The Walking Dead: Season Two — Humanity

In the corner of my office, sitting above the multimedia case in which I sequester my videogames, there is a dry erase board where I write down ideas I’d like to write about on Play Critically. For months I have agonized over the piece you are reading now, and this may be due to that whiteboard where I had scrawled the name “Carver” in black marker. It would be narratologically irresponsible to talk about The Walking Dead: Season Two without writing something about this character, but I couldn’t find the words. The list of ideas grew longer and longer, but I remained roadblocked by Carver’s name at the top. Finally I reached a precipice of despair and erased everything off the board. It’s a writer’s cliche to lament the tyranny of a blank medium, but in this case the tabula rasa proved cathartic. No longer locked into Carver by the oppressive whiteboard, I realized I needed to step back to see his role in a wider context.

Carver is essential to what I will write about today, but he is not the actual topic.

To the survivors of The Walking Dead: Season One eking out an existence in what remains of the United States’ east coast, the threat of the Walkers has long since become ephemeral; no more dangerous than wild animals, only incredible circumstance or carelessness makes a walker dangerous.

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Christa confronts a stranger who threatens Clementine.

The real threat is other survivors. This thunders home in the opening minutes when Omid, an amiable and competent Season One survivor, is killed by a stranger when Clementine leaves her firearm unattended in a bathroom. But that bandit is a random person; after the timeskip, another force menaces the protagonists, at first only a rumor, a bogeyman loose in a world of everyday nightmares. When Carlos’ group lock Clementine in a shed, it’s as much out of fear she’s an agent of this man than the ugly potential walker bite on her wrist. A thug who uses the new state of the world to set himself up as a despot wrapped in the guise of a pragmatic survivalist, he could not have a more stereotypically villainous name: Carver.

Carver makes a powerful entrance into Season Two. In a contender for the strongest scene in the season, he appears at the group’s cabin hideout when most have left to recover the body of a comrade, leaving Clementine behind to look after the sheltered and naïve Sarah. When Carver invites himself into the cabin, it’s up to Clementine to run interference for her new group, helping Sarah to remain hidden and covering up the evidence of her friends’ presence. Each tries to maintain a fiction: Carver, that he is a good Samaritan concerned at finding a preteen girl alone in a cabin; Clementine, that she is a helpless innocent waiting for her father to return home with supplies. It’s evident that Carver doesn’t buy Clementine’s story, so the best success comes from providing enough plausible deniability to keep the ruse from falling apart entirely.

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Clementine and Carver spar in the fishing cabin.

The scene is fraught with tension, showing how Clementine deals with a canny and menacing human survivor rather than a feral walker in her newfound emotional maturity. Regardless of her success or failure at maintaining the ruse, Carver will leave. It’s a calculated retreat; even with two child hostages, Carver could be outflanked and overpowered, and he has designs on the group: To reassimilate them into his community, to make an example of them as deserters, and to claim Rebecca’s unborn child as his own. Any risk that any of them could be harmed is unacceptable. None of this is spoken aloud, apparent only retroactively and through inference, presenting Carver as enigmatic in the moment and devious in hindsight, and menacing either way. When Carlos and the group return, they are so alarmed they immediately flee their hideout.

Which is why it’s so disappointing that Carver falls apart as an antagonist in “In Harm’s Way.” The power of his introduction in “A House Divided” is a result of not knowing who this man is and what he is capable of, only that Carlos and his group are terrified of him. But when we are introduced to Carver’s fortified hardware store, the stranger who engages in a battle of subtlety with Clementine is revealed to be a standard despot, offering survivors an imitation of the pre-walker world with the caveat that that it is a Stalinist police state.

