s the only way to survive, she says. Given the possible actions in both this and the previous episode, it’s not hard to see her transforming into this stoic, sometimes cruel, survivor.
The pair’s conversations eerily mimic Carver’s assertions that both he and Clem are cut from the same cloth. Telltale haven’t just set the story up in such a way that it threatens to make Clem a tough survivalist - there’s a very real danger that she could lose her humanity altogether. This would be disturbing even if she wasn’t just a child, but because she is, it’s amplified significantly.
While Season 1 and the start of this season made it very clear that, despite her wits, Clem was still vulnerable thanks to her age and size, this is no longer the case. Amid the Ruins offers up a plethora of decisions that give her a greater amount of agency and make her just as, if not more, capable of violent action as any adult in the group.
This leads to the episode’s big choices being the most unapologetically upsetting across the entire series. Telltale has never compromised on the graphic nature of the series or its inherent brutality, but here it reaches new levels. There are multiple occasions where Clem can weigh up her options and sacrifice characters for her own safety, and while most decisions in The Walking Dead are difficult, never before have they put so much pressure on the player.
Much of the guilt that has become part and parcel of the series stems from the unknowable consequences of Clem’s - and before her, Lee’s - actions. But now there are less opportunities to soften the blow by saying “it wasn’t my fault”. That makes the impact of these calls unbearably heavy.
Unfortunately, the rapid fire series of crises in an episode that runs for less than two hours has somewhat diluted character’s reactions to at least one fairly serious event. One of the most distressing moments in the game is immediately glossed over and entirely forgotten by the whole cast. It could be chalked up to their stress or because they’ve gotten used to loss, but even that requires some form of acknowledgement, and that never comes.
It’s a rare misstep, however, and despite it, Amid the Ruins is another phenomenal episode, building up to a finale where I can honestly say I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. All I do know is that it can’t be good. I hadn’t noticed it until now, but Clem’s journey has been mirroring Lee’s from Season 1. And like her adoptive father, she may very well find herself being judged come the finale.
I’m not looking forward to it.