When fan-favorite Clementine shows up in Telltale’s The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, it’s kind of devastating. Somewhere after the last season, Clementine morphed from a child into a killer. While that might seem like a betrayal to the young girl players grew to love over the first two seasons of the video game series, it actually makes perfect sense. Clementine was destined to go dark, because she’s a survivor.
When we initially met her in the first episode of The Walking Dead’s first season, she was sweet, kind, and trusting. All she wanted was someone to protect her, and she bounced from group to group seeking a place to belong. Then, when preteen Clementine arrives in the middle of the first episode of The Walking Dead’s third season, surprise! That little girl is gone. The new Clementine is cold, unfeeling, and hardcore. Her only goal is to survive, and she’ll screw anyone and everyone over to save her own skin. She even kills a former contact for selling her bad bullets.
This might seem like another case of “little girl goes dark because it’s shocking.” It’s a pretty common media trope, as shown in characters like Hit Girl from Kick-Ass and Claudia from Interview with the Vampire. It’s when young girls suddenly go from naive, trusting children to stone-cold murderers. Usually, it’s not of their own volition, but something that’s forced upon them by adults. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The pieces of Clementine’s journey were put in place well before Clementine shows up in the third season. In fact, it started in the very first season.
After Lee, her father-figure from the first season, is bitten by a lurker, the player (as Lee) has to decide whether to demand that Clementine shoot him or ask she leave him to die. That could easily be seen as the adult corrupting the young girl, like when Hanna’s father trains her as an assassin in 2011’s Hanna. In that moment Clementine’s heart is in his hands, and his choice could change her forever. However, there is a third option: Have Lee not say anything. If Lee stays silent, he gives Clementine full control over her actions as an NPC. In that moment, Clementine will choose to shoot him anyway.
So, we see early on that Clementine will choose to kill, but why does she choose to reject companionship? In short, because she gets sick of losing everybody.
By the time the third season starts, there isn’t a single person from Clementine’s past who’s still in her life. While Lee’s death was probably the most impactful, the second season was what really nailed in the coffin, as practically her entire group of friends was killed by Walkers or human enemies. Sarah, her teenage friend, was the most tragic death, because it didn’t matter how many times you saved her in the game (like when she’s trapped in the trailer), she was always dead by the end of it. The only person Clementine had left after that (as shown in flashbacks) was Rebecca’s baby AJ from the end of the second season — but, given the fact AJ is nowhere in sight when Clem finds Javier Garcia in the third season, one can assume the worst.
It’s clear that Clementine still cares about other people, you can see the regret in her eyes as she refuses to stay with Javier and his group. But she’s learned that these people will probably die, just like all the others, and avoiding them is the only way she can protect her heart from breaking again. There are only so many times you can love and lose before you assume taking “love” out of the equation would stop it from happening again.
The third season of The Walking Dead isn’t about shocking audiences by changing one of its most precious characters into a cutthroat, but part a well-structured journey into a fascinating video game character. It shows a girl who’s learned how to make the impossible choice grow into someone who’s learned how to protect herself from having to make that decision again. She’s not a killer. She’s a survivor.