Note: My name is Gene Park. I’m a reporter covering gaming culture for The Washington Post. I’m following “The Last of Us” from the perspective of someone who has played all the games (more than once).
We begin with Ellie pointing her newly acquired pistol at herself in a mirror. Wearing a green jacket, it strongly echoes the famous scene from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver," with Robert De Niro’s famous “You talking to me?” speech. Unlike Travis Bickle from that film, Ellie admires her gun with child-like curiosity, making pew pew noises and inspecting every aspect of her weapon. Ellie is a young girl born into a violent world, and it’s clear that some of it fascinates and excites her.
Joel is outside siphoning fuel for their truck, acquired from the estate of Bill and Frank. A very bored Ellie decides to bombard Joel with a book of puns, which also featured prominently in the video game. The way Ellie stares at Pedro Pascal’s exasperated Joel in between punchlines is a perfect display of how Ramsey captures Ellie’s insistence on being aggravating, but also very funny. Ellie’s eyes widen, and her mouth and jawline tighten with anticipation as she unleashes one bad pun after another. So far, Ellie is the closest thing this show has to comic relief, and this episode is Ramsey’s time to flex those muscles.
The pair drive through various scenes of destroyed Americana, including this show’s second mention of Arby’s in a second consecutive episode. Camping out for the night, Ellie lets out one more pun, and Joel answers back with the punchline with a smile unseen by Ellie. In contrast to the game, it seems this Joel is warming up to Ellie a bit quicker. This is portrayed again as Ellie expresses fear of what could happen at night. Instead of sleeping, we see Joel standing watch with his rifle.
As the pair drive further west to Wyoming, the last known location of Joel’s brother, Ellie asks Joel why he split up with his brother. It’s a long story, Joel says, to which Ellie responds, “Is it longer than 25 hours because that’s what we got.” Ellie looks at Joel; her eyes flit to the road and back to Joel. She’s not letting this go. Joel relinquishes his tough guy self once again, and explains that Tommy has always had a heroic yet foolish streak, seeking purpose in causes. First, it was the Iraq war of the 1990s. Next it was the Fireflies and the search for a cure. That idealism created the rift between the brothers.
So far we’ve spent a good 15 minutes with Joel and Ellie in conversations that weren’t in the game. After cementing their relationship, the show finally returns to the game’s story, except instead of Pittsburgh, the pair arrive in Kansas City, Mo., a more sensible, on-the-way location to Wyoming. In a scene ripped straight from the game, the pair encounter a man pretending to be hurt, and are jumped by the citizens of Kansas City, now freed from federal military rule. They crash the truck, and a firefight within a laundromat is lifted straight from the game. Joel shoots one of the attackers, which angers the rest of the pack. This echoes how enemy combatants from the second game react, calling out their fallen comrade’s name in an attempt to humanize the “villains” of Joel and Ellie as other people trying to survive.
This firefight ends very differently from the game, with Ellie shooting an attacker off Joel. The militia that now rules Kansas City discovers the death left in the wake of Joel and Ellie’s arrival, and report to Kathleen, played by a chilling Melanie Lynskey. Kathleen is the leader of the Kansas City resistance that successfully upended and dismantled federal military rule. Now she’s hellbent on finding “collaborators” who snitched to the military. She’s particularly interested in a man named Henry, who’s responsible for the death of her brother. Without mercy or hesitation, Kathleen interrogates then kills her own family doctor in her search for Henry.
Ellie shooting another man is actually a scene lifted from the game in another sequence. But the show merges her two character moments. It’s a skillful, smart implementation too, as it helps establish a growing guilt within Joel about his ability to protect Ellie not just from dangerous elements, but from the trauma of the violence around her. Joel tries to talk Ellie through her feelings, but admits he’s not very good at this. “Yeah, you’re really not,” Ellie responds in another hilarious line.
Kathleen and her right-hand mercenary Perry (played by Jeffrey Pierce, who played Tommy in the game) find one of Henry’s hideouts, and we learn that he’s taking care of someone named Sam. Perry also points out something else: Kansas City’s underground has some growing activity that’s concerning. Kathleen is unbothered, as she is dead set on her revenge against Henry.
Joel and Ellie enter and climb up a taller building to find a route out of the city, and decide to camp inside for the night. This episode is bookended by the two bonding once again. Ellie tells a joke about diarrhea, and Joel can’t help himself--he laughs, and Ellie finally gets the win she’s sought for hundreds of miles. She’s getting under his skin, and into his heart. Suddenly, the pair are awoken with guns to their faces. Joel, Ellie and the audience now get to meet Henry and Sam.
Some notes and observations:
- Kathleen’s resistance is an all-new element to the show. In the game’s Pittsburgh, we knew nothing of the humans organized in that city, other than that they successfully overthrew the federal military. Here, we see their plight and struggle through Kathleen’s eyes, as she suffered greatly under military rule. This feels similar to the characterization of the Wolves military from the second game, and adds some early welcome depth to how humans in other cities respond to military rule.
- Henry and Sam are also introduced in a different way. In the game, Henry attacks Joel, mistaking him for one of the violent resistance members. Seeing Ellie makes him realize he’s not one of the “bad guys.” Here, the two brothers get the jump on both Joel and Ellie, and we’ve yet to understand anything about their intentions of doing this. This is probably the weakest closing shot of the season so far, but at least the audience is rewarded with warmer, relaxed moments between our two protagonists.
- There’s a sense of wonder in how Ellie discovers elements of the old world. She scarfs down canned ravioli and remarks how Chef Boyardee “was good.” When Joel grows frustrated with her inability to read a roadmap, she snaps back that it’s her second day in a car. Joel may be our driving protagonist, quite literally for the first part of the episode, but Ellie is the audience surrogate in understanding this world.