Push to Smart Water Cooler: Parenthood and the Walking Dead

Welcome back to the Water Cooler! We revisit TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead to discuss its portrayal of parenthood. Guest Erin Grace joins Jaylee to explain how her experiences as a mother influenced her choices as Clementine.

JAYLEE: Hello and welcome back to the Push to Smart Water Cooler. This week we are going back to Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead with a very special guest. Friend and frequent collaborator Erin Grace is joining today me to broaden our conversation about Lee and Clementine’s story. As you might know, The Walking Dead focuses heavily on the relationship between children and adults through protection, parenting, and responsibility. So today we’re adding a new voice to the conversation. This time we’ll be talking about The Walking Dead with an actual parent: Erin.

ERIN: Hi!

JAYLEE: So, Erin, please tell us a little bit about yourself before we dive in.

ERIN: Hi, I’m Erin. I type up the transcriptions for Push to Smart. I’ve been Jaylee’s friend for approximately 100 years. He’s a vampire.

JAYLEE: True. True.

ERIN: Yeah, and I’m just starting to get into video games. They weren’t terribly accessible to me before this period of my life, and I’m finding that Telltale’s format really appeals to me, because the short episodes—like leading to longer seasons with big arcs—is a lot easier for me to get into with my schedule. (laughs) Jaylee introduced me to the Season 1 of The Walking Dead last year and I really, really loved it. I just, I loved being Lee. So I was super excited when I found out there was going to be a second episode with Clementine as the protagonist. And I think that’s something that you and Stacey really wanted as well, and so it really surprised me when I was watching and listening to and transcribing the Season 2 episodes to find out that we had such different perspectives on how to achieve Clementine becoming a badass survivor.

JAYLEE: Well, I think that when I played it, every chance that I could show Clementine to be self-sufficient, resourceful, or, you know, badass, was a time I kind of honor Lee in a way. Kind of to be like, Lee is gone, but his did as best as he could to prepare Clem for this world.

ERIN: When I played, every opportunity there was to make people into family, I would take it. Because that, to me, that was the “Lee ghost” hanging over top of this game. The thing that I took from Lee was, yeah, you need to be a badass to survive, but you can’t survive without other people. You can’t survive by constantly pushing everybody away. You need to bring some people in. And you’re not going to know if they’re the kind of person that you should bring in until you give them the chance. If it turns out that they can’t be trusted or whatever, you need to cut them off. And don’t be apologetic about it. But if you can bring them in and you can trust them, you should.

JAYLEE: And Season 2 definitely had a lot more mini family units within the larger group at the beginning of the season. And one of the pairs that I’ve been wanting to talk about and get you input on most is Carlos and Sarah. Which Carlos is shown as overprotective and yes, loving, but also like he’s sheltering Sarah too much.

ERIN: I get where he’s coming from, wanting to protect Sarah, obviously. To me, basically, my parenting philosophy is pretty much summed up in that scene where you have to shoot Lee in the face. Which is basically, if you can protect your children, you should. But sometimes you can’t protect them. And sometimes protecting them means encouraging them and helping them do things that are really fucking hard, that will make things way fucking easier in the future. And so looking at Carlos and his idea of protecting Sarah by basically just keeping her in the house all the time and never letting her see anything or whatever, I felt like that was such a short-sighted parenting philosophy. There’s that part where he says, you know, “Sarah doesn’t see things the way you do. She doesn’t understand things the way you do.” I literally thought that meant Sarah is neuroatypical and she just doesn’t get it or she can’t get it, or it would be too hard for her… Whatever. For whatever reason she literally does not possess the capacity to handle this new world. And I was like, oh, well shit. Okay, then I will step lightly around Sarah. When in reality what he meant was “I have been sheltering her. She basically lives in the closest thing to a bomb shelter that I could construct, and as a result she has no way of dealing with it because I haven’t prepared her.” And when I realized that, I was like, Carlos! How do you think that that is in any way a good way of teaching your daughter how to deal with this world? I mean, they need you for this stuff. And sometimes it’s shitty and sometimes it’s hard and you have to teach them things that you don’t want them to have to learn. But they have to learn it. So just let her fight the zombies, Carlos! (laughs) In a controlled setting, of course. Come on! I mean, as controlled a setting as you can get with zombies.

