It’s the end of an era. After four seasons, Telltale’s The Walking Dead series has reached its conclusion.
Well, Telltale and later Skybound Games following the sudden dissolution of Telltale Games.
The episodic game first debuted in 2012 and though it does take place in The Walking Dead universe established by the graphic novels, it is a separate canon from the television adaption.
Now, I am a fan of The Walking Dead and have invested a lot of time in the story (even though I really think AMC should have ended their television adaptation once Negan was dealt with instead of going on ahead with the six-year time jump, don’t see the need for creating the spin-off Fear The Walking Dead and really don’t see the need to develop a second one).
It’s been a wild and emotional ride, but all good things must come to an end.
However, with The Walking Dead games, I cannot say the ending was satisfactory.
It is likely an unpopular opinion, but it does bring up a topic I’ve been wanting to cover on this blog for a little while.
This is something I’ve encountered in other games, films, television and, of course, literature.
With The Walking Dead games being added to the list, I decided I would take the opportunity to discuss this matter.
Be | Spoilers
Warned | Ahead
A Brief Summary
Telltale’s The Walking Dead series was released episodically over four seasons. In the first, players are introduced to Clementine, often known as Clem.
In the first season, players step into the role of Lee Everett. Following the start of a zombie apocalypse, Lee crosses path with Clementine, an eight-year-old girl who is on her own after her parents went on vacation and left her with a babysitter before the outbreak. Lee becomes a guardian and father figure to Clem as they work to survive and navigate this new world.
Sadly, this does not last.
Lee is eventually bitten by a walker, making his death inevitable despite his best efforts (the player is given the option of amputating his arm in the hopes of slowing down the virus’s progression). It’s established early on that anyone bitten by a walker will die via the infection, and everyone reanimates after death no matter how they died if their brain is not destroyed.
Lee tasks Clem (and the player) with a difficult choice: shoot him before he dies or leave him to turn. In either case, Clem is left on her own.
Clem becomes the protagonist in future installments of The Walking Dead games. Players are able to watch her evolve from a child to a badass.
In the second installment, one of the women in the group Clem finds herself in gives birth to a boy and dies shortly after. Clem finds herself in a mothering role for the child, named Alvin Junior (AJ).
Come the fourth season, Clem is in late teens and still acts as AJ’s guardian not all that differently from the way Lee protected her.
Clem and AJ wind up at Ericson’s Boarding School for Troubled Youth, running like a of Lord of the Flies situation after the staff abandoned the students in the wake of the outbreak. The kids’ leader, Marlon, has been making deals with another group of survivors, which included some of his own people being traded. Following this revelation and Marlon’s murder in retaliation, and an attack by the Delta group, Clem is caught in the middle and leads a crusade to get Ericson’s people back.
In the fight, Clem is attacked and injured, slowing her down and making her an easier target. As she and AJ are climbing up a rock wall, Clem is bitten.
Clem and AJ make it to a barn, where she gives him the same choice Lee gave her: kill her before she can reanimate or leave her to turn and join the hoard.
The scene ends with AJ lifting an axe, appearing to end Clem’s suffering.
After a jump ahead, AJ is shown to have returned to Ericson’s with the other kids, and it’s not long before Clem joins him, now using crutches after having her bitten leg amputated.
It’s a happy ending, but a happy ending is not always the best one.
Opinion | Telltale/Skybound Made the Wrong Call
With a character as beloved as Clem, there is always a hope that the ending to their story does them justice.
In my mind, the last few minutes of The Walking Dead fails Clem’s legacy.
Clementine should not have survived being bitten.
I expect this is a highly unpopular opinion, but I do not consider it invalid from the perspective of a writer.
Morbid as it may be considering she is introduced as a little girl, Clem’s arc was building up to her death all along.
As I mentioned, Clem is introduced as a secondary character with Lee as her protector. Lee is the one who taught her how to survive and guarded her for as long as he was able to.
Clem later steps into this role of caretaker for AJ.
