Each week, we’ll recap the biggest moments of HBO’s The Last of Us before placing bets on the odds of survival for our favorite characters – like the sick, twisted, soulless monsters we are.
The latest installment of HBO’s The Last of Us arrived a few days ahead of schedule thanks to Sunday’s Super Bowl game. That early run time is a good thing because we’re going to need the weekend to recover from episode five’s heartbreaking ending.
“Endure and Survive” is the definition of emotional terrorism, an episode filled with crippling loss and traumatic deaths and zombie hordes chasing down fan-favorite characters while our adrenaline levels spike to new highs. In short: it’s everything you could hope for in this twisted universe Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have built, especially if you’re a binge-watching masochist who prefers their prestige dramas to deliver a firm kick in the gut.
Haven’t You Heard? Kansas City Is Free.
At the risk of giving internet trolls the visibility they so desperately crave, if there was ever any doubt that Melanie Lynskey could convincingly play a sociopathic demagogue post-apocalypse, this episode dispels that idiotic notion fairly early on. A flashback gives us a glimpse of Kansas City before Joel and Ellie crash their pickup into what remains of the QZ. There are executions in the street, mob-led lynchings on every corner, rioters stripping FEDRA corpses of their belongings while others make sport of beating officers to death. This is what freedom looks like when you’ve been oppressed for too long. It isn’t pretty, but Lynskey’s Kathleen is reveling in it anyway.
She’s rounding up collaborators and forcing them to snitch on their friends, but her torture tactics aren’t physical. She’s not stringing her enemies up by their toes to get them to talk. No, she’s holding a twisted version of group therapy, filling FEDRA’s cells with the rats they built their regime on the backs of and breaking their psyches – playing them off one another by appealing to their worst, most treacherous instincts. And she’s having a hell of a time doing it. Because really, what’s the point of becoming a war criminal if you can’t enjoy it a little?
Good for her, and good for Melanie Lynskey we say.
But as thrilling as it is to watch Kathleen be so blasé about mass murder, so single-minded in her pursuit of vengeance, the high of watching terrible characters behaving terribly fades pretty quickly when we meet her prey. Sam (Keivonn Woodard) and Henry (Lamar Johnson) are just a couple of kids trying to outrun a tank-riding militia intent on giving them the firing squad treatment. Working with the poor doctor Kathleen murdered in the previous episode, they find a hideout safe enough to hole up in for a few days. They’ve got canned food and working toilets and Sam — who is deaf — has enough crayons to decorate their safehouse with superhero stick figures – plus one of those magic slate pads that will fill every 90s kid with nostalgic envy – but their secret Utopia can’t last forever. When the doctor gets captured, the pair figure it’s time to get the hell out of dodge and it’s on their way out that Henry witnesses the shootout between Joel and the scavengers that took place in episode four. He sees a potential ally in Joel which is why he and Sam sneak up on the pair while they’re sleeping, holding them at gunpoint to force an uneasy alliance.
And now we’re caught up to where we left off last week.
A Dicey F*cking Plan
Pedro Pascal is so good at playing the capable, curmudgeonly babysitter that it’s easy to forget Joel is an outlier in this post-apocalyptic world. Most people are like Henry – untested, nonviolent, and naïve to how the world outside a QZ actually works. He bumbles his way through their hostage negotiations, not expecting Joel to be so calm (and such an asshole) about having a gun pointed at his head. Eventually, everyone reaches a truce and Henry proposes his plan for escaping the city undetected. He may not be as tough or as skilled as Joel is with a gun – his own comes with no bullets and pointing an unloaded firearm at a little girl’s back is the closest he’s come to violence – but he knows his city, its buildings, its side-streets, and most importantly, its tunnels.
The knowledge that comes from watching dozens of these kinds of zombie stories tells us going underground is a bad idea but dammit if Henry isn’t convincing. Being a snitch for FEDRA means he knows which tunnels are clear and which are filled with the Infected the government trapped down there shortly after the outbreak. They can use the tunnels to avoid the Hunters’ blockades, and, should any of those empty caverns actually be filled with clickers – well, that’s Joel’s problem.