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“We’re not so different, you and I.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Carver isn’t despicable or dangerous, but rather that he betrays his promising introduction to be revealed as a boring cliché: He reads propaganda to his followers over the hardware store’s PA system; he puts his prisoners in a row and sermonizes about his community; when Sarah interrupts, he compels Carlos (a doting and concerned father to a fault) to beat her as punishment; while meeting with Clementine in his office, he pulls a “we’re not so different, you and I” trope; dissatisfied with Sarah and Clementine’s performance in the greenhouse, he pushes their supervisor, Reggie, off the roof to his death; when he discovers a radio has been stolen as part of the group’s escape plan, he beats Kenny over the head until he is blind in one eye; jealous of Alvin’s relationship with Rebecca, he mortally tortures Alvin; and when he is captured by the group during the escape attempt, he is arrogant and defiant to his last breath. Carver disappoints as a villain not because he isn’t a threat, but because he is not a threat in a way that is unique or original. He’s a social darwinist leveraging the situation to impose his philosophy on a shattered people in a changed world, hardly new ground in post-apocalyptic fiction.

But Carver does do one thing that is interesting: He is dead before the conclusion of the third episode.

In many stories, and especially in videogames with their laser-focus on conflict, it is common for the hero/player character to face the villain in the climax. The villain is typically a contrast to the hero in some way, opposing or complementing them ideologically while possessing a similar level of skill or ability. Trained to survive in a world infested with walkers, Clementine is a model for the kinds of children Carver wants to raise in his fortress. It is her compassion that sets her apart from his cruelty, setting them for an inevitable and tumultuous conflict. But Clementine is a preteen; a physical confrontation with Carver would be preposterous, even by videogame standards. This leaves a battle of wills as the other choice, a climax Season Two also chooses to avoid, instead culminating in a clash between two conflicting personalities with Clementine caught in the middle. Carver is dead long before this moment arrives because Carver is not the villain of The Walking Dead: Season Two.

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Carver dominates Clementine.

This is where my thought process for this piece has stumbled in those two tedious months staring at the name “Carver” on my whiteboard. The mental contortions I performed, trying to shove a round Carver through a square archetype, could take up several pages. It’s easy to mistake Carver for the villain, as his presence haunts the first two episodes and his actions in the third drive the rest of the season to its conclusion, but the real villain of Season Two is more abstract than a single character.

No branch of The Walking Dead property is subtle about its title referring to the survivors and not the undead walkers. I used to mock the series by imagining an overly-earnest scene where a survivor, on the brink of despair, falls to their knees and screams “We are the walking dead!” to the uncaring heavens. Then I learned that this exact scene does exist in the comics.

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From Issue 24 of The Walking Dead comic series, written by Robert Kirkman, Penciler Charlie Adlard, Inker Cliff Rathburn

But if the living are the titular Walking Dead, then what is it that menaces them? By the time of Season Two in the Telltale Series, the walkers have been neutered as a threat, easily dealt with by a steady hand and a careful mind. Forces of nature—weather, wild animals—never seem to come up as being life threatening in the context of the narrative. Accidents, calamities, or quirks of fate also do not seem to threaten the protagonists. Every situation that the characters find themselves thrust into is a result of other survivors. Carver is notable only as a pronounced example of this.

The real villain of Season Two is other people, or more broadly, humanity itself.

It might seem like a tough sell that in a world where the dead rise to consume the flesh of the living that the real villain is an abstract concept like humanity, which is the reason it may be the most brilliant thematic decision Season Two makes. Remember that heroes and villains often complement one another ideologically. Now remember that walkers seek to consume the bodies of the living, while other survivors compete with each other for limited and ever-dwindling resources to often fatal ends. They appear to be similar to suspiciously apropos levels of irony, walkers destroying the physical evidence of existence (the body) and other survivors the resources which sustain physical existence (supplies).

But a walker is less than animal, seeking only to consume to no apparent end. A survivor is driven to survive so that tomorrow they can survive again. Clementine is the idealistic end of this idea, equipped with the tools to survive without sacrificing the basic decency to make life worth living. Carver is the cynical end, surviving by any means necessary, twisting and brutalizing things to make them fit his idea of living. Both are basically human, but one is heroic, and the other is villainous. This is what sets the survivors apart from the walkers in spite of their apparent similarity: Walkers are monsters, ravenous and uncanny; survivors are villains, desperate and real. The real conflict of Season Two is humanity’s war with itself. The monsters are only a catalyst.

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Clementine and Christa’s relationship is distant after the death of Omid and the baby.