JAYLEE: And another thing that I always kind of forgot to bring up in previous Water Coolers is that the outbreak has been going on for at least two years. So Carlos has been sheltering her for two years in this world. And those years have changed every single person in a lot of ways. It’s equipped them to remain survivors and be able to deal with these horrible scenarios they get put in. So by the time you get to Sarah… And part of this is the way she was raised in this setting, and part of this is just lazy writing on Telltale’s part—but whenever you try to help her and teach her to deal with these situations, it just doesn’t work out.

ERIN: I wish that they had given us more opportunities to make it work. I mean, it’s obviously tough with Carlos being her dad. So she clings onto Carlos because that’s the only thing she has for protection, and so she stays as close to her dad as basically everybody else in the game stays to their gun. And I don’t know that there’s a lot more that they could have done to get her away from him, but like… The options that they give you for Sarah seem shallow. It’s either help her do— No, not help her. Do the thing she needs to do instead of her, or let her get punished because she’s not going to do it anyway. I mean, even looking at this from the perspective that Clementine and Sarah are supposed to be friends—maybe, depending on what you chose—that’s not even a good way to conduct a friendship. Either you take the fall because you did her work or she takes the fall because she didn’t do her work at all. And that’s not a good way to conduct a friendship, that’s not a good way to teach somebody something. And I mean, yeah, maybe it’s about Clementine being, you know,  11 and she doesn’t really have the capacity yet to think to herself like, “This girl needs to be trained in how to live in the world. I should teach her instead of doing it for her.” Maybe that’s the end goal they’re trying to come at, but that’s not the way it felt to me. It felt a lot more like you can choose to continue to protect Sarah the same way that Carlos does, or you can just let her fall. The end! I wasn’t too happy with those choices. I think we could have brought her around if we’d been given better choices. (laughs)

JAYLEE: No, I totally agree with that! So much about Sarah and her fate frustrates me, but we’re not here to talk about me, we’re here for your input! (laughs) And I remember when we finally caught up after you finished Season 2, you had some differing opinions about Kenny. Particularly in episode 3 after he’s been beaten up by Carver and he’s just in his bunk and goes on a monologue about Duck.

ERIN: Oh yeah! Okay.

JAYLEE: I know Stacey and I thought it was really odd and kind of off-putting.

