film / tv / politics / social media / lists / web / celeb / pajiba love / misc / about / cbr
film / tv / politics / web / celeb


Unpacking the Sad Stuff in this Week's 'The Last of Us'

By Tori Preston | TV | February 13, 2023 |

By Tori Preston | TV | February 13, 2023 |


This week, for one brief, glorious moment, The Last Of Us transformed from a meditation on the cost of survival at the end of the world and instead became that pinnacle of Pajiban taste: A HOLE SHOW. Sure, it was technically just a sinkhole filled with an unimaginable number of Infected, including a dreaded Bloater (that’s what the big chonko dude that tore Perry’s head off is called, FYI). And sure, there didn’t need to be a hole at all; If FEDRA had done their job in the first place and if Kathleen had any sense of priorities, our giant mysterious television meme could have been averted. Still, I’m not gonna look a gift hole in the… uh… holey part?

Okay, fine, you got me. I’m over here “talkin’ holes”(trademark Podjiba 2022) to avoid unpacking the sad stuff. Have you noticed how the show that we all thought would be about Joel and Ellie and don’t-call-them-zombies has actually been about everything but? We’re five episodes into a nine-episode season, and looking back all the major story beats are defined by others: The sacrifice of Tess, the saga of Frank and Bill, and — this week — the destruction of Kathleen and the tragedy of Henry and Sam. This isn’t a complaint, exactly, since it’s not like I haven’t enjoyed (appreciated? endured?) each of these arcs. If anything, this unexpected narrative balance shift is inevitable. Within the show, I think the act of experiencing these other people’s stories is what brings Joel and Ellie together on their own. You can see it in the softening in Joel’s eyes when he reads the note Ellie lays on Sam’s grave, for example. He may not know exactly what happened (we’ll get to that) but he recognizes a familiar guilt he can relate to, one that she shouldn’t need to carry. How can the relationship deepen between two characters whose hearts are determinedly closed to one another? Try throwing them up against characters who aren’t so closed off and see what happens. Try having them survive when everyone around them falls.

It’s also a necessary byproduct of adapting a video game where large swaths of time are typically consumed by Joel and Ellie navigating whole landscapes of enemies, Infected and human alike. “Joel spends two hours stealth-ing his way through an abandoned office building” isn’t exactly a plot point, even if those battles comprise the majority of the game. So instead the show takes the events that instigate those battles and expands them — the smuggling deal with Tess, the hunt for the battery with Bill, the escape with Henry and Sam. What’s lost isn’t so much the act of fighting, of sneaking around and dying horribly over and over again, though it does explain why it feels as though we’ve seen so few Infected so far this season (a fact remedied in one fell swoop by that giant hole I mentioned!). What’s lost is that navigating those danger zones is what brings Joel and Ellie together in the game. Joel boosts Ellie to a platform so she can lower a ladder. Ellie trusts Joel to ferry her across a river on a raft because she can’t swim. And the whole time they’re wandering together, there’s banter. Ellie asks Joel a question and he brushes her off, but the next time she touches on that subject he indulges her. Some of these conversations are making their way into the TV show, to be sure, but like I said — the balance has shifted.

Basically: Picture that shootout between Kathleen’s revolutionaries and the Infected Hole, where Joel’s in the sniper window blasting everything that came near Ellie down below to protect her. Now imagine THAT was what The Last Of Us had been doing for like three of the past five episodes. It wouldn’t make for an interesting show, that’s for sure, but the dynamic between Joel and Ellie would have been the focus. That’s what the game was, and that’s the tradeoff the show is making.