We see this from Season Two’s opening moments all the way to its closing. In the first scene, Omid, the fun older brother-type character who willingly adopts Clementine after Lee’s death, is killed due to her carelessness around a stranger. After the time skip, we see that Christa, Omid’s widow, has a distant relationship with Clementine and her baby is nowhere to be seen. Nothing is said about these developments, but we may infer conclusions. Those must have been a dark two years for Clementine, alone with a woman who should have been like a mother to her, but with a permanent distance put between them. Another survivor’s fear took Omid and Christa’s unborn child from them; Christa’s ensuing heartbreak shattered any chance of happiness they may have had together. In a more normal situation, they may have split up and gone their separate ways to solve their grief in their own way, but survival forces them together, smothered by a pall of what could have been and what should have been. Their sense of survival keeps them together and alive; their sense of humanity keeps them filled with grief and resentment.

Fleeing from Carver’s scouting party, Clementine encounters her new group, led by Carlos. Burned by strangers in the past and terrified that Carver is searching for them, they respond to an injured young girl by locking her in a shed. It’s only pure gumption—and, frankly, narrative convenience—that causes Clementine to earn their trust and join their journey. But even then, there are still cracks: Carlos worries what influence Clementine might have on his daughter Sarah; the immature and inexperienced Nick may blame Clementine for the death of his uncle; Rebecca, knowing what Carver plans for her unborn child, is less willing than the others to give Clementine the benefit of the doubt. None of these characters are villainous, but it is these conflicts which creates all of the tension in the first few episodes, and each one proves more dangerous than Carver’s willingness to do violence to get his way.

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Multiple groups are captured by Carver and forced together.

Then the group is captured by Carver, forced together with another group, and Carver’s despotic fiefdom is brought down in the escape attempt. This would be the triumphant victory in many other stories, but in Season Two, it’s only the halfway point. The group is free, but they are without shelter or supplies in a walker-infested region picked clean by other survivors. With a half-blind Kenny and a pregnant Rebecca in tow, the group has new tensions put upon them that erupts into a conflagration. In the aftermath, Clementine is alone with two survivors of mutually conflicting philosophies, and the climax arrives: Will she side with the old, volatile ally, the new, cold-hearted mentor, or neither? Clementine’s choice, guided by the player, is a result of what they think of humanity after Season Two’s journey.

Humanity gets a bad rap in Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One and Season Two. It is shown as petty, vindictive, and weak, bringing more misery and death to the survivors than the undead ever can or will. Its bright side is seen only in brief. In “Amid The Ruins” the group shares a moment of levity around a campfire. It’s a flash of camaraderie, and it feels for the first time like they might put their difference aside and coexist. The happiness does not last; humanity allows them to connect, but it also will not let them forget the petty differences between them. Fear and anger fractures the group a short time later.

It’s the darkest take on humanity: They’re all basically good people, but good people also have darkness in them which they cannot overcome. This is underscored with the survivors of Season One’s “400 Days,” who are shown in that episode to be decent people just trying to survive. When they reappear as part of Carver’s group in Season Two, they have become his nameless mooks, the sorts of characters you would mow down without a second thought in any other action videogame. Season Two, in marked contrast to the bleak-but-hopeful Season One, is a miserable experience because it revels in nihilism and the belief that humanity is weak and ultimately doomed.

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Humanity at its worst.

Looking for the villain of Season Two by looking to a particular character is barking up the wrong tree. I don’t know enough about the franchise as a whole to make sweeping statements, but I can say this about Telltale’s Season One and Season Two: If there is a villain, it’s the abstract concept of humanity itself. Carver is the complication, as he’s the closest Season One or Season Two comes to an overt, ongoing villain. At best, he’s the darkest human, a scared man trying his best to survive by any means necessary and succeeding to a disturbing degree. At his worst, he’s the living personification of humanity’s harm to humanity: Pitting person against person, declaring the survivors the moral victors because they’re alive to take the spoils. He’s a fascinating device, disappointing as an original character but inextricably intertwined into the themes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. He’s not a villain, but he represents the villainy of humanity, a revenant of humanity’s worst potential set loose to crush our best:

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Humanity at its best.

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