One of the crucial moments in the first season of Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead involves a mother making a terrible, final decision for the good of both herself and her child. It’s a decision that looms over her husband’s life, through both the remainder of Season One, and the entirety of his time in Season Two.
There’s a woman who similarly looms over everything in The Walking Dead: Michonne. Her name is Sophia. You will never meet her. And yet, her absence is a black hole destroying the gravity of her entire family. It’s that absence that has radiated far enough outward to involve Michonne, a mother who’s also shattered by familial loss. That encroaching sense of dread lends Walking Dead Michonne’s second episode thematic weight that felt far out of reach in Episode One. Now, Michonne’s story feels worthy. Which, for Telltale’s The Walking Dead, means that it will play unholy havoc with your heart from beginning to end.
It helps that there are high stakes from the second the episode begins, picking up the pieces from the fallout of Episode One: In Too Deep, as Michonne and Sam try to escape from their captors, siblings Norma and Randall. If there’s any misstep in Give No Shelter, it’s that the civility that was once possible when conversing with Norma in the previous episode is muted and, by the end, nigh impossible to maintain. As a result, the conflict set up for In Too Deep–where Norma may legitimately have good, unassuming people under her care–goes by the wayside as Sam and Michonne scramble their way to safety.
It’s after a tense QTE sequence in a field full of Walkers–where we get to see Michonne recreate her most famous moment from the show and comics–that the episode truly takes off. Sam and her brother Greg were unwelcome annoyances in the first episode, but Telltale takes much of the second half of Give No Shelter to color in their story. Sam’s father is set up as an antagonist, a potential source of new conflict. And in this, Telltale pulls the rug out from what we expect.
At the center of Sam and Greg’s family was Sophia. Sophia’s story is one of the few that doesn’t involve Walkers, or the dark side of humanity. It’s a comparatively mundane tragedy that serves to underline just how powerless those who have not developed vicious tendencies truly are in the world of The Walking Dead. It lets us see what kind of intimate, human damage is still possible when there aren’t guns or snarling monsters to contend with. It explains the level of turmoil that forced Greg and Sam to leave home, and threaten a woman brandishing a machete. Ultimately, it’s an effective section of game that manages to add even more depth to a universe that had already established an immense sense of dread, several times over.
We get to see Michonne recreate her most famous moment from the show and comics.
Being immersed in a new family’s struggles triggers an equally hurtful flashback for Michonne. Though Episode One’s opener was harrowing in its own right, even without machete-wielding QTEs or gunfire, this episode reveals a different, very personal horror for Michonne. It revisits the sinking, eviscerating distress of having one’s children in danger, culminating in a frightening phone call where the Walkers are the punctuation mark, not the dialogue. Episode Two is much lighter on point-and-click discovery, but makes it count here, with each interactive area of Michonne’s ruined apartment shading in what drove her to Episode One’s harrowing moment of clarity.
One might expect that with the game getting back to bloody business as usual, it might act as an antithesis to the story laid out in its middle section. On the contrary, Telltale seems to recognize the player’s emotional defenses are lowered, and Give No Shelter is a sudden, gruesome, and cruel return to form–possibly more than they have since Kenny going all eye-for-an-eye in Walking Dead: Season Two.
Unlike its listless predecessor, Give No Shelter flies by, ending just as it reaches a critical, shocking apex, stoking anticipation for what’s to come in the finale. Middle chapter syndrome be damned. The Walking Dead: Michonne is now on par with the best this series has to offer. It is brutal. It is heartbreaking. And it is brilliant.