Rating: M for Intense Violence, Blood and Gore, Strong Language
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
This review will contain spoilers for The Walking Dead – The Final Season through Episode 4, so proceed with caution (which should always happen when zombies are involved).
The Final Season of Telltale’s and Skybound’s The Walking Dead (2018) creates a beautiful narrative parallel with the first season and uses these specific moments to drive the story forward into its well-deserved happy ending. This season was darker than its predecessors and in my opinion, just as powerful as the first season had established. In a unique twist from other stories in the genre, The Final Season turns its focus onto the children who have grown up during the apocalypse, how they have learned to survive, and who they had to become in order to persevere in the adults’ warzone.
The Walking Dead – The Final Season takes place at least a year after Season 3, AJ is now a child who is learning from Clementine’s examples and as we discover early on, a child that has been completely developed by the apocalypse surrounding him. Somewhere in their journey, Clementine and AJ stumble across a school that has been made into a fortress by the children that still survive. AJ, so used to only being with Clementine must now learn how to interact with and understand other children and what it might mean to live a somewhat normal life. Much how I predicted in my Character Profile of Clementine, Clementine takes on what Lee’s role was for her in the first season: teaching AJ to survive while also teaching him good morals in a world gone horribly wrong. Not long after the season starts the players, Clementine, and AJ realize that these children are being bartered off by one of their own to be used as child soldiers in a territorial war between non-zombie adults. Again and again, these children are betrayed by the people who should be looking out for them, and it is this premise that makes this season so devastatingly horrible to witness.
Repeatedly throughout the story, the game will remind you that AJ looks up to Clementine and will learn from her actions, but he’s also starting to question Clementine’s actions. He will vocally disagree with her when he has a differing opinion, and Clementine is always ready and willing to hear his opinion. As a player, you not only have to justify your actions to yourself, you also need to justify them to AJ. Why kill? Why grant mercy? Do you favor teaching survival or start to create the groundwork for a normalcy to live in? Many moments in this season made direct references to decisions Lee had to make and lessons he had to teach Clementine: to steal or not to steal food that has been since abandoned, do you seek to harm those who wish you harm when the tables have been turned, and what happens when a loved one is bitten? Clementine constantly questions her ability to raise AJ and will frequently think of what Lee would do if he were present. There’s a scene in particular where she imagines meeting Lee on the train they once took and she looks as young as she did during the first season, reminding the player that she is still a child. Clementine is confronted by her own youth and her own decisions in one particular argument with AJ, and it is a conversation that is hard to watch as AJ is trying so hard to understand so many conflicting messages and emotions. By the end of the game, you are given a list of all the lessons AJ learned from Clementine, and I don’t know about everyone else, but I certainly had some wildly different lessons.
While the relationship between Clementine and AJ moves through conflicts and resolve, it is also fascinating to watch AJ in an environment (a school environment, no less) with children who experienced the world pre-apocalypse. It provided a great contrast to see children take the lessons that they had learned pre-apocalypse and still apply them to their lives, much to the confusion of AJ. Also significant to this is that the school itself is purposed for troubled youth, so these were children that had already experienced difficult childhoods before the world was turned upside down. Many of these children talk about their favorite hobbies and the things in life they like to enjoy when the focus isn’t on the undead. The game repeatedly confronts the contrast with the fact that AJ has only known how to survive, but he hasn’t had the chance to be a kid. Even Clementine is able to reminiscence with these children of the life she used to lead, but AJ has no frame of reference for what anyone is talking about. That said, AJ starts to develop his own interests after finally finding a settled place that brings him peace: he starts to take up drawing like his friend Tenn and will very likely continue this interest long after the game has concluded.
There’s another important component in telling this story and it is the reemergence of the territorial wars that continue to cause an additional plague to survivors. Up until now, the war has always been off-stage, but in The Walking Dead – The Final Season, these children are directly confronted with its devastating reality. It is discovered in the very first episode that the leader of the group of children was giving away his fellow classmates to the adult soldiers in exchange for the “safety” of the other children. He tries to excuse himself, explaining it was the only way to keep them all safe, but the soldiers would always come back for more. In the following episode, Clementine discovers that an old group member from the first season, Lilly, is a leader of these soldiers, and both Clementine and the player are left wondering how could things have changed so drastically. Lilly recounts how harsh her father was as a parental figure and how desperately she needs the manpower to fight in her war, not realizing that it was the living that caused the war in the first place. The soldiers are so focused on their war that they retaliate against the children even when surrounded by zombies. Watching the children trying to find small bits of peace and a sense of normalcy while the adults get so involved in their war that they need children to fight for them, really emphasizes the importance of Clementine and AJ finding a final home with children that seek the same future as they do.
The Walking Dead – The Final Season concludes with a peace and tranquility that Clementine has long sought after in her chaotic journey. The zombie apocalypse continues on, but the player can rest easy that Clementine and AJ have finally found a place to call home. Even with the fake-out Clementine death that directly mirrors Lee’s final scene in the first season, after a few minutes of fear, the story states outright “it doesn’t have to be this way” and still finds a way to bring Clementine home. Some will argue that this was a cheap trick, but with all the pointed foreshadowing this entire season, the story was building up to the moment where Clementine would finally get bitten and AJ would be confronted by the idea of having to move on on his own. It was an important moment to have for both Clementine and AJ, to realize that he could survive on his own and the fear of getting bitten no longer overshadowing the both of them. It happened and we survived it, the story almost says, letting everyone move on with the idea that these children are resilient and they will carry on, even if the world falls apart around them.