*This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead: The Final Season*
It might be one of the oldest cliches there is that parenting is the world’s hardest job. There are hundreds of self-help books about how to be a proper parent, or how to improve your parenting style, and many of them contradict one another. However, as a struggling parent, I think The Walking Dead: The Final Season is a fantastic crash course in the difficulties of parenting.
Of course, most of us aren’t taking on the role or parent or surrogate parent under the cloud of a zombie apocalypse but that doesn’t mean that the lessons at play in Clementine and AJ’s relationship, extreme as they might be, don’t hold water.
For my part, one of my greatest fears as a parent is that no matter how hard I try, I’m going to screw my kids up somehow. It’s that thing with a developing mind that will cause a kid to misunderstand, misinterpret or apply the right rule to the wrong situation. There’s a prime example of this at the end of the first episode of The Walking Dead: The Final Season, in which AJ murders a disarmed boy in cold blood, before reminding Clementine that she told him to “never hesitate.”
We’ve all had these moments with our kids, but rarely are the consequences so dire. The extremity and permanence of your parenting mis-steps in The Walking Dead may not be indicative of real life situations most of us will face but in their seriousness, and in the small mistake of miscommunication with your child a single time having such awful results, The Final Season taps into some very deep-seated parenting fears that a lot of us share.
Another powerful element of this story is that AJ has behavioral problems. He is violent, temperamental, and often erratic when he feels troubled or challenged. Again, these sorts of behavioral issues are not unique to a child growing up in the zombie apocalypse but they are exacerbated by these extenuating circumstances.
As a parent of two children who come from a troubled background, it can be extremely challenging to deal with. The way that The Walking Dead: The Final Season dials in on these issues is, again, through the extremity of the situations you’re placed in. Most parents have had to re-wire their kids when they say they enjoy something they shouldn’t be doing in the first place, but that something isn’t usually killing.
The scene in the 4th episode where AJ admits to Clementine that he liked killing Lilly was especially chilling to endure as a parent. After all, Ted Bundy, Adolf Hitler, John Wayne Gacy, and every other human monster in historic memory all had parents didn’t they? This ties into another of those grand parenting fears, that your child might grow up to be a dangerous, violent person, in spite of all your best efforts.
However, there is a silver lining to all of this fear and despair. By the end of my journey with AJ, I thought I could trust him at last to do the right thing. More importantly, it was essential for our damaged relationship, and our mutual struggles, that I put my trust in him to rebuild our bond. So, I trusted him, and because I did, he actually saved my life.
The ending reveal of “Take Us Back”, the last episode of The Walking Dead: The Final Season, that AJ has saved Clementine by disobeying her and following his own judgment at the most dire time imaginable, is the emotional linchpin of this entire story. While The Final Season does turn up the volume on some of our most distressing parenting anxieties, it also assuages them by reminding us that our kids can sometimes surprise us when we least expect them to.
And so, at the end of The Walking Dead: The Final Season, we are ultimately left with a message of hope. To trot out another cliche, it turns out that the children are our future after all. They have the unlimited potential that only seems possible when someone is growing and changing at such a rapid rate that their eventual destiny and destination could anything and anywhere.
Saddled as they are with the mistakes, fears, hopes, dreams and anxieties of their parents, and the previous generations, it’s hard not to fear for them at every imaginable moment. But if you can teach them to learn, adapt, and survive in this world, they might just be all right after all.