Look at this image via Screen Rant, which provides a side-by-side comparison between Clem’s bond with Lee as a child and her bond with AJ in her late teens.
There is an undeniable symmetry between Lee and the older Clementine.
Much of what Lee says and his actions influence Clem not only as a fighter and survivor but as a parental figure for AJ.
As Clem tells Ava in Season Three, “I used to have Lee…He took care of me for a while. Every time I would look at AJ, I could hear him in my head… Helping me, guiding me.”
Clem occasionally dreams about Lee, and these moments provide guidance for her in times where she has a difficult choice to make or give her confidence in times of hardship. Even though he is gone, he is still able to mentor her as her conscience.
Clem frequently reminisces about her time with Lee moving forward, and the series itself often calls back to the first season with little references. Among the most well-known is her short hairstyle, taken from Lee’s advice of keeping her hair short.
Coming Full Circle
In The Final Season, these references to Lee become more prominent as she becomes a maternal figure to AJ. Clem often gives advice to AJ that echos what Lee told her and handles herself in a similar way.
Even in dress, there are some similarities. In the first season, Lee wears a blue denim shirt and Clem wears a denim jacket, both with the sleeves rolled up. Lee also wears a white undershirt while Clem sports a white hoodie.
It’s clear the developers intended Clem to take on Lee’s role of protector and had put her on a similar path.
Everything seemed to be mirroring Lee and Clem’s connection, cementing this once Clem was bitten by a walker as Lee was.
When Lee got bit, Clem (somehow?) managed to get him to a safe place and keeps the walkers at bay for a while before things settle down.
Lee comforts her and tells her she needs to get out of the city before asking her to either shoot him or leave, letting him turn into a walker.
When Clem is bitten, she and AJ take shelter in a barn. The pair manage to stop a herd of walkers from breaking in before a quiet moment between them. Clem proceeds to console AJ and goes over their established rules of survival before she addresses what must be done. He is either to kill her or let her turn.
AJ does neither and instead chooses to amputate Clem’s leg, leading to the reveal that she is still alive in the end.
The problem with this, apart from the questionable logistics of the procedure, is the way it detracted from the emotional impact Clementine’s death would have had.
For me, Lee’s being bitten and subsequent death was a surprise. As the protagonist, there is this instinct to assume he will survive to see the end of the game, so to see this trend subverted was unexpected and rewarding. His final moments with Clementine were therefore heartbreaking because despite how short a time they had together, it was clear they had grown extremely close. It also instilled a sort of fear about Clem’s future since she would be on her own and it was made extremely clear that not even the protagonist of a Walking Dead game was safe.
In the following games, we get to watch Clem grow up and learn to survive while navigating adolescence. With so many people lost along the way, she and the player are well aware that death cannot be avoided forever. Still, it is terribly saddening once Clem realizes she is bitten. It leaves you feeling defeated, like you failed to outrun the inevitable. This effect is only made stronger once history begins to repeat itself and what appeared to be her death scene began to mirror Lee’s.
AJ helps a wounded Clementine find shelter and prevents walkers from breaking in. Clem tries to comfort AJ since she knows what will happen despite AJ’s fears of being on his own and without her guidance, and assures him he’ll be all right before instructing him to end her life and go back to the survivors at the school before she can turn.
That’s where I can honestly say I was starting to tear up.
As difficult as it is, the way that what Clem assumes to be her final words parallel Lee’s make her death feel right. Lee would have been so incredibly proud of her in this moment, knowing everything he had done was worth it and that she was able to mentor AJ the way he was able to watch over her. She was bitten while defending others. Had this happened in any other way, like as the result of a careless mistake, or if she had stayed with The New Frontier in the time between Seasons Two and Three and had evolved into someone like Marlon or Lily, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying of an ending.
Clementine dying as the result of a bite in a scene reminiscent of Lee’s death would have resulted in a feeling of completion.
With Clementine’s leg being amputated, it feels like a letdown. Additionally, I kind of feel as though this was a worse fate for her because it takes away so much of who she was and who Lee helped her to become. Even though she has taken on a leadership role at Ericson’s, but her ability to be the fighter and warrior is lessened.
