Masculinity in ‘The Walking Dead: In Harm’s Way’

These blasted landscapes between civilization and chaos reveal how vacuous normative roles can be.

Warning: This post contains spoilers forThe Walking: In Harm’s Way.

Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a series about societal roles. As Lee Everett in the game’s first season, you take on the role of a leader, a fighter, and a father. Sometimes you embrace these aspects of the character willingly, other times they are foisted upon you. Navigating the world of The Walking Dead is largely an act of managing the social obligations that we all carry, every day, heightened to an apocalyptic intensity.

Season two of the series has amplified themes of normative social behavior now devoid of the context in which they were created. Clementine is at various times to various people a helpless child, a daughter, or a hero. But what do these words mean in the doomed land of The Walking Dead? The constructs that define who we are, that provide our suite of traits that identify us in relation to others, quickly begin to lose meaning in extreme environments. Or rather, these blasted landscapes between civilization and chaos reveal how vacuous these roles can be.

In Harm’s Way with its pervasive and consistent themes of masculinity and family critiques dominant gender roles in a fascinating struggle between Clementine and Carver. From the very beginning, Carver embodies a commitment to notions of normative masculinity. When Clementine eavesdrops on the conversation between Carver and his cadre of armed men, Carver chides her for being “impolite.” Then, shortly after traveling to the department store encampment, Carver again deals out violent punishment for speaking out of turn, this time by demanding Carlos give his daughter Sara a “good smack across the mouth.”

This scene is short but powerful. The slap across the face is certainly today a heavily gendered act of physical violence. Even the term “bitch slap” commonly refers to the slap’s demasculating properties. By commanding Carlos to slap his daughter, Carver is establishing his utmost dominance over his captives, mind and body. Sarah’s shock and seemingly newfound distrust in her father is a powerful reassessment of what “father” means in her eyes. Carver is redefining the fatherly figure, projecting his own notions of family and masculinity onto his band of survivors.

Carver isn’t the only one trying to fit messy reality into normative social roles. Bonny seems to mother Clementine in their few scenes together, at one point dressing Clementine in an outlandish children’s coat with a huge rainbow across the chest. Telltale beautifully mars this symbol of childhood innocence when Clementine covers the jacket in blood and viscera. Likewise, the rest of the group, Kenny included, seem to want Clem to occupy incompatible identities, one as a child in need of protection and care and the other as a powerful and reliable survivor.

At one point this duality comes to a head when the group asks Clem, once again, to risk her life on their behalf, and you are given the opportunity to answer “Why does it always have to be me?” The answer, besides that she’s the only playable character, is that she is the only one capable. The crime is not in asking her to go, it’s in not respecting her as a capable actor outside of when she’s needed.

All that being said, Carver remains the most compelling representation of society’s doomed conventions. Don’t forget that the whole reason for Clementine’s imprisonment is because Carver wants to claim ownership over a woman’s body. Carver kidnaps Rebecca to reclaim what he sees as his fatherly right to his child. His behavior and rhetoric is constantly driven by strong notions of family and masculinity. At one point in order to excuse Rebecca’s weeping, he states,: “She’s a strong woman surrounded by weak men. I ain’t lettin’ my kid get raised around that.”

While you could argue Carver is actually upsetting normative gender roles by defining people by weakness and strength, even suggesting that he and Clementine have a lot in common, he is still creating a world defined by his notions of fatherhood. He speaks of a future populated by kids “raised the right way. The way my child will be raised.” He then voices concern about not knowing if he’s “got anyone to hand all this off to.” He speaks of power and forgiveness like a stern preacher (another “father” if you think about it) and wants possession over what might be another man’s child: “Even if it was true, it’s mine now.” Carver is taking dubious aspects of masculine normativity to mold a future of his own creation.

While Carver’s brutal death is an intense climax to this story, Telltale offers the most poignant thematic dialogue to Alvin, someone who may not even survive in some player narratives. His scene with Clem captures this episodes motif with humor and tragedy. Like all the others, he too clings to norms, refusing to hand over “a firearm to a child.” He also critiques Carver’s facade of masculinity with a Freudian-prod at his manhood: “Carver talks all that tough guy shit… then keeps the tiniest gun in the universe… somethin’ funny about that.”

The real touchstone comes in his final words: “You take care of my girls… I get the feelin’ it’s–it’s gonna be a girl.” Clementine looks on, blood dripping down her cheek, an impossible task before her and an unknown future sweeping out ahead. In this world of death and survival, what does it even mean to be a girl? At the bitter end, essentially, nothing.