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Games

"No Going Back": Hope and Nostalgia in 'The Walking Dead'

The types of decisions I made at the end of season two were heartfelt ones, but they’re not practical and they’re not the kinds of decisions that keep people alive.

The Walking Dead is deviously good at at playing on your sense of hope. Perhaps there is some way to make it out of this catastrophe if I say the right thing, act quickly enough, or maybe with just a bit of luck, I’ll somehow outrun these zombies, rehabilitate these broken people, and live out my days as a contented subsistence farmer.

This will never happen, and I try to direct the characters in The Walking Dead accordingly. People need to be responsible for their own actions, they need to be responsible for how their actions impact their group, and they need to be held accountable for the decisions they make. These principles are what caused me in season 1\one to give up on Ben and leave him behind. They’re what drove Lee to strike out on his own after screwing up and being bitten. They’re what drove Lee to be caring, but firm, with Clementine so that she was ready to act and make her own decisions.

All this means that for me, both Lee and Clementine come across as utilitarian. If someone is dragging the group down, and they don’t want or cannot benefit from help, it’s time to say goodbye, even though it might be a sad goodbye. With season two’s introduction of AJ, an infant who is instantly orphaned, my resolve (and therefore Clem’s) was shaken. Wanting to care for a defenseless baby is tempting and socially compelling, but it’s the baby’s symbolism as a turning point in the larger world that makes it even more tragic.

My friend David Carlton was understandably surprised that I took such a strong interest in protecting AJ, especially in light of my mercenary past. He wrote a great comment on our site laying out the illogical nature of the choice of taking on a person so wholly dependent on others:

Anyways, here's the, uh, anti-baby take on this episode: newborn babies can't eat solid food for six months or longer. There aren't any nursing mothers in the party; the game has not so far gone into details about the food supplies that people have been surviving on, but I for one have not gotten the impression that there's tons of formula that's still in usable shape. So: A.J. is even more likely to be dead soon than the rest of the party, it's just a matter of time.

Also (and here's something we all agree on): Kenny is an active danger, we need to separate ourselves from him. The thing is, though, he's been incredibly protective/possessive of A.J., even before the baby was born.

So: if Clementine cares mostly about herself, then she should certainly separate from Kenny and probably separate from A.J.; and, for that matter, it will be hard to separate from Kenny while keeping A.J. And if she cares about A.J. (not being a cold unfeeling monster like myself), can she honestly say that A.J. will be more likely to survive being looked after by a 12-year-old kid than by a hyperprotective father? Kenny is all kinds of problems, I don't actually think he'd be a good father for A.J. on any other metric than pure survival, but I'm also not sure any other metric matters.

Given that, it felt to me like the only division that made sense was: Kenny and A.J. go one way, Clementine goes the other way. And she goes the other way with Jane, because Jane actually knows how to coexist with zombies and has already taught her concrete practical skills to that end, and because Clementine does need human contact. In fact, I felt like the game was pushing me so strongly in that direction in the first half of the episode that I got really frustrated by the game's complete refusal to allow matters to turn out that way: the ending created a drama that made no sense to me.

Laid out like this, I see the logic, and it’s hard to argue against it. Despite this, my ending was quite different. Clem, having been betrayed by both Kenny and Jane, strikes out accompanied only by a helpless and hungry infant. Something else besides pragmatism is driving Clem and me.

AJ represents a transitional point for the Walking Dead world. He’s the first person you meet that is born into what is quickly becoming the new normal. He won’t know a world in which he isn’t at the top of the food chain or where seeing a stranger is always a life-threatening experience. AJ will never have the chance to enjoy a period of innocence, even one as short as Clem’s.

Protecting AJ is a desperate attempt to recapture the past. His physical helplessness and lack of awareness recalls a society before the fall. Protecting him, even at the cost of efficiency and survival for others, is an emotional impulse born out of a deeply sad nostalgia. He’s a reminder of a world that wasn’t so horrible, or at least one whose horrors were more often sealed away.

There’s also some faint hope to be found in AJ. With enough luck, he might be able to grow and even succeed in this new world. It’s the first time that Clem has encountered the birth and growth of a child instead of the death and destruction of one, so AJ is a fragile opportunity to somehow rebuild the world. AJ is a metaphor for trying to correct old mistakes and make better decisions going forward. He’s a symbol that perhaps not all of the pre-apocalypse values have disappeared and that somehow things can be rebuilt. Put more cynically, AJ is the promise of a "reset" that will somehow get humanity back on track.

The facts of the world and the narrative themes of The Walking Dead series being what they are, this reset will probably not work out. In fact, the final scene of my game shows Clem coating baby AJ in walker guts and wading through a herd of the undead. This gruesome baptism demonstrates that AJ is not our key back to a simpler world. He’s actually more of a symbol for the new world. He shows that death and violence are critical parts of his life before he can even chew solid food. As the title of the final episode states, there is “No Going Back."

By most measurements, risking it all to save AJ isn’t a smart move for survival. It's a decision driven by a sad pairing of hope and nostalgia. It’s emotional decision making that is compelling me (and therefore Clem), and this choice seems to me to try to recapture a sense of innocence that we know is gone. It’s a cruel end to a brutal season of episodes, each of which has illustrated the futility of trying to recreate the past and banking on hope. The types of decisions I made at the end of season two are heartfelt ones, but they’re not practical and they’re not the kinds of decisions that keep people alive.

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