Review: Life Is Strange Season 2 finale fumbles political themes but we still love the Diazes

Life Is Strange S2 E5 is a high watermark for the season as well as the adventure genre as a whole. It provides a few very different endings which are more than the product of a single, simple choice at the end of the game.

More than any other adventure game I’ve played, the ending you get is the product of all of your choices throughout the season. While Season 1 tugged harder on my heartstrings (Chloe and Max forever!), Season 2’s closing moments feel truly reactive. At the same time, the game comes to certain problematic thematic conclusions around immigration and border issues.

While the season was a little uneven, the conclusion makes it worth playing. It’s hard to discuss why without spoilers, so get ready for a bucket of them.

A strong first half

Episode 5 addressed a few of my main criticisms of this season as a whole. The first half of the episode takes place in the town of Away, Arizona, where the Diaz brothers’ mother, Karen, has been living. It’s a hippie commune in the desert, complete with a quirky sculptor who is battling cancer and a charming gay couple in late middle age.

The first half focuses on the tiny character moments that made this season great. You play with Daniel. You meet the locals. You chat with them and learn a bit about their stories. You can feel dark rumblings on the horizon, but they haven’t appeared yet. You get to have a few great, small conversations with Karen – as someone who struggled with similar issues to the Diaz boys, these interactions were powerful for me.

And guess who’s back? It’s David Madsen, Chloe’s stepdad from Season one! His journey from stern military man to weird trailer-hippie is determined by whether you chose Bay or Bae, but if Chloe is alive and well in your game, then you actually hear him talk to her on the phone. The call reveals that Max and Chloe visited Away semi-recently, putting them in proximity to the Diaz brothers. I would really love to see some crossover action, even if it only happens in the post-game comic books.

If I had to list the characters from S1 that I wanted to see in S2, David would probably be at the bottom of the list, but I love what they did with his character here. He’s deeper, more nuanced, and more compelling than he ever was before. He’s repentant about his past bad behavior and is trying to turn things around.

My issues with your issues

This calm before the storm sets up a second half that is immensely frustrating. When the Diaz boys reach the border, Daniel uses his power to tear a hole in the border wall. Just when you think you’re home free, border militia appear out of nowhere, shoot Daniel in the shoulder, and brutalize Sean.

The militia member who does all the talking is vile, cruel, ignorant, and racist.  It’s a fairly accurate portrayal. However, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) appear soon after, get pissed at the militia members and arrest them.

This is where my issues with the game begin. S2’s cardinal narrative and thematic sin is on full display here. Here and throughout the season, racism is portrayed as personal rather than systemic. Dontnod’s portrayal of the CBP and militia members implies that the problem isn’t a racist system of law enforcement and border policing; the problem is individual racists, who are rogues operating in opposition to that system. The reality is that border militias often act with the blessing and encouragement of CBP.

The game’s handling of this issue gets worse when Sean wakes up in jail. Daniel’s been shot, and Sean desperately wants to know if he’s okay. He’s imprisoned with a Mexican couple, Carla and Diego Morales, and asks them if Daniel all right. The man says yes, and the man makes a point of saying “Don’t worry. They don’t hurt the kids here.” This is the sort of lie that I cannot abide.

America does hurt children. We force two year olds to represent themselves in court. We separate them from their families, traumatizing them deeply. We let them die in custody. We have lost thousands of migrant children. All for the misdemeanor of crossing the border, which is seen as a less serious crime than making unlicensed Smokey the Bear t-shirts.

I don’t understand how Dontnod could write a game that attempts to tackle racism, and yet be so ignorant about these issues. Racism isn’t just the result of the actions of vile individual racists – it’s part of a system that dehumanizes, traumatizes, and kills people of color. This isn’t just a product of the Trump administration – it’s deeply embedded in our entire history.

If Diego wanted to tell us that this particular CBP station was better than most (this is his third attempted crossing), Dontnod should’ve been specific about that. But that seems unlikely, given the fact that the militia members, when they’re being arrested, namecheck another CBP officer with whom they have an understanding. That guy isn’t working today, so they go to the clink.

The game moves on to an argument between the militia member and Diego Morales, which plays out like anti-Mexican racism 101. Based on how this conversation goes, it’s clear to me that Dontnod understand the basics here: immigrants built America, they contribute a great deal, and anti-immigrant xenophobia is rooted in hideous racist lies about welfare and crime. But they didn’t bother to go deeper, and given that they chose to set their climax at the border, in a CBP detention facility, they needed to do more research.

History repeating itself

This reminds me of the issues I had with Season 1. At the end of the game, Max Caulfield is presented with a binary choice to save Arcadia Bay and allow Chloe Price to die, or to save Chloe and destroy Arcadia Bay. The more detailed ending is the “save Arcadia Bay” ending, which closes with Chloe’s funeral. This story’s conclusion falls into the “bury your gays” trope, which is so frustrating when you consider how lovingly rendered and well-written Chloe and Max and their romance is.

