A Mea Culpa for The Walking Dead’s Kenny

Thanks to Kenny and Lee, when the two seasons of The Walking Dead video game are considered together, they become an argument between parents over how to survive.

This post contains spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Seasons 1 and 2

Several months ago (actually almost a year at this point) I wrote a post bemoaning the introduction of Kenny in Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season Two. He was a character from the first season that, as I wrote before, went through the “quintessential Walking Dead character arc,” and as such, he had no more story left to tell:

Kenny had his moment. He had his arc. I watched him suffer, I watched him grieve, I watched him struggle in his unique tragic/heroic way, so there’s nothing left for him to do. No future scene with him can match the pathos of “the attic zombie” from Season 1. Any further character development for Kenny will just be retreading old ground.

However, what I failed to realize at the time is that Telltale didn’t bring Kenny back to further develop his character. They brought him back to help Clementine to develop further as a character. Way back in April of 2014, I said I’d “definitely write a Moving Pixels mea culpa” if I change my mind about Kenny. Well I did, so here it is:

I shot Kenny at the end of Season 2, and the most heartbreaking thing he said to me as he died was that he was proud when I didn’t sit with him at the table, way back in Episode 2. It hurt him, but it also meant that Clementine was growing into her own person with her own relationships, and he was happy to see me moving on with my life.

“Moving on” is a central theme in The Walking Dead Season Two. These five episodes revolve around establishing Clem as a person independent of anyone else. The various plot threads that were introduced and dropped throughout the season were meant to give us lots of material to work with as we rebuilt her character.

I previously wrote that who Clem was in the first episode lined up unusually well with my personal way of thinking. Several new supporting characters were introduced, but I refused to let myself care about them because I knew they were all bound to die. I know this because that’s the kind of story The Walking Dead is, but it’s also easy to imagine Clem thinking this way, since she had just been separated from everyone she knew from Season 1. She had a group, and now she was the only survivor. Of course she’d be hesitant to open up emotionally to these new people. As such, Episode 1 was all about establishing Clem as a capable and independent girl who didn’t need a group.

Then, in Episode 2, right after the birth of this new coldly practical and detached Clementine, the game reintroduces Kenny. Telltale wants us to struggle with Clem’s identity. Do we celebrate the return of a friend or greet him with the same suspicion that we gave to the others?

Kenny’s continued presence throughout the season forces us to decide whether Clementine is defined more by her past relationships or by her current relationships.

Lee served as Clementine’s mentor and father-figure fin Season 1, and he was (for me at least) always democratic, always trying to keep the peace within the group. In Episode 5, my Clementine said that Lee’s advice would be to keep the group together. Lee was loyal to the group, and he tried to instill that loyalty into Clementine. Her words at that moment prove she took the lesson to heart, but actually putting it into practice is a different matter entirely.

Kenny becomes a new mentor figure after Episode 2, but he’s a very different mentor than Lee was. He’s loyal to individuals, fuck the group. If the group turns against one of the individuals that he’s loyal to, he’ll fight the entire group. This sentiment is reiterated by other characters as well, like Jane, but this philosophy has more emotional weight when it comes from Kenny because he was friends with Lee, so when the two seasons are considered together, they become an argument between parents over how to survive.

The sad but interesting twist to this argument is that one of the parents is dead, so he can’t defend himself. Season 2 wants to explore how a person’s death leaves us with a void that cannot be filled. Lee tried to teach Clem how to survive but now that he’s dead he can’t teach her anymore. His influence is gone, and as time goes on, it’s more likely that his teachings will be forgotten than remembered.

When Kenny reminisces about his dead son, Duck, he laments that he can only remember the annoying things about his kid. The good moments have been forgotten. He knows they existed, but they’ve since faded into obscurity. The sad truth is that we do forget the dead, no matter how much we cared for them. Without their continued presence in our lives their influence fades, and our memories of them eventually fade. The living always have more influence than the dead.

Without Kenny The Walking Dead couldn’t have this parental argument; it couldn’t highlight the noble but futile battle of honoring a loved one’s teachings in a world that disagrees. Despite my initial misgivings, Kenny ultimately made Season 2 better by making it a direct counterpoint to Season 1.

I’m glad Kenny survived Season 1 so that he could better Season 2, but now I really hope he stays dead for Season 3.

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