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).
For sure, this is a victory for many people in Kansas City. But this is “The Last of Us,” and everything in this world is tinged with violence that everyone will later regret. It’s a brutal, merciless deposition, with soldiers strung up with rope and their bodies dragged through the streets. It’s primal, like nature, but the human intention to inflict pain makes it look and feel even more carnal.
We meet a man who we later know to be Henry, guiding his 8-year-old brother Sam, who is deaf. Echoing the guilt Joel felt for seeing Ellie shoot a man with a gun, Henry hopes to but fails to protect Sam’s innocence, instructing Sam to keep his eyes on him and not on the uprising.
Kathleen is the woman orchestrating this method of murder and mayhem. If you thought we saw too little of Melanie Lynskey’s character in the last episode, it was all buildup for her performance here. All we know about her is that she’s dead set on finding Henry, who is apparently responsible for the death of her brother. The episode opens with her interrogating a jail cell full of “collaborators,” snitches who worked with FEDRA, the fascistic military that rules over urban quarantine zones. Lynskey’s face does most of the acting here. Her face wrinkles at the suggestion that anything has gone “bad” in the city. “Haven’t you heard? Kansas City is free,” she says with a lilt in her soft, melodic voice. She threatens the group with summary execution, and one of the collaborators breaks: Henry is with the doctor Kathleen shot in the last episode (remember, this is a flashback).
Kathleen’s lieutenant in this revolution, Perry (played by Jeffrey Pierce, who played Joel’s brother Tommy in the video game), seems a bit reluctant to follow her orders to focus the entire city’s liberating force on finding Henry.
“He’s not my seventh priority, Perry. Is that what he is to you?” Kathleen asks in a condescending, impatient tone. Perry stands down immediately and, without question, carries out her order to execute the collaborators. Perry represents the occupying army’s deference to Kathleen. Finally, we see what Lynskey tweeted about earlier this week, when she called her character “the person who is doing the planning. The person who can multitask. The one who’s decisive.”
Women, and especially women in leadership positions, are scrutinized incessantly. Her voice is too shrill. Her voice is too quiet. She pays too much attention to how she looks. She doesn’t pay enough attention to how she looks. She’s too angry. She’s not angry enough— Melanie Lynskey (@melanielynskey) February 8, 2023
In the next few scenes, we see Henry and Sam as they try to survive 11 days in hiding from Kathleen and her army. Kathleen’s doctor gave them an attic and a few days of canned food. These scenes actually don’t say much besides “Henry really cares for his brother.” If they’re lacking in substance, it’s not because of the actors: Lamar Johnson plays Henry with tenderness and vulnerability, while Keivonn Woodard’s Sam is scared but trying to keep a brave face. Sam also spends those days drawing and envisioning himself as a superhero, and it’s touching to see a child have such aspirations and express himself creatively in a civilization that no longer has time to spend on art.
Eleven days pass, and the food runs out. Henry and Sam need to leave their hiding place and try to break out of the city. This is when they cross paths with the invading force of Joel and Ellie. Henry sees the two take out three of Kathleen’s men (a fight from the last episode), and decides to follow them up a building.
Henry and Sam hold Joel and Ellie at gunpoint in the dead of night. Joel, who we learn can’t hear well out of his right ear, sleeps through the intrusion, and Ellie needs to wake him up. (The comedic chemistry between Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey is clearest in the Kansas City episodes.) Henry insists he’s here to help and asks Joel for reassurance that they won’t be harmed. Joel responds in the least reassuring voice possible. Henry isn’t the only person nervous when hearing this, and Ellie frantically insists Joel “has an asshole voice.”
The four of them share food and learn of Henry’s plan to escape. Kansas City has a tunnel system that Kathleen’s army isn’t guarding because Kathleen thinks the infected are underground. Henry explains that FEDRA soldiers drove the infected into the tunnels, the “only good thing” achieved by what Henry calls the fascist state. A surprising take, considering Henry admitted to Joel earlier that he was a military collaborator. Joel is skeptical of Henry’s assurance that infected no longer live underground and of Henry’s past as a collaborator “rat.” Joel and Ellie don’t seem to have much of a choice. Plus, Ellie seems to be pretty relieved to finally hang with someone closer to her age.
This new party of four head their way into the tunnels. This entire journey echoes the game, except with way less action within just as many moody, damp tunnels and hallways. They stumble upon a settlement (a location lifted straight from the game) covered in children’s drawings and housing a bunch of toys — as Ellie puts it, there’s actually things to do there. The four decide to wait to finish their journey until night.
