The Walking Dead and the Evolution of Clementine

Melissa Hutchison, star of Telltale's The Walking Dead, talks to us about how Clementine evolved throughout the series.

This Walking Dead article contains spoilers. 

Much has happened since Telltale’s The Walking Dead, an episodic adventure game based on Robert Kirkman’s hit comic book series, first launched in 2012. Not only did the success of the first game spawn several follow-up seasons, but it also allowed developer Telltale Games to branch out to other franchises, such as Game of Thrones, Batman, Borderlands, and Minecraft. But in 2018, midway through development of the game’s final season, Telltale closed its doors, and it was Kirkman’s own entertainment label, Skybound, which saved the series from being left unfinished. After seven years, The Walking Dead finally came to an end in March. 

Through all of these trials and tribulations, there has been one constant: Clementine as The Walking Dead‘s badass protagonist. We first meet Clem at the very start of the zombie outbreak. At just 8-years-old, she loses her parents and is forced to do things no child her age should ever have to do to survive. From her first zombie kill to a final showdown with an old nemesis, we follow Clem all the way to adulthood, watching her evolve from helpless child to a mentor and protector to little AJ. It’s a story we don’t see enough of in a universe where children and teens are too often cut down by a zombie horde or enemy faction.

Clem doesn’t survive The Walking Dead unscathed, though. She is bitten in the leg while trying to save AJ from a walker horde in the final episode — mirroring decisions Clem’s own guardian, Lee, had to make in the first season. But when AJ has to choose between ending Clem’s life or letting her turn, he makes a decision not available to the heartbroken players who were forced to put down an infected Lee years before: he amputates her leg, saving her life and allowing her the chance for a happy ending. 

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Both Telltale’s The Walking Dead and the comic book series came to an end this year, but with the release of the full collection — featuring every episode of the game — we’re looking back at Clem’s journey with the brilliant voice actress who brought Clementine to life with her pitch-perfect performance. Melissa Hutchison spoke to us on the phone back in March, around the time of the game’s stunning finale, and shared her thoughts on the end of the series and Telltale Games as well as what it was like to play Clem for almost a decade.

“I feel very fortunate. To actually grow and age with a character, it’s become such a huge part of my life,” Hutchison says. “I should say it was an interesting twist because it started off as a Telltale Games adventure. No foreseeing what was ultimately going to happen with Telltale Games shutting their doors out of the blue.”

Telltale’s disastrous closure began in Sept. 2018 when 250 employees were let go without warning (and without severance) and given 30 minutes to exit the building. Hutchison still had about an hour’s worth of lines to record when the studio shut its doors.

“Basically being almost done recording the game, and then to have it yanked away and then have Skybound come through and save it. It’s definitely a very interesting end to Clementine’s journey,” Hutchison says. “I didn’t know how I was gonna feel when the episode released. And I didn’t know what kind of emotions were gonna come out. But ultimately, I just feel so completely satisfied and so happy for the fans. It’s been quite the ride.”

Fortunately, when Skybound took the reins of the final two episodes, the studio hired back much of the Telltale team to finish the story. It was “like coming home,” according to Hutchison, who felt the shock of Telltale’s demise not just as a performer but as a fan of the games. 

Being both the voice of Clem and a gamer, Hutchison has had a lot of time to think about many of the series’ biggest moments and decisions, such as the fate of the unstable Kenny, whom she chose to spare in her playthrough.

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“Yes, he was batshit crazy, but he was this last remnant of season one,” Hutchison says. “So I was actually shocked when I saw that most people actually chose either go on their own or kill Kenny. But no it was very irresponsible of me. At least of my Clementine.”

But Hutchison doesn’t really linger on her decisions in the game: “The stories are so nailed down that I haven’t ever had moments where I’ve been like, ‘Eh, I wouldn’t have done this,’ or ‘I don’t know why they chose to do this or leave this in here or take this out or kill this person.’ I just feel like they nailed that story down so well. I haven’t really experienced feeling like I would do anything differently.”