It sounds, as Henry puts it, “dicey AF” but the plan actually works. The group discovers the tunnel system had been used by people as a sort of settlement when everything went to shit, a way to hide out from the chaos happening on the surface as more people became Infected and the government started rounding up civilians to rape, torture, and murder at their whim. While Ellie and Sam bond over comic books and makeshift soccer goals, Henry shares just how he ended up on Kathleen’s most-wanted list. Like everyone else in this city, he saw her brother Michael as some Messiah type, a kind idealist intent on freeing his people from the oppressive regime of FEDRA. Henry followed him and would have until the end, except Sam got sick with cancer and FEDRA had the only drug that could cure him and they demanded something big from him in return. He gave them something big. He gave them the Chosen One of the resistance.
Henry seems to think that makes him a bad guy, and maybe it does, but it’s interesting that the show immediately follows up his confession with a scene of Kathleen reminiscing in her and Michael’s childhood bedroom. Her brother may have been a good man but there’s no way he was as faultless and heroic as she remembers – death often skews our perception of a person’s life. She admits that Michael asked her to forgive Henry for selling him out, even confesses she knows he’d be disappointed in what she’s done to free their people, but she can’t seem to care. There’s no justice in forgiveness, not to her, and so Henry won’t get any absolution from it either.
Later, when she holds Henry at gunpoint while zombies overrun her group, it’s clear that this conflict isn’t about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s not even about what’s destined to happen and what’s not. It’s about people – who matters to who and who doesn’t. Kathleen doesn’t think Sam’s life was worth Michael’s sacrifice, assigning more importance to her brother because he was a leader – a man who could actually change things for the greater good while Sam is just a kid and kids die. But, as Perry points out, Michael never really accomplished anything. In fact, his death is what sparked Kathleen to finally move the revolution forward. Maybe that was his destiny all along.
But such is grief. It’s ugly and destructive and merciless and it will let you justify watching the world burn if you can assign blame for it.
How It Ends
Kathleen’s world eventually does catch fire, but not before she tracks down Joel, Ellie, Sam, and Henry to the residential outskirts in a Wild West standoff that quickly turns sour. Her group’s been living in the Infected-free QZ for so long now that they’ve forgotten humanity is no longer at the top of the food chain so, naturally, a horde of clickers and runners springs up from one of the city’s sinkholes to remind them. Gamers will likely lose their minds over our first glimpse at the dreaded Bloater – a stage of infection we haven’t seen before that turns people into giant walking masses of impenetrable fungal spores. This new monster is basically the Cordyceps version of the Hulk and it’s angry – like ripping heads off bodies and tossing tanks like they’re plastic candy wrappers, angry.
Still laser-focused on revenge, Kathleen doesn’t notice a clicker clocking her position until it’s too late, giving Henry, Sam, and Ellie the opening they need to escape the bedlam. They hole up in a motel for the night and for a while, it seems like they’ve gotten free of this nightmare. Joel invites Henry to join them on their trek to Wyoming and Ellie reads comics to Sam before bed. It’s all too wholesome to last on a show like this but, even knowing that the moment when Sam shows Ellie a fresh bite on his ankle is still devastating in a way that makes you angry at yourself for even hoping.
Ellie tries to use her blood to cure Sam, the first clue fans get that her immunity might not be so easy and straightforward to replicate, but when she wakes in the morning he’s already turned and looking to make her his next meal. The pair bursts into the room with Joel and Henry, scrapping on the floor as the two men try to figure out what the hell is going on and, in the chaos, Henry ends up shooting his brother. It’s all so heartbreaking and unfair, especially when Henry, distraught at what he’s done, turns the gun on himself as Ellie looks on teary-eyed and helpless.
And just like that, The Last of Us hammers home the idea that we can’t save everyone in this fungal apocalypse. Getting too emotionally attached to the guest stars Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have recruited this season is just clown behavior at this point.
Joel (10 to 1)
Joel’s rating rises a few points this week mainly thanks to his ability to handle a sniper rifle and his willingness to accept help (for once). We still think he needs to work on his cardio, but he’s fairing pretty well for an almost-senior-citizen. Wait, would Joel be considered a Boomer?
Ellie (5 to 2)
We don’t begrudge Ellie’s desire to make friends but dipping and diving between rabid Clickers to save a couple of guys you really don’t know from Adam just screams desperate. And dumb.