The first part of 2014 delivered to me two exceptional second season premieres from two different up and coming storytelling delivery mediums. These two episodes did more for me in terms of defying expectations, changing the landscape of their respective series, and delivering compelling entertainment and challenging morality in these individual episodes than most series will ever accomplish in their entire runs.
The first was technically released in late 2013, but I was a couple weeks late getting to it so I got it post-New Years. It was Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, a story-based series that blurs the line between video game and interactive fiction beyond all recognition. The second: Netflix’s original flagship series House of Cards, a high-quality political drama whose streaming format allows for viewers to watch as much or as little as they want whenever they choose to rather than endure the traditional wait for weekly installments and increasingly tiresome mid-season breaks.
Both of these breakthrough series were game changers in their respective first seasons and both made it their business early in their second seasons to change the game again by toying with traditional expectations and then using those expectations to destroy their viewers’ brains. Naturally, the following contains some very nasty spoilers so proceed only if you have already experienced these premieres or don’t intend to anytime soon. Here’s to celebrating some of the best moments in entertainment I’ve had in ages.
For those not in the know, Telltales’ The Walking Dead is based on the massive comic book sensation that spawned the AMC television show. As you can see, the art style is cel-shaded to reflect that origin. You might think that the unreality of it would diminish the drama, but you would be wrong. Telltale lives up to their name in every way. They know how to tell a goddamn story, and in basing the narrative on decisions that you make it takes the story and puts it in your hands, completely immersing the player in the world in a way that combines the best aspects of video games, comic books, and television.
As dark and depressing as you may think the TV show is, it’s got nothing on this game. It may even have the comic beat. The first season you played as Lee, a convict that escaped during the zombie outbreak who found his redemption protecting a little girl, Clementine. Lee doesn’t make it to the finish line, and for season 2, your darling Clementine takes the lead.
The cliffhanger from season 1 had little Clem alone spotting a pair of figures in the distance who may or may not be her friends. Season 2 starts with our heroine in the company of those friends, the lovable Omid and his Amazonian hardass of a girlfriend Christa, assuaging our worry that she would be all alone in the world. But the first thing Telltale does is kill off Omid when Clem lets her guard down and a drifter gets ahold of her gun.
First. Freaking. Thing. Most of us remembered the horrors and the shock and depression of the first season, but early on you expect them to ease you back into the characters. Nope. Before you can even get over how nice it is to have Omid back, Season Two blasts you full in the face. Welcome back, noobs.
Now it’s just Christa and Clem and the adult is incommunicado, blaming the little girl for her fatal slip-up. But that’s not depressing enough. In a nighttime attack from a group of raiders, Christa and Clem are separated and then there was one.
At this point, it’s time for some quiet time. Alone in the woods, you happen upon a stray dog who begins following you, giving Clementine a companion to talk to. We’ve all seen this before; we know how this works. The dog is defensive at first, but soon lets its guard down. Two lost souls leaning on each other for support: man’s best friend and the little girl lost. It’s a beautiful thing. So naturally, I’m thinking how sad it’s going to be when the dog inevitably sacrifices itself so that the little girl can live. I’ve got you nailed, Telltale! I know you are setting me up for feels!
Now the above image represents a pivotal moment in Clem’s relationship with her new canine companion. We’ve all seen this before. OF COURSE you are going to share your scavenged beans with the dog. This is the covenant between human and dog: we share our food with them and you become our beloved friend and protector forever. This contract is sacred and cannot be broken.
So I chose to share and the dog I’d been bonding with for the last twenty minutes or was so eager for it he knocked the can right out of Clem’s hand. As he tried to get at the beans, Clem reaches out to retrieve the can from the greedy pet and…
…that happens. Food aggression much? In probably the most viscerally shocking thing I’ve ever experienced in over 30 years of gaming the dog lets out a menacing snarl and attacks the little girl. It threw me for such a loop that I almost dropped my controller and was so baffled by this complete reversal of everything I’d ever experience before it that I helplessly watched a dog tear out a little girl’s throat and all I could do was laugh myself silly at this complete betrayal of my expectations. Well played, Telltale. Well played.
That was definitely the high point of my gaming experiences in 2014 so far. After you do away with the doggie, the rest of the episode sees Clementine happen upon a group of zombie apocalypse survivors who mistake her bite for…well, a bite and lock her (still bleeding) in a shed to see if she turns or not before deciding whether or not to waste any medical supplies on a potentially infected stranger. Not out of the woods yet.