Still, it’s not as if there isn’t some good coming out of that tradeoff. Some of the best character moments for Joel and Ellie in this past episode were things that were added precisely because the show had to deepen and expand the game plot. In broad strokes, episode 5 followed the Pittsburgh portion of the game: When Joel and Ellie get trapped in a city (Kansas City, this time) because of some raiders, they encounter a pair of brothers named Henry and Sam, and the four work together to escape the city limits. After a final battle with some Infected, they all make it to safety — only to wake up the next morning and discover that Sam was bitten and has turned. Henry shoots Sam in order to stop his brother from attacking Ellie, and then, horrified, shoots himself in the head. All of that happens in “Endure and Survive” but there’s more weight to it, if you can believe it. Because of the addition of Kathleen and the revolutionaries, the threat that the foursome are up against isn’t just some faceless greedy humans. Kathleen is pursuing Henry (Lamar Johnson) for being a “collaborator” because he traded information on her brother to FEDRA in order to get medicine to save Sam’s life. The question of whether Henry is sympathetic is one that Joel weighs, as he initially rejects Henry for being a rat but later apologizes because he knows he’d have made the same choice. To that extent, Joel also offers to let Henry and Sam tag along for the rest of the trip to Wyoming, which is a huge example of Joel opening up to outsiders (and an offer that was never made in the game). If he can soften toward these brothers, does it mean he’s also softening toward Ellie?

Ellie forms a close relationship with Sam (Keivonn Woodard) in a short amount of time, particularly when they bond over a comic book called “Savage Starlight” that they both collect (the episode’s title comes from this comic) and Sam begins to teach her ASL. That’s why in the show, unlike the game, Sam actually reveals to Ellie that he’s been infected, and she secretly tries to use her blood to cure him. When she writes “I’m Sorry” on his eraser board and leaves it on his grave, she’s saying she’s sorry she couldn’t save him — especially after admitting that her greatest fear is being left alone. Ellie is beginning to come to terms with her immunity and the responsibility (and helplessness) she feels for it, and Joel is beginning to understand the toll of this burden on Ellie even though she won’t say it. There’s so much that Joel and Ellie have in common, especially about their survivor’s guilt, that they haven’t told one another out of fear — but through their interactions with Henry and Sam we at least got to see that they’re capable of opening up to someone. It doesn’t hurt that Johnson and Woodard continue the stellar casting streak that The Last Of Us has been on. If these side characters are going to pull this much focus, they need to be good, and these two actors not only held their own opposite Pascal and Ramsey — they stole the episode right out from under Melanie Lynskey. Which is not an easy task!

I’ll admit, Lynskey was pitch perfect as the unexpected revolutionary leader Kathleen, it’s just that… Kathleen was loathsome. A lot has been made about the fact that Kathleen wasn’t the toughest broad around but was actually just the most organized — the smartest rather than the strongest, as Lynskey herself had to explain to certain detractors on Twitter. But less has been stated about Kathleen’s myopic pursuit of Henry at the expense of her own people, and to the point that she ignored giant holes in the ground! Overthrowing an abusive totalitarian regime only to replace it with another one is poetic if hardly original, but the unique twist is that Kathleen was not a leader of principles at all. Her brother was, and that’s why he never managed to overthrow FEDRA. Then he died because of Henry, and Kathleen took his place — not to continue his mission but to seek revenge. I appreciated that in an episode that saw both Joel and Ellie offer their own rare apologies, Kathleen was almost singularly defined by her inability to forgive at all. She even argued that Henry should have let Sam die, as if that was his fate, without recognizing that the same could have been said for her brother as well. In a fungipocalypse where we’ve seen so many different ways that people struggle to survive, Kathleen didn’t seem to care about survival at all.

Which is fine, because she didn’t survive. Because HOLE SHOW.

Stray Observations

- Apparently, the choice to make Sam deaf in the show was to make him even more reliant on his big brother, which is what Mazin and Druckmann talk about in the post-episode featurette. And while that theme comes through in certain moments, it’s mostly when the characters are standing around talking and Henry has to translate, as opposed to when they’re, you know, running for their lives.

- The “Savage Starlight” comics are a reference to a collectible in the video game, which is why Ellie and Sam compared notes on which issues they each had found.

- So the hole show did a hole bait-and-switch, right? Perry showed Kathleen one throbbing basement almost-sinkhole last week and she was like, not a priority — but then the death truck crashes and that opens a whole new hole! Will these fungal holes be explained, or is this just a neat thing that the mushroom network does sometimes?

- Oh yeah, that death truck was also from the game. It was actually sort of nice seeing it beaten because in the game you mostly just had to outrun it.