Joel’s heart is breaking; let’s hope it’s only metaphorical. Twice in The Last Of Us’ sixth episode, “Kin,” our tough, terse hero (Pedro Pascal) staggers under severe chest pains. Is it a myocardial infarction? Or just the stress of twenty years catching up, from the killing of his daughter to panic that he can’t save her latter-day surrogate, Ellie (Bella Ramsey)? After two aortic scares, you might expect a third. Instead, it’s a baseball-bat shiv in the belly. And that’s how we leave Joel, bleeding out in the Colorado snow as Ellie begs him to hang on.
“Kin” was an extremely satisfying and well-crafted dive into character as we head into the last three episodes this season. Per the title, Joel and Ellie paused on their wintry Wyoming journey to reconnect with family and each other, as audiences watched them process the horrors they’ve seen or committed (more on that below). Craig Mazin’s script was full of unforced funny and touching lines, economical yet deeply felt exchanges between Joel and his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna). And the teary showdown between Ellie and Joel, when he’s ready to abandon her for her own good, is precious to gamers for a reason.
This week we witnessed a fresh, hopeful vision of human survival in the fungal dystopia. Jasmila Žbanić directed with total control of tone, from epic sweep (those mountains and open ranges!) to intimate encounters (Joel’s anguished monologue) and the final gut punch, so to speak, of sudden violence. Probably the most visually gorgeous episode so far, the mini-Western family drama brought about a much-needed emotional reckoning.
After the shocking moral chaos of “Please Hold My Hand” and “Endure And Survive,” the orderliness and sanity of Jackson came as a welcome relief. Like, let down your guard and start sobbing relief. From the beginning, The Last Of Us has been a show obsessed with sociology as much as fungus. How would Americans preserve society in the wake of a global disaster in which technology and civil structures disappeared and the government imposed martial law? We saw corruption and crime in the Boston QZ. Bill and Frank fostered a micro-utopia, mirrored by the crusty older couple in the Wyoming log cabin (droll cameos by Graham Greene and Elaine Miles). The revenge-driven resistance of post-FEDRA Kansas City consumed itself—with help from a swarm of infecteds and one bloater.
“Kin” brought a vastly more hopeful vision in Jackson. Behind high metal walls, decisions are made among democratically elected officials. They get power from the nearby dam to light up a Christmas tree and allow plumbing, sewage and hot-water heaters. There’s a multi-faith house of worship. The gates keep enemies out. Pretty soon they’re going to serve bacon. As Ellie says in her typically profane way, “This place actually fuckin’ works.”
So far in these recaps, I haven’t had much to say about Bella Ramsey’s acting. Partly it’s because she has been consistently strong as the juvenile sidekick. Her wise-child demeanor offset by impeccable comic timing, Ramsey provides an excellent foil to Pascal’s stoic Joel, even as her sassy vibe constantly reminds him of the lost Sarah (Nico Parker). Ellie is smart, brave, a decent shot (she’ll get better), and most of all, resilient in the way that only children can be. But there’s a drawback in such resilience: We don’t always see the toll of trauma.
This is all to say the three-month jump from the death of Henry (Lamar Johnson) after he mercy-killed Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard)—shown at the top of the episode—denies us the chance to see Ellie recovering from such a scarring event. The Ellie we see trekking west with Joel, admiring the northern lights and cracking jokes about sheep by the campfire is her usual, irreverent self. What was Ellie like in the days after watching Sam turn and get shot?
I know: Review the show you saw, not the one you didn’t, but was an opportunity was lost? Joel might have guided a traumatized Ellie back to responsiveness, showed her tenderness and compassion? We do get a clue that Ellie is repressing pain, when she confesses to Joel that she rubbed her blood into Sam’s wound in an attempt to cure him. Sadness clouds her face, and Joel reassures her that a vaccine might be possible. If Marlene says they can do it, they can do it, he says. It’s a small moment, but it counts for something.
The “river of death” that Joel and Ellie must cross—the log-cabin couple warns them about bodies thrown in there—is an example of the teasing buildup and diffusion that Mazin and Neil Druckmann have used before. “If your brother is west of the river, he’s gone,” the old woman tells them. We tense up in anticipation of some gory atrocity, but it turns out that Joel and Ellie are discovered by a masked posse led by Maria (Rutina Wesley), Tommy’s wife and soon-to-be mother of his child. Similar to the uneventful trip through the KC tunnels made by Joel, Ellie, Henry, and Sam, the real trouble started when they got aboveground. It’s not a fake-out by the showrunners, just a reminder that you don’t know when danger is going to arrive.
For the moment, we can relax—if the characters don’t fully. Joel and Ellie are escorted to Jackson, which is paradise compared to everywhere else. After months walking a thousand miles from Kansas City to Jackson, not only are Joel and Ellie’s shoes and clothes in bad shape, but their trust is badly damaged. (And Ellie’s table manners are for shit.) Joel’s bear hug with Tommy is a brotherly blast of pure joy, but Joel soon becomes guarded around Maria. Does he suspect something sinister behind her friendly façade?
At the Tipsy Bison bar, Joel and Tommy have a drink. Joel lies about Tess being alive and why he’s escorting Ellie to the Fireflies. Joel resents Tommy cutting off radio contact when he joined the Jackson community. Tommy did it to avoid detection; and he’s expecting a child with Maria. Joel is wary around Tommy the way a family member would be distrustful of a relation who had joined a cult. Is Jackson a cult? Is there an ugly side to this town?