And this is what kills me about Dontnod’s LIS team: their writers are great at creating a wonderful cast of characters with compelling and beautiful relationships but screw up when addressing the issues connected to those characters and the story they’ve decided to tell.

It’s clear they have great empathy for Chloe, Max, Sean, and Daniel. They aren’t cartoon cutouts. Their marginalized identities aren’t stereotypical or played for laughs. They’re memorable and lovingly rendered – that in itself is joyful and life-affirming. Dontnod isn’t a team full of bigots, and my critique shouldn’t be misconstrued as a claim that they are.

But Dontnod needs to do a better job researching the issues around these marginalized identities. As a queer person of color and grandchild of immigrants, these issues aren’t abstract for me; they’re an integral part of my experience. Seeing devs fumble them hurts.

When dealing with issues outside of your experience, there can be a great deal of unknown unknowns. You don’t know what you don’t know. Dontnod should have consulted experts inside of these marginalized communities for narrative feedback. To their credit, that’s exactly what they’re doing with Tell Me Why, their upcoming game featuring a transgender main character.

I say all this as a fan. I’m someone who buys Life Is Strange trade paperbacks to get just a little more Chloe and Max. I’d do the same with a Sean and Daniel trade. They create characters that I love. I just wish they’d handle these powerful issues better. I’ll still play Tell Me Why, with the hope that the third time’s the charm.

The end of the wolf brothers’ story

My political problems with the narrative aside, the conclusion of the episode is mechanically well-implemented. Daniel rescues Sean, and you run for the border. For some reason, the Diazes rush a border crossing gate rather than break through the fence again. They know the cops are waiting for them. Why run directly into them? This bugged me but it wasn’t enough to completely deflate the tense, exciting climax.

Playing as Sean, you are given a choice – rush the border or surrender. However, whether Daniel goes along with this choice is dependent upon all the choices you made and the lessons you tried to teach him along the way.

The game assigns one of two binary states to Daniel’s personality, based on your actions. You either taught Daniel to “obey the rules of society” or “put himself and his brother first.” This binary makes a lot of sense if you, like Dontnod, believe that racism is not a systemic issue. 

If you believe that racism is a systemic issue, obeying society’s rules is not the strictly moral choice, and prioritizing the survival of your family is not an immoral choice. Living in America as a person of color has a lot more shades of gray than this Renegade / Paragon binary.

That being said, I love that you make a choice and Daniel reacts to it based on your previous actions, and that determines which ending you get. This is a cool mechanic and I want to see more stuff like this in future adventure games. The ending feels epic in a way that Episode 4’s final choice did not, and the episode feels well-paced.

I got the “cross the border, Daniel disagrees” ending. Sean tries to rush the border in their SUV, but Daniel doesn’t want to hurt anyone else. Daniel uses just enough of his power to protect Sean, but bails out of the car right before the end. As far as I can tell, this is the “best” ending. Sean ends up with Cassidy in Mexico, while Daniel grows up with his grandparents in Beaver Creek. The boys are separated but seem basically happy.

If Sean surrenders and Daniel goes along with it, it seems like prison destroys him. He gets out in 2033, after nearly 20 years in prison. In a silent ending, he’s greeted by his family (and even Lyla, depending on what you did). He goes camping with Daniel and weeps into his shoulder. At the end, they drive off in different directions. I liked this ending, insomuch as it portrays the American prison system as destructive to the incarcerated. It forces you to ask whether obeying society’s rules was really the right thing to do. It’s weird to me that Dontnod got this right but other stuff wrong.

Issues start to crop up when Daniel ends up in Mexico. There are two ways this can happen. If Sean tries to surrender and Daniel disagrees, Daniel uses his power to rush the border but Sean is shot to death. In this ending, Daniel is alone and uses his power to pick people’s pockets, rob banks, and knock over a drug den. Those gangsters come looking for payback, and Daniel wrecks them with his powers.

If Sean tries to rush the border and Daniel agrees, Daniel uses his power to absolutely annihilate the CBP and cops at the border crossing and the brothers drive through together unscathed. They engage in the same sort of petty crime, followed by a large heist from a gang. They use the money to open a car repair shop. Those same gangsters show up and Daniel uses his power to beat the hell out of them.

I took issue with this portrayal of Mexico. Does Mexico have gang issues? Yes. But Mexico is almost always portrayed as a cartel-infested place full of drugs and violence, and that is a stereotype that is getting mighty tired. Also, Puerto Lobos is a real place in Mexico. It’s a sleepy fishing village, not a city with a strong gang presence.

Where did these tatted up gang members come from? Mexico is a large, diverse country. It’s not just one unending urban hellscape of gangs and violence, and it shouldn’t be portrayed that way. For me, this mars an otherwise excellent set of endings.