For Clem, one of the moments that linger with her throughout the series is the death of Lee, which is still regarded by some fans as Telltale’s The Walking Dead‘s most shocking scenes. 

“I think a lot of the decisions that she makes and the direction she goes throughout all the seasons really represent what Lee would have also chosen to do,” says Hutchison, who doesn’t think Clem’s journey would have changed much had Lee survived the first season. “I feel like because of how much she maintains of her connection and her relationship with Lee, I don’t really see it turning out too differently. I think Lee would be very proud of her.”

That said, Hutchison takes a guess at how the final season might have changed had Lee still been among the living: “I don’t know if he would have stayed at that boarding school. I think he might have been like, ‘This is way too many kids for me, I’m out.’ I don’t think Lee would have put himself in that situation, because that would have been teenagers, hormones, nightmare fuel [for him].”

But for Clem, Ericson’s Boarding School for Troubled Youth means a home after years of searching. It’s also a place for Clem’s ward to finally have some kind of childhood. Throughout the final season, Clem has to guide AJ through a series of dangerous situations as well as decisions that aren’t always so black and white. For example, Clem must decide whether to allow AJ to kill or spare Lilly, a character who first appeared in the first season and later returned as the antagonist of season four. Whatever Clem chooses to tell AJ, it has a real effect on him later in the story when he has to decide whether to kill someone else.

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Clem’s relationship with AJ shows how her story has come full circle, according to Hutchison, who compares Clem’s difficult decisions to the ones Lee had to make when teaching the young girl how to use a gun and when to kill. But will AJ turn out as well as Clem did?

“The difference [is that] Clementine at least had a childhood in the normal world before the zombie shit hit the fan,” Hutchison says. “AJ only knows this hard, brutal world. And even though I think she’s done a really good job keeping him in check as far as the manners and his temper, she was still a kid raising a kid. It’s definitely a darker world for him, and she didn’t know how to teach him everything. He was just born into this world where the only thing you’re taught from the get go is how to survive. And that’s pretty brutal. [But] I think her influence is strong enough on him that he wouldn’t turn into the next Carver or Alpha.”

Clementine’s transition from the first season to the last has been an interesting evolution, not only for the character but for Hutchison as an actor. 

“Each Clementine is so distinctly different, but then the essence of her true being and spirit has been the same. To go from this innocent little girl who, you know, the whole point of season one was to protect this child. And then in season two, she’s kind of shell shocked, been through some shit. But she’s also building this strength.”

Hutchison says Clem’s evolution in season 3, titled A New Frontier, was especially fun for her: “It was kind of the Dirty Harry Clem. I think the relationship between her and Javi is really cool. But there’s no bond, there’s no connection, she’s just like, ‘I just wanna go get my fucking kid.’ This was definitely a season where she was just straight up no BS.”

The “Dirty Harry Clem” rogue phase gives way to Clem coming into her own as a parental figure for AJ. Hutchison loved being able to follow Clem to that level of maturity in the final season. 

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“She’s actually softened. Obviously, there’s those moments where she is just so badass. But she has to also maintain this nurturing mother personality. It was really cool to go from the most bitter we can possibly see Clementine in season three to evolving into this more nurturing relationship.”

At the end of series, Clem has saved AJ, found a home at the boarding school, and earned a bit of peace. But what would Hutchison like to see next for the character?

“They finally get on a boat — an ode to Kenny. They sail off to the gulf of Florida or whatever,” Hutchison says. “This is why I’m not a writer.”

It’s not too often that actors get to know a character for as long as Hutchison has and she’s very thankful for the time she spent growing with Clementine. By the series’ end her relationship with Clem had evolved, too. Sitting down to record her lines felt like meeting up with a good friend.

“It’s just been such a really cool, I’m gonna use this word again, but organic experience for me to grow with her. It’s not like when I went into the studio in between seasons, first day back wasn’t like, ‘Can you send me a reference file?’ Or you know, ‘What are we doing here?’ It was so easy to just be right back in place with Clementine.”

The Walking Dead Collection is out now.

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