The final episode in Telltale’s The Walking Dead asks us to think about death. Throughout the Episode we see how the different characters deal with the immanence of death. Some embrace death in despair as the lovers who both commited suicide to escape the horrors of apocalypse. Others hold fast to denial and cry “I’m ok!” with a steel rod through their chest. And still others remain hopeful or desperate, even maiming themselves in some vain hope that it will slow the zombie infection.. Sometimes seek to die alone, other times people beg, “don’t leave me.” And in the end, the player decides how his very own character will face death.
Death is unnatural
When asked what The Lord of the Rings was really about at its core, J. R. Tolkien once said all stories are really about death. In the old BBC interview, he proceeds to pull a scrap of what looks like a newspaper clipping from his wallet, a quote from Simone de Beauvoir he obviously read once and kept.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca5TUYB1nlw (Skip to 8:00 mark)
There’s no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to man is ever natural. His presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.
When Episode 5 ends, I couldn’t help but feel a similar same sense of anger, indignation really, about the unfair nature of dying. I did not want to come to terms with death, I did not want to leave Clementine alone. I had won, I had beaten the game. I felt I had made the right choices and it was my time to save the princess. I had earned the happy ending.
In a way, death is just as unnatural as the undead. Zombies are an abomination, their existence clashes with nature itself, just as the notion of death and the notion of being eternally parted from our loved ones seems like an abomination in our hearts. The title of Episode 5 is “Out of Time” and at one point Lee yells at the massing hordes of zombies outside the barricaded doors, “Can’t you leave us alone for two seconds?!”
Death never lets up, never stops harrying us down the road of mortality. And until we reach the end of the story, we’re stuck with this death infested world, reminders everywhere we look.
Living and dying with our choices
I once read a story about a man who died by being pushed onto the tracks of a subway. A journalist stood by taking pictures, to warn the driver with the flash of his camera, he insisted. The photos appeared in the newspaper, to great increases of readership. I, like others, was disgusted with the photographer’s exploitation, yet I wondered what I would’ve done had I been at the station. Would I take the same pictures? Would I dash to his rescue, fighting against time to perform perfect actions under extreme duress like some quick time event? Or more likely, would I would do nothing?
Regardless, we would all make a choice. If my time was up and I died saving the man or did nothing and died at a ripe old age, I would still be left with the results of my choices.
After the credits roll, I stared blankly at the screen, still reeling from my death, from leaving Clementine forever: two friends prematurely separated, and fuming with the injustice of it all.
Then the screen fades in and presents me with all the characters, all the people, the friends and villains I have influenced over the course of the game. Under each face and name appears a set of statements, outcomes from my choices that affected their lives. I defended a boy and his father when the boy had been bitten. I let a young man be dragged to his death. I let the same boy join me in an investigation as my partner, and I shot the same boy in the head when his father could not.
Then it struck me, it doesn’t matter if Lee had lived another 60 years and watched Clementine grow up, get married and have kids of her own. It doesn’t matter because Lee’s time was up. At some point, all our time will be gone. And all that will remain is our choices.
Happily ever after
Author John Eldredge writes that fairy tales, the “happily ever after” trope resonates with us, not because we’re all yuppie and optimistic at heart, but because it speaks of a truer reality.
The story if salvation in the Bible is a fairy tale at heart, despite the long tale of suffering and death, good wins out, “happily ever after” is, and has always been the ending. C.S Lewis wrote that badness is merely goodness spoiled. Christians believe there will be a proper resurrection of the dead at the end of time, parted loved ones will be reunited, and every tear will be wiped away.
But until that time, we have only our choices. And we must make these choices either with this hope in mind, or out of despair.
Will we become like the Crawfords, willing to go to any lengths to survive, killing the wounded and sick? Or will we seek to protect the innocent and vulnerable like Lee? The dead lovers chose to end their lives, understandably to avoid any more pain. When the group of survivors stumbles upon them, rotting in their bed, a bullet through their brains, the outspoken Kenny puts words to the tragic scene.
You don’t just end things when it’s hard, you stick it out, and take care of the ones you love.
I think he speaks to the heart of The Walking Dead, we are confronted with death itself in it’s most horrendous forms, and it causes us to question: will we make choices out of hope or despair?
How we face conflict shapes the people around us. The Crawfords chose to live out of desperation and without charity, and it brought destruction not only to themselves, but to everyone around them. In the end, it didn’t matter whether they survived, death found them out, “The dead always win,” one survivor points out. But the legacy of their actions lives on.
Death stole everything from Kenny, and for a time he let his bitterness destroy the remaining relationships he had left. When he discovered the spindly teenage survivor, Ben, was inadvertently at fault for his family’s death, Kenny came close to murder as well. How can we remain hopeful? For Kenny it was the realization of who Ben had lost, pain and suffering brings empathy for others living with loss. Empathy through that shared pain was so strong it eventually led Kenny to lay down his own life for Ben.
Living with hope means choosing to look beyond our own death, and acting accordingly. Lee dies, not with a morbid self-centeredness we all feel entitled to, but remained selflessly preparing for Clementine’s future. We can’t beat death; it won’t leave us alone. We can only attempt to prepare for it, because when it comes, the only thing left will be the hope or despair we sowed into the lives of others.