“Just because life stopped for you,” Tommy tells Joel, “doesn’t mean it has to stop for me.” Joel says they’ll re-supply and leave in the morning and exits the bar without another word. Outside, Joel has chest pain again, leaning against a post for support. On the street in a crowd, he sees a young woman from behind, with curly hair like Sarah (Nico Parker). But as she hugs a child, probably hers, he realizes it isn’t her.
Later that evening, Joel is at a breaking point as he tries to repair his cracked soul, er, the sole of a boot. Tommy enters and Joel admits the truth: Tess is dead, and Ellie is immune to infection. Overcome with fear, Joel says he thinks Ellie will die if she continues with him, just as (he doesn’t say) he failed Sarah. He’s having nightmares. “I’m failing in my sleep,” Joel whispers hoarsely. “It’s all I do. It’s all I’ve ever done. Is fail her. Again and again.” Pascal shatters us in this absolute wrecker of a monologue, as Joel’s shell finally cracks and the tears flow. He begs Tommy to take his place and escort Ellie to the Fireflies’ base in Colorado.
The climactic “breakup” between Joel and Ellie is even more wrenching, as he confronts her in her bedroom to let her know Tommy will take the reins. Ellie already knows: Apparently she was hiding in the shed and overheard the brothers. At first angry and dismissive—“If you’re going to ditch me then ditch me”—Ellie switches gears and tells Joel she’s sorry he lost Sarah, whom she learned about through Maria. But she’s not Sarah. Ellie says she’s lost people too. Joel is trying to keep it together. “You have no idea what loss is,” he hisses. Joel won’t change his mind. He won’t doom Ellie. “Come dawn, we’re going our separate ways.” Joel’s Texas twang and the high stakes of the scene make all this very super-Western, very Shane (also set in WY).
For her part, Ellie begins to reveal some of the psychic damage all this death and loss is causing, things I was missing seven paragraphs earlier. “Everyone I have ever cared for has either died or left me,” she says, her voice rising in anger. “Everybody fucking except for you! So don’t tell me I’m safer with somebody other than you!” Joel is unmoved. “You’re right,” he agrees, “you’re not my daughter, and I sure as hell ain’t your dad.” The scene, brief though it is, hits hard. Break down, you silently command. Cry. Hug each other. Ramsey gives us a peek into Ellie’s fear and desperation, beyond the cursing, puns, and wisecracks.
Who knows exactly what changes Joel’s mind during the night. He goes back to his room, sits on the bed, and remembers decorating a Christmas tree with young Sarah. Žbanić shoots in closeup, hands draping ornaments on pine branches (that watch on Joel’s left hand). The next morning, Joel has rethought his decision and lets Ellie decide if she wants him to continue on the journey. She is comically curt in her affirmation, shoving her blue duffel into his arms. They’re back on the plain, as at the top of the episode: joking, riding, enjoying the spectacular views. Joel teaches her marksmanship. No sign of infecteds. Or humans. You may notice at that point there are ten minutes left in the episode, meaning bad stuff is probably about to go down.
In terms of pure plot, “Kin” didn’t have much—and didn’t need it. Jackson is a safe haven for now. The Fireflies based at University of East Colorado, where Joel hoped to deliver Ellie, have relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah. Joel gets stabbed by a raider on the university campus. Ellie gets him on the horse, and they ride away, safe near some train tracks, Joel falls off the horse, bleeding profusely. Ellie is the only one to save him. We don’t know if he’ll live.
Other than that, the narrative movement was emotional. After Joel’s agonized passage from despair to commitment, he and Ellie have drawn closer together. Joel seems to be accepting Ellie into his heart as a surrogate child, and that acceptance hurts but makes him a better man. Ellie, meanwhile, is getting a father she never knew or asked for. Tommy must balance his normal-ish domestic life with the shadow of a violent past with his brother—something that concerns law-and-order Maria. There’s a weighty moral question driving The Last Of Us: What are you willing to sacrifice to save the world? Now that we’ve seen a world worth saving, the question is more urgent than ever.
- Hey, Wyomingites: Which river is supposed to be the “River of Death” (and yes, we know it’s actually a river in Calgary)? A lot to choose from.
- “Dream of sheep ranches on the moon.” My favorite unexpectedly poetic line.
- Familiar TV faces this week: dryly hilarious Elaine Miles of Northern Exposure fame and the luminous Rutina Wesley from True Blood.
- When the infection-sniffing dog approaches Ellie, the camera pushes in on Joel and the sound design features subtle notes: A high whine mixed with the muffled pop of gun (perhaps) to suggest Joel flashing on the death of Sarah.
- Joel’s American Politics 101: “Some people wanted to own everything, and other people didn’t want anyone to own anything at all.” Clearly an undecided voter.
- When did Ellie have time for horseback riding lessons (FEDRA school)? She handles her mount pretty well on the ride into Jackson.
- In contrast to Will Livingston, Savage Starlight comic books, University of Eastern Colorado and the Tipsy Bison, the reusable menstrual device DivaCup® that Maria leaves for Ellie is real.
- Jackson Movie Night: The Goodbye Girl (1977). Pray they have other titles. Ask the Station Eleven kids: Culture should not be rebuilt on the foundation of Neil Simon.