Spoilers for Walking Dead Season 3 may be found ahead!
After an uneven first double episode, the third season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead looked like it may at least be heading in a more interesting direction after the finale. It seemed as if the scene was set for protagonist Javier to be thrown into a potential battle with his missing brother David, who turned out to be a leader of the eponymous New Frontier.
However, as is so often the case with Telltale’s output these days, things don’t really turn out how you expect them - and rather than delivering satisfying twists, the end result is often disappointing. Above The Law has a very interesting premise, but squanders it on a rote story with familiar beats which we’ve seen a dozen times, both in previous episodes and in the TV show.
On the surface, The Walking Dead as a premise - whether comic book, TV show or game - is about survival, whether that’s survival from zombies, illness, or other humans. Ultimately though, the driving force is how we deal with each other, how we form relationships, and how those relationships help or harm others. In order to establish a believable platform for these characters, they have to act in believable ways. Too often, the “bad guys” end up as snarling caricatures, desperate for power and desperate to retain it once they achieve it.
Here is where this first episode falls down. We’re thrust into yet another community, run by people who don’t trust newcomers. Javier and his crew are thrown into a cell by way of quarantine, while the injured Kate - David’s wife - is seen to. David isn’t aware of Javier’s relationship with his wife, but he treats her return like business-as-usual, despite not having seen her for years. Moreover, after learning that the New Frontier crew gunned down his daughter, you’d have expected him to be apoplectic with his comrades rather than the gritted teeth act he pulls here.
To mix things up, this community is run by four people rather than just the normal dictator, but even that doesn’t particularly spice things up. Along with David there’s the aggressive hick, the caring grandma type, and the unstable doctor. We’re treated to the normal back-and-forth about trust, and there are clearly differences between the leaders, but we don’t get any sense of what the New Frontier is actually about. Their motivations are as much a mystery by the end of the episode as they were at the start, and the community itself is a faceless hub with which you have almost zero interaction.
This detachment extends into the game itself, which feels even more reluctant to let you near its aging mechanics than usual. Outside of conversational choices, there is one time-based puzzle element which gives you far more time than you require in order to solve it, and thereby negates any sense of urgency. Even the obligatory “big” choices feel mundane - do you kill a dying man, or let him turn? Will it make a difference? Probably not, in the grand scheme of things. What you can be sure of is that fringe characters in your group will generally be given short shrift, without any sense of development.
Above The Law is the epitome of a filler episode, then, which is a terrible shame since the overall production on the series has come a long way since 2012. Fights - when you have them - are choreographed well (although they still can’t mask the tired QTE prompts), and resident Telltale composer Jared Emerson-Johnson’s excellent score has never once felt out of place.
The biggest disappointment is that after a fairly Clem-heavy beginning, she’s now been relegated to one of the aforementioned fringe characters. Javier has already been established as the main character here, but there was a conscious decision to bring Clem back into the fray. While the fractured narrative zips between flashback events and the present day, the reasons for her being kicked out of the New Frontier in the first place don’t ring true - unless you buy into the reasoning given by a group with a junkie doctor, which is pretty tough to do. The ending suggests that she may have a bigger part to play in the last two episodes and, if so, it’s sorely needed, since all this season’s banal soap opera storyline is currently doing is highlighting how fantastic the very first season was in comparison.