The ending Clementine deserves.
Telltale Games’ shutdown has been tragic to watch unfold. There’s the unfortunate and potentially illegal denial of benefits to its laid-off employees, but it’s also sad to see the demise of a studio that nearly single-handedly reinvigorated and arguably redefined the modern adventure game. But there’s another thing that’s gnawed at me: Though I’ve been underwhelmed by Episode 1 and Episode 2 of the planned four in the final season, I was looking forward to seeing Clementine’s story – which began back in 2012 – reach its conclusion.
Now there’s a very real possibility that The Walking Dead will never be properly wrapped up as intended, leaving her fate up in the air. Without delving too much into fan fiction, here’s what I would’ve liked to have seen from her finale.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
A Post-Apocalyptic Upbringing
Clementine has come full circle in The Walking Dead’s third and fourth seasons by taking on her own young ward in AJ. As a child born in a post-societal world, AJ was raised with an entirely different perspective than Clementine. He wasn’t socialized to understand the value in kindness or mindfulness of others. He isn’t familiar with old world customs like funerals or children’s toys. He struggles to socially connect with his peers. To AJ, survival necessarily takes precedence over anything else.
Just like they did in the First Season, Episodes 1 and 2 of the series’ final season are at their best when they hit on the relationship dichotomy between AJ and Clementine. Determined to stick to the things she knows from a world long gone, Clementine often explains the value of old-world observances. In doing so, she actually turns it back on herself, questioning the things she knows and wondering how much of it has value anymore. While it would be easy to label their relationship as a parallel to Clementine and Lee’s, the reality is that, with AJ, Clementine has met her match and struggles to teach him the same things she once learned from her own mentor.
Were we to get a solid conclusion to the series, I’d be most interested in a focus on how AJ and Clementine’s story would wrap up.
What Clementine Learned (And Didn’t Learn) From Lee
Despite the parallels in story and character arc beats, I still don’t necessarily think Telltale was heading down the direction of Clementine sacrificing herself in a similar manner as Lee did. It’d be overly predictable, for one thing, but it would also fail to acknowledge the many differences between Clementine and Lee (and Clementine and AJ) that exist despite the similarities in their journeys.
Lee’s death was impactful to Clementine because she valued human life in a world and reality that are long gone. To her, everyone was precious and had the potential to be good and contribute to the greater whole. She learned this from Lee, a reformed criminal who willingly took her on and did his best to teach her the values he held.
Despite Clementine doing her best to teach him, AJ does not adhere to or even have any use for these same values. To him, people are dangerous by nature. He has become desensitized to killing and will not hesitate to do so when he feels threatened. He is driven purely by survival instincts, and he will do whatever he must to ensure his and Clementine’s safety.
This also presents an interesting paradox for Clementine. As the sole parental figure and influence in AJ’s life, she is somewhat culpable for his lack of empathy. In trying to teach him the skills necessary to survive, she has inadvertently neglected to also teach him the value of empathy, leaving him in a morally confused state.
Being forced to kill an infected or dying Clementine — as Clementine had the choice to do for Lee — could be difficult for AJ, but we can assume by his kill-or-be-killed mentality and his lack of innocence that he would ultimately do what needed to be done. This is a boy who carries a gun in his back pocket, prides himself on the quality of his aim, and has taken human lives with little to no hesitation. The emotional effects on him would be far less dramatic than they were for Clementine, and thus they would be less dramatic for us.
The Generational Gap
Instead, the inverse of the First Season’s finale feels like it’d be a satisfying conclusion to The Walking Dead. Rather than having to make the awful decision to kill someone dear to them, the current narrative trajectory already sets AJ and Clementine up to have their beliefs tested. Either AJ finally comes to appreciate the value of being human to close out the series on a hopeful, more uplifting note, or he carries on against the face of that humanity. The latter would be especially interesting, as it would also force Clementine to confront the fact that she probably hasn’t done the best job of bringing AJ up, though, admittedly, she’s still quite young herself.
So far, in this season, we’re currently left with Clementine and AJ having seen some of the kids they’ve become acquainted with taken by a gang of people to be used as mercenaries. While certain parts of the story have been clumsily delivered and many of the characters’ motivations don’t seem to be clear or consistent, the path this development was going down could help reinforce the lessons learned throughout the course of the series.
In Episode 1, we left off just after AJ killed one of the kids in a supposed act of self-defense. Appalled, the kids all turned on AJ and labeled him a murderer. This then prompted very challenging discussions between himself and Clementine on the morality of killing in self-defense and how he can help other people see from his perspective.
This is all so confusing for AJ. Between the mixed messages he’s getting from Clementine and the rest of the kids at the school, I’d love to see the ending give him a chance to finally achieve some closure and gain more of an understanding on the complexity of being human and on what’s right and wrong — similar to how we got a chance to discover that throughout Telltale’s morally grey series.
Perhaps AJ could’ve been given a chance to decide the fate of one of the characters at the school that wronged him, giving him the opportunity to take the moral high ground and hopefully better understand the value in walking away. Or, in a nice callback to episode two of this season, AJ could rein in his emotions during a particularly stressful moment to lead him to make a powerful judgment call in which he is reminded of the complex emotions (and, therefore, motivations) of others. Another option would be for AJ to either sacrifice himself or someone else in order to save Clementine, although the fact that he’s done this before might reduce its impact on the audience. Regardless, watching AJ grapple with the lessons he’s learned from Clementine and having her deal with the fallout of his actions could make for an interesting parent-child dynamic that challenges the values of society and the need for empathy and courage in everyday life.
There’s also an opportunity for Clementine to learn something from AJ and make a desperate decision based solely on the will to survive. Perhaps this could take the form of cutting a deal with Lilly, who she reconnects with in Episode 2. Leaving the kids behind and forging a new path with AJ would be a darker decision for her to make, but considering what they’ve been through and how she’s interpreted AJ’s tendency towards viewing civility and social norms as uselessness sentiments, it wouldn’t be entirely difficult to understand. Plus, forcing Clementine to look at AJ’s perspective and question her dedication to empathy and basic decency as we know it in a non-apocalyptic world could speak to the complexity of navigating the world in which they live.
The Path of the Apocalyptic Guardian Angel
But the most obvious choice for closure in this story would be for it to never close at all.
Most of her life, Clementine has been a nomad, wandering from place to place and joining up with groups of people, helping them in desperate times of need. In this way, she’s something of an apocalyptic guardian angel, taking the lessons she learned from those she was close to and passing them along through her actions. Like those interactions with groups that came before, for her to come in with AJ, help save and protect the kids, then set off with him to find their next group would be a fitting, open end to a story that, much like her own resiliency, continues to persevere. In this way, she would truly be honoring the things Lee taught her, ensuring his death wouldn’t be in vain, and providing a continued example for AJ to emulate and hopefully carry forward himself.
In all its iteration, The Walking Dead franchise is built on shock value and gritty actions taken in miserable situations. The characters within its desolate world cling to any shred of humanity they can find and are often punished for doing so, whether by betrayal or malice. Still, the very best of them show a resilience that speaks to the strength of their humanity and hope in the most desperate of times.
After the pain, heartache, suffering, and exhausting struggle to merely survive, being able to make a decision that leads to a satisfying ending where the characters were, for once, rewarded for having hope and some belief in the value of humanity would be a good way to cap off the ever-present theme of exploring what makes us human, even in the most desperate of times.
Cassidee is the social editor at IGN. You can chat with her about Star Wars, Captain Marvel, and puppies over on Twitter.