She has to break out, steal supplies, and stitch her wound herself and deal with walker who uses her improvised exit as an entrance before facing her angry captors and eventually making another life or death decision when a zombie attack interrupts an exploratory hunting trip framed around a dicey family conflict the next day. It’s a lot to take in for a single episode. To think I’ve still got four more to go and I’m already emotionally exhausted. Let’s see what’s on Netflix.
Conspiracy plots is the new sex and violence. This is what makes quality entertainment now: terrible people doing terrible things to each other using the most intricate and underhanded methods that the writers can possible conceive of. That and sex and violence, of course.
The most terrifying of this new crop of anti-hero (villain?) protagonists is House of Cards’ soulless sociopath Frank Underwood. It’s a testament to our ingrained expectations of popular fiction that a character who has almost no redeeming qualities becomes a heroic figure to viewers who don’t know what to do with a story where the protagonist is objectively evil. They need that identification. They need to root for somebody. Someone needs to triumph and it may as well be the devil we know.
Because of these things, House of Cards continues to push further and further to see how much they can bend the phenomenon of audience identification without quite breaking it. Underwood regularly punches a hole through the fourth wall, fixing his sinister gaze on the camera to directly acknowledge or address the audience outside of his own reality; daring us not to feel uncomfortable as he wrecks life after life on a whim.
Season 2 has Frank as the Vice President of these United States, having manipulated his way from Congress to a heartbeat away from the highest office in the free world out of sheer spite because of a political snub. His ultimate target is still ahead of him, though. How does one secretely do away with an American President while maintaining a kind and gentle Southern “aw shucks” public exterior? The same way he got where he’s at, I reckon.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse. Near the end of Season 1, Frank crossed the uncrossable line and set up a candidate only to have him knocked down by his vices, setting the scene for ol’ Frank to save the day. When he turns into a loose end with too much information Underwood leaves him passed out in a running car in a closed garage, framing his murder as a suicide and presumably losing the last bit of audience sympathy in the process.
So how does one top the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man for political gain? House of Cards returned after its hiatus with a group of journalists hot on Underwood’s tail, connecting the dots between the dead politician and the freshly-minted VP. If Frank was still the protagonist, young up and coming journalist Zoe Barnes was his new antagonist.
This is interesting because Zoe is a fairly lovable character; all sex appeal, aggressive youthful optimism, and career-driven woman using every means at her disposal to make her mark in Frank’s world. She wants to be a good journalist and get the truth out to the public, however ugly. Her mutually-beneficial relationship (both personal and professional) with Frank formed the very foundation of the first season, but the murder makes her a liability who had long since served her purpose.
The second season premiere was a cat and mouse game between the former partners, setting up what we would expect to be a season-long arc. Or maybe not. After Underwood warns Zoe off several times, she continues probing him with the wrong questions in the wrong place at the wrong time
So yeah, the closest thing left to a primary character who is not a complete piece of shit gets Ned Starked in the first episode of the season. This is House of Cards, kid. Scruples only earn you a nasty end. At the end of the episode, Frank turns to us and addresses his audience for the first time this season: “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you’d hoped I had” before welcoming us back to his world. It’s bone-chilling.
Meanwhile, Frank’s wife Claire, who has often been seen as the heart of the Underwoods as this point, starts to show that she may be every bit the sociopath her husband is, researching pregnancy under the guise of an older woman exploring her options when she is in fact attempting to subdue a pregnant ex-employee who has brought a lawsuit against her.
And by “subdue” I mean find out how she can use her pregnancy against her. She discovers that the ex-employee in question requires a certain drug to sustain the health of her unborn child and exploits a loophole that allows her to cancel her health benefits, telling the poor woman that she will gladly watch her baby shrivel and die in her womb if she doesn’t do as she’s told. This is the first blatant display suggesting that Claire may well be every bit as nasty as her husband in spite of her ever-pleasant demeanor. Guess who’s stepping up this season.
And that, friends, is how you hook a viewer in for the long haul right off the bat. Moments like these that smash everything you thought you knew about a franchise are what assures that we will keep coming back for more. After a single season, we think we know what there is to know.
There is a rhythm and ritual to most popular entertainment where we often know more or less what’s going to happen but watch to see it happen anyways. It’s comforting…and boring. When a show can use these expectations to expertly set the viewer up just so it can knock them down with glee, then you know you are dealing with heavy hitters; writers who understand the power of storytelling and are determined to push their medium forward rather than maintain the comfort of the status quo.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead and House of Cards, you’ve got what I need. I’d say don’t change, but that would completely defeat the purpose. Just keep doing what you do and I’ll keep playing/watching.