After stalling the apocalyptic action for a brilliant breakaway episode of television, The Last of Us returns this week to remind us that, even when the world ends — or maybe especially so — it’s people who are the real plague.
Episode four’s “Please Hold My Hand” doesn’t feel as exciting or impressive as its predecessor. Instead, it’s the morning after hangover, the serotonin-sapped come-down that’s happy enough to plod the plot along and let us all recover from the dizzying emotional heights of watching Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett build a happily-ever-after with strawberry fields and barbed wire and Linda Ronstadt in episode three’s “Long Long Time.” That’s not to say nothing happens or that this show’s entertainment value has somehow dropped off in between installments. More so that we’ve returned from an idyllic vacation in fungus-free suburbia and now we’re back to the grind of survival.
RV There Yet?
Few things grate the psyche more than a long and meandering road trip but add in a lack of working gas stations and a teenage passenger with a book of terrible puns and the idea of a cross-country trek by truck seems almost as hellish as fungi invading your synapses. Joel is exhaust-ed (fine, we’ll stop) with trying to explain the mechanics of gas siphoning while Ellie cracks lame jokes and wanders aimlessly like they’re not stuck in an American diaspora where the most unassuming shroom or toadstool could kill you. They’ve got a day and some change before they get to Wyoming, where Joel hopes his brother Tommy is still camped, and the drive drags more backstory about their post-outbreak selves from the stoic loner.
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Unlike Joel whose worldview seems drenched in cynicism at the moment, Tommy has always been, as he puts it, a “joiner.” An idealist at best, a wannabe hero at worst, that need to make a difference pushed him to first join the Army, then a group of scavengers once the world went to hell, and now, the Fireflies, who he believes are trying to put it back together again. While Joel wants to outrun any sense of purpose, Tommy barrels headfirst toward anything that even remotely resembles it. It’s a noble quality, but an irritatingly naive one to hold onto post-apocalypse.
Joel and Ellie don’t share that same drive though they do bond on their way to finding someone who does — over Hank Williams songs set to the backdrop of sprawling plains dotted with roaming buffalo and decaying war tanks. They bond too over how good 20-year-old Chef Boyardee tastes and Joel’s secondhand embarrassment when Ellie finds a glossy artifact of Bill’s — a sticky bit of gay erotica that should please easter egg-hunting gamers.
Mostly though they bond over the monotony of apocalyptic life and the paradox of wanting to find others and not knowing if others will be what kills you in the end.
We’ve watched enough of these shows to know it’s people — the uninfected, unbitten kind — that pose the biggest threat once the trappings of society are shed like dead skin and the ugly moral void of humanity peeks through. And we’ve seen this part of the story enough to recognize when an actual roadblock — this time in the form of an overturned Sarah Lee bread truck barring Ellie and Joel’s path around Kansas City — represents a metaphorical detour that’s about to throw everything into complete chaos. Joel should know better than to venture into any major city, so we can only assume the hours spent listening to Ellie recite puns from that cursed pamphlet have finally addled his brain. Whatever the reason, the shortcut proves dumb and dangerous. The city’s QZ has been demolished and raiders are left roaming the street. The pair try to avoid one of their traps — one Joel recognizes instantly because he’s pulled the same scam before — but that only ends in busted tires and a pitstop into a street front boutique.
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Ellie hides in a crawlspace while Joel trades bullets with the group, eventually emerging to use her Chekhov’s gun to shoot one of the scavengers in the back before they can finish Joel. She doesn’t kill him outright — that act is done by Joel and his knife off-screen — but semantics don’t really matter when you’re a teenage girl watching a grown man beg for his life for the first time. Later, when the two are hiding out in a different shop, waiting for the city to go quiet so that they can escape, they’ll hash out this nasty bit of business. Joel’s paternal instincts will begin to wake back up — groggy, crusty-eyed, and mumbling incoherent apologies for failing the child he’s supposed to protect (again). He’ll teach her to hold a gun while awkwardly extending a bit of comfort that she quickly bats away revealing that the stranger who cried for his mother in his final moments isn’t the first she’s killed. In the fungal apocalypse, kids sure do grow up fast.
For now, though, they’re stuck evading a ragtag militia with its own agenda and a manic leader on a deranged quest for revenge.
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Either Hunter, Or Prey
Episode four seems to cover a storyline in the game known as the Pittsburgh section. That won’t really matter to non-players, and the location change doesn’t really factor in any meaningful way on the show either. Who does benefit from this small-screen revision are the villains. The Last of Us isn’t really a show about fungal plagues and post-pandemic isolation and societal downfall — it’s about what remains after all of those things take place. Us. People. Good and bad, weak and capable, leaders and followers, hunters and prey. We’re obviously meant to root for Joel and Ellie, but by giving face to the “bad guys” they encounter — along with vague, trauma-tinged backstories that make you question how bad things were for everyone else while we focused on Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s journey — the show humanizes them, adding a needed layer of nuance to the concept of survival. What it takes. Why it matters. And who gets to win at it.
Naturally, the best way to make us care about a power-tripping tyrant is to cast Melanie Lynskey in the role. There’s something immediately disarming about the way she plays Kathleen here — as if this woman strong-arming the elderly in a FEDRA detention cell today could’ve been one of the moms in the school’s carpool line a week ago. Kathleen is on the warpath, willing to hold people she’s known her entire life at gunpoint to find the traitors who sold her brother out to FEDRA soldiers before the QZ was taken. She’s got a crazed obsession with finding a man named Henry, one that leads her to incorrectly assume the bodies dispatched by Joel and Ellie come courtesy of him.
It’s clear early on Kathleen is likely not a leader that’s been tested in any meaningful way. Maybe she led an uprising, but governing a bunch of bloodthirsty rebels high off overthrowing a dystopian dictatorship requires patience and thoughtful maneuvering and she lacks both. She kills what may be the group’s only doctor. She sends her entire army out looking for Joel and Ellie. She orders her henchman to keep quiet about a sewer-dwelling menace that may turn out to be our first glimpse of the game’s dreaded Bloater faction. She makes bad decision after bad decision but she’s terrifying in a kind of unassuming way that only piques our curiosity. How did this woman become the most powerful person in the city? We won’t find out this episode, though we do finally meet the men she’s searching for when they hold Ellie and Joel at gunpoint just before the episode ends.
Joel (5 to 1 odds)
Joel knows how to siphon gas — even if the science of it eludes him — and how to brew a good cup of coffee to keep him awake for days at a time. Joel does not know that driving through an overthrown QZ with a truck full of supplies and sleeping with his hearing-impaired ear towards the door are no-nos post-apocalypse. Do better, Joel.
Ellie (10 to 1 odds)
Netting another kill. Making use of her small size to help the pair evade a city-wide search. Taking 30-something flights of stairs like a champ. Ellie’s learning to survive on the road despite Joel’s mistakes — and not a moment too soon because he sure is making a lot of them.
Sam / Henry (4 to 7 odds)
Henry and Sam have managed to avoid detection so far but there’s no way both of these newcomers survive past next week’s episode. That kind of optimism is delusional and it has no place here.
Kathleen (4 to 3 odds)
Melanie Lynskey is loved by both homosexuals and (less exciting) heterosexuals but Kathleen is surrounded by a bunch of AK-47-toting meatheads so every crack in her voice when she issues orders has us worried for her longevity as a leader.