ERIN: Yeah, when I heard you guys saying that he was being creepy, I was actually really surprised because… Okay, to be clear, I feel like Kenny is a complicated guy to get along with. (laughs) And that in every other respect, you guys pretty much hit the nail on the head. That he just doesn’t think things through and he’s a pain in the ass, and… Absolutely. He is absolutely all of those things. And when I first saw him, I was so excited because familiar faces! And then within 10 minutes, I was like, oh goodness.Ogh, the excitement has worn off. (laughs) Because then you remember, maybe it’s a familiar face, but it’s Kenny, so it’s familiar behavior as well. So you’re just like, Kenny, please! Just stop being you for 10 minutes! But I was really surprised when you were talking about how you thought he was being really creepy, because I did not read it that way at all. So like the part where he’s monologuing about Duck, even though it seems pretty clear that nobody is listening to him, I totally understood that. I’m not the kind of person who spends all her waking moments talking about her kid because my kid is not my whole life. Which, I know, I’m a mom, that’s a very controversial statement, but it’s true. But at the same time, I still just love the crap out of him and whenever he’s gone for long periods of time, for the first two or three days I’m like, yeah! Baby free! And then for the rest of the time I’m like, I miss him. I wish he could be here to see this thing or do that thing or whatever. And obviously that’s not the same as him being literally dead, but especially when it comes to my husband, I’m a lot more liable to open up a little bit and be like, “[Stuff about our son].” And then as more and more time goes on, I’m more likely to start talking about him because even though probably nobody cares, I don’t care that nobody cares. (laughs) It’s a huge emotional thing for me, and just being able to talk about him for two minutes makes it feel not so much like he’s really far away. And so when Kenny was talking about Duck and it’s clear that nobody’s listening—even Sarita, who’s probably heard the same monologue a hundred times—to Kenny it doesn’t matter. Because just talking about Duck means that he existed. That somebody still remembers him. Like, it’s easy to look at kids, especially little kids, and little annoying kids like Duck… (laughs) And think about them as like, not people. Which makes it sound even more harsh, but I feel that’s a little bit the way that the mindset goes. That they’re just these weird germy things that run around and they yell a lot. Which they definitely are all of those things, but they’re also people, and when you’re close to them, it’s just like being close to anybody else. Like it would be super weird for me to never talk about you again if you just, I don’t know, just fell over and died right now. Of course I’d keep talking about you because you’ve been my friend for like a billion years, and it would be weird to NOT talk about you. Another thing that this reminds me of, actually, is something my mom told me. A couple years ago a friend from high school died. And… Because my mom lost her brother to leukemia when they were both in their twenties… And my mom, her only piece of advice was just keep talking about him. Because everybody wants to pull back and be like, “Oh no, I can’t talk about that person, it’s too painful. It’ll just make [the family] upset. I don’t want to talk about it.” But the way the person on the other end sees it is nobody remembers this person. Nobody thinks about them anymore. But I think about them all the time! And in a way, it’s like that thing where they say that everybody dies two deaths: first of all when your biological life ends, and then second of all when the memory of you ends. And you feel like you’re the last thing keeping that second death from happening. And so when he’s talking about Duck, I kind of teared up a little bit because yeah, Duck was annoying, but he wasn’t a bad kid. And if I was his parent, I would want to talk to somebody, even if it’s just Sarita, even if it’s just the fucking air. To be like, he’s dead, but he’s not all the way dead yet! I still have him. So that wasn’t weird to me at all. (laughs) And then, to a much less emotional place, the part with him and AJ. So you guys were saying that he’s being really creepy, like swooping in on AJ and all of that stuff. And once again, that’s a thing where I didn’t find it creepy at all. Having physically pushed my baby out of my body, I know how tired you are after that. They put him on my chest, and I looked at him and I was like, “Okay, this is great. Now someone take him away so I can get some fucking sleep!” (laughs) Maybe that is not a typical reaction. But basically every mom that I know who bore their child, they understand that physical tiredness. Like, I haven’t run a marathon, but I imagine it’s like running a marathon, where you just… You’re like, okay, I worked really hard. Now everybody leave me alone for like three days. Because I don’t want to do anything; I’m exhausted. And so, to me, swooping in and taking the baby away—

JAYLEE: So I guess it was more helpful than like, creepily possessive. I guess especially since he probably has been through this with Katya and Duck.

ERIN: Yeah, exactly. It’s not the kind of thing… Especially if you basically trust the person. I wouldn’t freak out. I would be like, okay give me like two minutes to cuddle with my baby, and then yes please, somebody take him away so I can frickin’ sleep. Yeah, that didn’t seem weird to me at all. And then the way that he’s very protective of AJ after Rebecca dies. Even though he took AJ out into the freezing cold and I was like, okay, Kenny, I understand wanting to hold onto your hope, but get AJ by the fire because he will literally freeze! (laughs) But like, nobody was volunteering, and so I also understand why he was like, “Mmm, I think I’m just going to keep hanging on to AJ.” I feel like it’s more like a parental thing than a weird, creepy Kenny/AJ weirdness thing. Does that make sense? (laughs)

JAYLEE: No, I kind of get that now.

ERIN: I think parenthood was a huge part of what colored my experience of the game, for both seasons. The parenting theme in Season 2, though, was really strong, and I found myself relating with the parental figures even when I didn’t agree with them. So like with Carlos and Sarah, I didn’t necessarily think he was handling their situation the best way, but I understood where he was coming from. And Kenny, for all his shitfuckery…

JAYLEE: (laughs)

ERIN: You know, he’s in such a hard place, it’s really hard for me to even imagine it. Parenting, I guess is like the zombie apocalypse: it’s a situation that no can really be fully prepared for. So even though the season completely fell apart at the end—

JAYLEE: I’m glad that we agreed on that.

ERIN: Yes.

JAYLEE: (laughs)

ERIN: It was so bad. My god. But yeah, they did such a great job showing all the different aspects of parenting and being sympathetic to all the additional stress that would come with parenting in the middle of such a radically changed world.

JAYLEE: So thank you for joining us for this very special episode, and of course I would love to give a big thank you to our guest, Erin. So let us know what you think about parenting, or if you’re a parent how that colored your view of this series, how you played the game. Let us know in the comments, and of course, don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date on all of our latest episodes and Water Cooler discussions.

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