Seeing Ellie and Sam play soccer against a makeshift goalie post against a wall, Joel expresses his regret in judging Henry too harshly as a “rat.” If Henry collaborated to keep Sam safe, it would be understandable. In Pascal’s Texan drawl, Joel says it “seems cruel” to send a whole army just for that. Henry fills out the rest of the story: He ratted out the leader of the resistance, someone even Henry considered a “great man who was never afraid, never selfish and always forgiving.” It seems Henry was once part of the resistance, but because Sam had leukemia, he gave away the leader’s location for some medicine. That man, named Michael, was indeed Kathleen’s brother. Henry asks Joel about whether he’s a “bad guy,” and Joel withholds an answer. Lacking validation, Henry’s face appears frustrated.
We find Kathleen brooding in her childhood bedroom where she grew up with her brother. Perry finds her and they share a giggle about him talking to her mom just to find her. Kathleen reflects on how Michael made her feel safe. It’s clear that Kathleen, Michael, Henry and Sam are all different kinds of love to be compared and contrasted against Joel and Ellie, and what love and protection means to different people.
Kathleen asks Perry not to lecture her about forgiving Henry. Of course that’s what Michael wanted her to do; he told her that the last time Kathleen saw him alive. Perry reassures her that Michael may have been a great man, but he “didn’t change anything.” It was Kathleen and her ruthless tactics that got the boots of military rule off the necks of Kansas City’s people. Kathleen brought results, and her army will do as she pleases.
As Joel’s party leaves the tunnel, it seems it’s a success. The four walk down a suburb street familiar to veterans of the game, and they’re attacked by a sniper, another scenario lifted from the game. Thus follows the show’s longest and largest action sequence, between Kathleen, Joel in the sniper’s nest, Henry and the kids, and the infected of Kansas City, now finally free thanks to a truck that explodes into the ground as a result of the firefight. More than any episode, this is the one that’s clearly the most inspired by the games so far. Joel fires at zombies like he’s playing a game of the 1999 arcade game “Silent Scope,” except instead of shooting to kill, he’s shooting to defend Ellie as she navigates the chaos to save Henry and Sam.
Also, finally video game fans get the gory zombie kill they’ve waited all season for. Perry is killed by what game veterans know as a “bloater,” someone who’s been infected since the early days. Kathleen desperately tries to kill Henry, but she’s also torn apart by the zombie horde. The four make their escape, and seem safe.
The episode ends, predictably, in heartache, as Sam reveals to Ellie that he was bit. Ellie is desperate to keep Sam feeling safe, inhabiting a similar role Henry played throughout the episode. She tells him that she’s infected and her blood may be the cure. She cuts herself to rub her blood onto Sam’s injury. It is a touching, sad and desperate display of reassurance.
Morning arrives. Sam is now fully gone and attacks Ellie. Joel tries to save Ellie, but Henry shoots the ground, then quickly shoots Sam. Shocked at his actions, he points the gun at Joel and asks, “What did I do?” Henry shoots himself. The camera quickly cuts to Ellie’s horrified reaction, and stays with her as tears stream down her cheeks.
Joel buries Henry and Sam. Ellie writes on Sam’s notepad, “I’m sorry.” It’s clear that she’s harboring some guilt over his death. She’s been told by the adults that within her is the cure for mankind, and yet she could do nothing to save her friend. Ellie has been traumatized almost every step of their journey, and much like the last episode when she shot another man, she decides to bury her emotions and keep things moving. And they do as the episode closes.
Some notes and observations:
- Henry’s suicide is played a bit differently here from the game. In the 2013 original story, Henry’s instinct after shooting Sam is to blame Joel. “It’s all your fault.” In the show, Henry immediately blames himself. It’s a clearer bridge to his suicide. Also in the game, the camera chose to show Joel’s reaction to Henry’s suicide. It was an interesting choice, showcasing how even someone as hardened as Joel could be shaken by such an act. In the show, the camera instead chooses to focus on how this is all affecting Ellie.
- I wish we had one more episode to further fill out the stories and motivations of Henry, Sam and Kathleen. They’re all interesting, well-played characters with compelling reasons for why they do things within this story, but a lot of it is told, not shown. The beauty of Bill and Frank’s story is that we were shown about their relationship. I believe Kathleen is a ruthless, decisive woman, and I would’ve liked to see Lynskey really take the role to its extremes.
- It’s probably worth noting that Kathleen’s army did indeed follow her without question, albeit to their own destruction. Kansas City may be free, but it cost them everything.
- When Joel instructs Ellie to ready her gun, Ellie stares at Joel as she pulls it out of her jacket pocket, instead of her backpack where Joel said to keep the gun. Joel doesn’t say anything but shakes his head. If the show is good for anything, it’s to see these two bounce off each other and play the classic, fun archetype of grumpy dad and precocious teen, all against a world set to make them miserable.