Avoiding the spoilers, there's not a vast amount left to say about this second episode of season two of The Walking Dead. It's not that nothing happens, even if it does take a while to; it's because there's at least one big continuation from the 400 Days bridging episode, the big dramatic moment would be mean to even hint at, and the finale... that's about as off-limits as things get, except to say that it's very effective, brutally tense, and best only played once for more than one reason.
Um. What else? The Christmas Duck from Gone Home is in it. Does that help?
Away from spoiler territory, this is a solid episode, though a slow-burner that once again involves lots of walking through the woods - and the same old QTEs against zombies, which suggest that the one good thing about the apocalypse is that the hordes of the undead will serve double-duty as the best bubble wrap ever. Bad day? Hungry? Just storm outside with a clawhammer, smash a few skulls open, and wander back inside, frustration gone.
The problem with all this is that after so many episodes, both the characters and the game feel trapped in The Walking Dead's basic groove. It's fine, but we've done it all before, and by this point the smoke has blown away and the mirrors are cracked. Both are in need of some radical new tricks to give this season the sense of novelty of the first. It doesn't help that the characters are firmly in Lost-style Exposition Mode, with a whole week of in-game time to sit down and explain precisely why they're being being hunted down by a man called Carver and, to put it bluntly, what the hell is going on. Needless to say, they don't - even though they really only needed to say: "He's voiced by Michael Madsen, Clem. Michael Madsen."
Suffice to say that this is not a bullet Telltale is afraid to fire, then pick up off the floor and force the nearest survivor to swallow without so much as a glass of water to wash it down. When this episode gets revved up, it heads to a much darker place than the first season and to a real dramatic high. Where the first series was primarily about bad luck and opportunists, this time we're facing a hardass with goals, nothing to fear from "walkers" and no problem whatsoever flexing his muscles to put down any lesser problems that get in his way. (So far, at least. It is always possible that he'll turn out to be a secretly lovely man who collects matchbooks from around Virginia, and he and Clem will ultimately bond over a "Phillumeny?" "Why, I've filled all of them!" joke on the grounds that stamp-related puns are so now clichéd, philately really will get her nowhere. But it does seem unlikely - especially if you play your cards wrong in the climax.)
"It's fine, but we've done it all before, and by this point the smoke has blown away and the mirrors are cracked"
A House Divided offers a rather long trudge to that point, though, literally and otherwise, as well as suffering from the series' usual problem: it's still pretty easy to figure out the 'right' course of action, and the big moments that would radically shift the plot around are almost always out of your control. You get to choose what our young heroine Clem shouts, yes, but the swerves will happen anyway and are far too blatantly telegraphed. In this episode, one of the biggest at least offers her the satisfaction of saying she worked it out ages ago, which every player with a functioning cortex will have, and the resolution is well handled - or can be.
As is often the case, the best parts are the quieter dramatic decisions, where character relationships rather than lives are on the line. Here the timer offers just enough scope to both play with tactical options and try to figure out how you would react in the same situation. One of the most effective in this episode is when two friends on two different tables wave to have you join them, and you just know that the odds of a pointed "Nick will remember that" popping up are roughly one in one. It may matter; it may not. The best thing about those decisions is that unlike some of the big dramatic or moral ones ones, they don't necessarily have to matter. Just forcing you to decide where you stand has enough value in the moment.
In this episode, The Walking Dead also repeatedly pulls its cruelest trick: having things be just fine. Nothing good ever lasts in this universe. You know it. The characters know it. Even so, in those rare, brief moments when a few minutes of happiness get dangled in front of them on an almost visible fishing line, it's impossible not to root for them rather than eagerly anticipate the misery.
Clem is spared a continuation of the Saw treatment that made the first episode All That Remains so unpleasant to play, which is something of a relief. After that episode, it's a wonder she hasn't been forced to bludgeon her best friend to death to steal a rusty pen and give herself a QTE-based tracheotomy. Depending on how things turn out as a result of a couple of options, however, there are reminders that the series still considers her fair game for violence, and not just by the amoral walkers.
What is really starting to take its toll on The Walking Dead is the way it burns off goodwill with too many false choices - or worse, moments when players are meant to share guilt in situations we had no real say in. A House Divided's finale helps balance some of that, with at least a couple of big decisions to make that directly affect who gets to the next episode. The Walking Dead needs to grab this baton firmly and run with it for the rest of the series, not make the opening few minutes of the next chapter reveal that it didn't really matter. It's notable that at one point, Clem takes a moment to remember Lilly, and how her story ultimately went down. Hopefully the writers have done the same, and noted how unsatisfyingly they closed off the Carley and Doug plot branch.
For now, this is a solid continuation, and having had one episode to reintroduce Clem and this one to really get the new plot started, it's hard to imagine the next episode won't ramp things up considerably with more of the human darkness we saw in 400 Days and exactly no chance of a happy ending. Telltale has promised that we won't be waiting as long for it as we were for this or the second part of The Wolf Among Us. Broken fingers crossed.