This review covers the latest episode in an ongoing season, and may contain minor spoilers.
Death is better than zombification, but life is the best option of all. Even in a hellhole of a world; even with rotting corpses hunting you down every path, salivating for your flesh; even when you have to kill your friends every day – life is the better option.
That's what "Amid the Ruins" teaches us. More than any previous episode of The Walking Dead, it throws the importance of life in our faces – the fragility of breathing, the futility of fighting, the need to do it anyway – and it makes us wish for life harder than we ever have. Not necessarily our own lives, either. Clementine, for her part, is capable and in charge in this episode. She's rarely in direct danger herself (at least not in any way she hasn't already conquered 50 times before), but she bears witness to the potential deaths of many others, multiple times over. She saves some people. She kills some people. And she survives.
Gallery: The Walking Dead Season 2, Episode 4 "Amid the Ruins" (7/22/2014) | 5 Photos
Amid the Ruins adds a few bodies to the "they might return as a zombie later" pile, and it adds even more to the "they definitely won't return as a zombie later" group. For many of these (former) people, Clementine plays an active role in their fates, deciding when and where to shoot, axe or abandon them. Her actions aren't without consequence, nor are her words – the group is increasingly splintered, mentally, emotionally and physically. To name a few: Kenny is violently losing his mind, Sarah is incapacitated by anxiety and shock, Jane is cold, Rebecca is about to give birth, Luke is grief-stricken and his vigilance is slipping. Clementine is one of the only survivors holding it together, and so she's the one who often makes the difficult decisions. She's in the thick of the battles and a voice of reason during arguments, and both of these roles have the capacity to shatter her relationships with certain survivors.
Still, Amid the Ruins finds reasons for us to continue seeking these relationships, reasons for us make friends with people in the group even when we know we'll probably have to stick an axe in their skulls down the line. Jane is a wonderful example of this dynamic: She's a lone wolf traveling with this hodge podge of survivors – for now. So far she's been shrewd and practical, showing little emotion but exceptional skill in taking on hordes of zombies. She knows how to survive alone, and she could easily leave at any moment, but instead, she makes a point to take Clementine aside and share her story. Jane takes the time to teach Clementine new moves and to tell her that she could survive alone, without the liability of people who aren't as fast, strong or smart as Clementine is. Jane has a softer side and the ability to care deeply, two traits that make the idea of her leaving even more upsetting.
And then there's Rebecca's baby. This is the fulcrum of Amid the Ruins, the center around which all of the slaughtering, scavenging and arguing balances. Rebecca goes into labor early on, and the group's goal switches in an instant; instead of "How will we survive?" it becomes "How will we safely deliver this baby?" The question of if this baby should be born is also raised – a reminder of the reality in which these characters live.
This episode asks moral questions aside from "kill or don't kill?": At what point do other survivors become threats to be eliminated, rather than people going about their own business? When do the rules that governed behavior before the apocalypse fly out the window? When is it OK to steal? Can you trust anyone? Should anyone trust you?
Everyone is doing what they think is right. Clementine is doing the right thing when she kills someone who is about to turn, even if it crushes other members of the group. The crux of it, however, is that she's also doing the right thing if she doesn't make the kill. These "right" actions change with every player's experience – we are all doing what we think is right, and there are hundreds of definitions of the concept, each presented four dialogue options at a time. Being right doesn't mean being good, or fair, or just. Doing the right thing could mean leaving someone to die, shooting a friend in the head or calling someone a jerk. It could mean saving someone's life, but that kind of serendipitous opportunity doesn't manifest often in the zombie apocalypse.
Whatever we decide, Telltale makes sure that we feel each action. Amid the Ruins forces us to swing that axe again and again and again in unsavory situations; it forces us to feel each step through a mass of hungry zombies, and it makes the steps leading up to an uncomfortable conversation just as tense.
Amid the Ruins is a simple episode, in theory. It revolves around a woman giving birth in impossible circumstances, an event that is going to happen no matter what you do, but it provides a myriad of paths to get there. Friendships are formed or destroyed in this episode, survivors die by your hand, and more people are shown for the fragile monsters they truly are. In this world, one second you're living, and the next, you're not dead – and that's far worse than being dead.
This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of The Walking Dead: Amid the Ruins, provided by Telltale Games. Images: Telltale Games.
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