In the epilogue, she sends AJ out with either Violet or Louis (depending on player choices) to investigate a nearby group of survivors, but I get the feeling she wishes she could be the one going out. Since this takes place so soon after her amputation, it’s difficult to determine how this change impacts her moving forth, and there is the possibility she manages to figure out how use her crutches to her advantage or even as a weapon, but at the same time it feels like something is missing~and I’m not just talking about her leg.
Oftentimes, AJ would wonder if he and Clem would ever find a real home rather than keep wandering around and traveling as they had for pretty much all of his life. Even though things got off to a rocky start at the boarding school, AJ had seemed to start finding a solid group of people, and it was remarked on how good it was for him to be around kids his own age for the first time in a while and make some real friends like Tenn. He had talked about wanting to help rebuild it and seemed to be settling in just fine.
In Lee’s final appearance via dream sequence, he tells Clem about how he never really had a solid plan but did his best to keep Clem from learning that. In the epilogue following Clem’s amputation, she tells AJ she kept her own feelings of uncertainty about their future from him so he wouldn’t be scared while they were on the move and unable to settle down like she had wanted for him.
In finding the school, Clem seemed to have completed that mission and fulfilled that desire to provide a secure home for AJ. Given her role in the boy’s life, even though she would have been gone, she would have been with him as Lee was with her throughout the course of the series. She would have done her job.
The Final Season is in many ways the culmination of a coming-of-age story. Clementine is in her late teens and nearing adulthood, though she has arguably been an adult for a long time given her circumstances as AJ’s mother figure and growing up in the wake of a zombie apocalypse.
From her first appearance, Clem is seen wearing a baseball cap that becomes her signature piece. In the second half of the fourth season, this hat falls into the water and is carried off. To me, this is a moment that symbolizes Clem growing up. The hat (which the fanbase for the games is almost as protective of as they are of Clem herself) symbolizes her childhood. She’s always worn it, kind of like the hat Arnold from Hey Arnold! always wore since it was the one his long-lost parents gave him; Clem mentions her father gave her her own signature hat. Losing it in the middle of battle alludes to her maturing and hints at her grown-up situation of confronting and accepting her death once she is bitten.
The hat turns up shortly after Clementine’s “death” when AJ finds it floating down the stream. He returns it to her, though she tells AJ he can keep it, and the player is able to place it in their shared room along with any other collectibles they have found in-game. The last thing the player does before ending the game is put Clem’s hat by the window.
While I loved this and felt it was the perfect image to leave on, it would have been more impactful if Clem’s hat had resurfaced in the wake of her death. In that scenario, it would have acted like a memorial. While it did sort of work in a passing-of-the-torch sense and resembles the way Rick Grimes hands down his sheriff’s hat down to Carl, who in turn gives it to Judith once he realizes he is dying on the AMC show, having Clem’s iconic baseball cap act as a memorial would have been the more evocative note to end on, truly signifying that her story has come to an end.
Clementine is honestly one of the strongest protagonists I’ve encountered recently, not just in videogames, but in fiction in general. As such, the conclusion to her narrative with The Walking Dead’s finale felt lackluster to me. While there is part of me that is glad she survived, finally finding a place to call home and a group that hasn’t fallen apart or has been broken up the way so many others have after everything she, Lee, and AJ endured, at the same time that happy ending doesn’t feel like the best ending.
Endings are not just about keeping your audience happy, and it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to write one that absolutely everyone will agree with, but the goal should be to create an ending that provides a fitting conclusion.
This does not mean you have to wrap everything up with a nice bow that ties absolutely everything together. There are many great endings out there in every genre that are ambiguous. In some cases, this works really well. But when writers think about endings, they ought to consider endings for both their fiction as a whole and the individual stories of their most important and influential characters.
When reaching the end of a character’s arc, be it in a standalone or a series, honor their journey.
For another post I’ve written about videogames and writing, check out this one about Scott Cawthon and Five Nights at Freddy’s.