(Note: Spoilers below.)
The nihilism of the zombie apocalypse in Telltale Games' "The Walking Dead" has started to infect the adventure series' storytelling.
In the space between episodes three and four of the series' second season — the sequel to my 2012 game of the year — "The Walking Dead" goes from auspicious new villainy to narrative aimlessness. Worse, it does so with player choices flouting the fact that most, if not all roads lead to the same grim destination regardless.
Episode three, "In Harm's Way," is held together by villain Carver, who takes Clementine, Kenny and the gang captive at his camp. Their not-so-smooth assimilation into Carver's work schedule and codes of conduct is fairly standard group hostage storytelling, but damn if you still don't wince when Kenny catches a beating for stealing a walkie-talkie.
The grizzled Carver thinks and growls with the kind of scary utilitarianism that could have made him a monster bad guy through the end of the second season. Instead, he's killed off at the climax of "In Harm's Way," his face caved in by a wrathful Kenny in a scene you'd have to feel pretty bloodthirsty to watch comfortably.
If the guy's comeuppance wasn't so undercooked, I might have pulled up a chair. Even then, I can appreciate the meaning of the choice itself: It holds a mirror to your inner sadist.
After Carver's demagnetizing end, though, I started to wonder whether there was any grand design at all in the second season of "The Walking Dead."
"In Harm's Way" ends with one of the series' most intense dilemmas: As Clementine and the gang flee Carver's camp, a zombie bites Sarita's arm. You have a split-second to decide: Do you hack off the limb, stopping the infection from spreading? Or do you just kill the zombie and hope for the best?
With gritted teeth I chose the former, thinking it'd ultimately save Sarita. (Hey, it worked for Hershel.)
When "Amid the Ruins" finally came round July 23, though, I found out that my flash amputation did nothing. Seconds into the fourth episode, Sarita is swarmed by more zombies and killed. Had I buried Clem's hatchet in the zombie instead, she would have died regardless, just later in the episode.
It's not the first time this year Telltale led us to a cliffhanger where the drop wound up being just a few feet. The conclusion to the premiere of fellow adventure series "The Wolf Among Us" was the sight of Snow White's severed head. She turned up alive shortly into the following episode.
At that point early in "Amid the Ruins," I thought maybe the purpose of Clementine playing field surgeon was to alienate her from Sarita's boyfriend, Kenny. Indeed, he's furious with his longtime running buddy, not to mention despondent at his loss. But no: By the end of the episode, he's actually quite pleasant toward Clementine again.
Hard-edged new character Jane also lies at the root of the episode's decision tree, yet she just takes off later, rendering even more moot. By the time a random squad of heavily armed Russians holds up Clementine and company at the end of the episode, the series has reached its narrative nadir, at once directionless and too stuck to its rails.
The match to that powder keg of a standoff is the sudden zombification of new mother Rebecca. Whether it's Clementine or Kenny who shoots her before she can bite the baby in her arms, the Russians open fire — and there's that word again — regardless.
Like two of the final episodes of "Breaking Bad," "Amid the Ruins" cuts to black mid-shootout for maximum effect. The AMC show, however, made good on the week of eye-bulging suspense it forced us to endure by concluding the scene meaningfully. At this point, I'm not so confident "The Walking Dead" will.
It's possible that the seemingly dead-end choices of "In Harm's Way" and "Amid the Ruins" come back to bite you, for better or worse, in episode five, "No Going Back." For instance, Jane could return to save the gang from its newest enemies before resuming her business with Clementine and Luke. Or the Russians could wind up being better villains than Carver. Or Clementine's hardness could distance her even further from her fellow survivors.
Or maybe the second-season finale's title is apropos of "The Walking Dead's" waning quality. It's still superb, to be sure — but also well-worn and a little too bent on short-term thrills at the expense of big-picture storytelling.