Despite pit-stops to find more fuel and plenty of time to talk, Bill and Frank’s car will only get Joel and Ellie so far and Joel is determined to make every mile and gallon count. When the interstate is blocked, they have no real choice but to try and make their way through downtown Kansas City.
But there are real dangers here. Some of the danger comes from things that may lurk in the drains and underworld below, but much of it comes from the citizens. Newly freed from the oppression of FEDRA, they are of a mind for retribution and whatever hardships they’ve faced are being doled out against all potential enemies.
Joel and Ellie barely make it more than a handful of blocks before an ambush takes out their car – and now they’re forced to navigate the city – on the streets and above them – aware that they now have a full militia scouring the buildings for any sign of them… of are they looking for someone else?
Laughter has always been an effective way to off-set tension and horror and perhaps that’s part of the secret of The Last of Us as it further establishes the slowly growing bond between Joel and Ellie. A book of Bad Puns and Dad Jokes that Ellie finds is something of a great leveller. If a person is finding it hard to open up or find common ground there’s nothing more grounding than an eye-rolling one-liner that dares you not to groan in pain and smile in sympathy. The scarecrow who got a promotion because he was outstanding in his field? That time you wondered where the sun went and then it suddenly dawned on you? The fact that however much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationary? (Thankyewverymuch… I’ll be here all week, avoid the fungus…) It’s those little, so organic and human moments that help sell Joel and Ellie as damaged people whose armour is coming down little by little as they prod each other into moving forward – and likely despite their best efforts to remain at a distance. Here, some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the original game, already sardonic and sparky and some is added to open up proceedings – though even a die-hard fan with a keen ear would be pushed to hear the joins. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are both consummate performers who have never been better and make each of their interactions matter and resonate whether it’s the bruised and brittle or the oh-so-rare moments of levity. This is an episode that continues to juggle those factors well, shifting between lighter jokes and harder truths, sometimes with just a look or a bar of music.
Last week’s entry was a tour-de-force – this week’s episode may not have quite the seismic emotion-wallop, but it has an organic rhythm that positively hums even between the dialogue. In the first scene, Ellie and Joel have pulled into a derelict gas station to refill the car they took from Bill and Frank’s house and Ellie is secretly practising with the gun she quietly lifted from the house. It’s not clear to the viewer that she’s totally proficient – more striking a pose than anything else – but there’s a definite indication she’d know how to use it if she had to. Joel knows how to syphon off gas from other vehicles but has to admit he doesn’t really understand the science of it all, just that he can make it work. They pull out back on to the road and there’s a lovely cinematic vista of a desert landscape and a coming storm that brings to mind the dying moments of the original Terminator movie. As ever the road-trip produces a great time to trade tails and memories, but once again music plays a notable part. After Linda Ronstadt was sent flying up the spotify charts last week, it’s now the turn of Hank Williams on the dystopian mix-tape.
As before the episode takes its cues and narrative elements from the game, reproducing some or simply opens them up a little, changing some things (some more than others) but generally using the opportunity to expand on some of the motivations and moments that a more linear game couldn’t include. However tough-ass Ellie may sometimes seem there is there’s a youthful glee to her first trip outside of the oppressive Boston QZ and she’s delighted to learn she may see crashed tanks and helicopters. Joel is less delighted when she uncovers one of Bill’s old issues of ‘Bearskin: The Men of the Den’ and its centrefolds… the sequence lifted word for word from the game.
En route to try and find Tommy in Wyoming, the duo have to work out how to navigate through Kansas City (it was Pittsburgh in the game). The derelict city is full of cars and broken store-fronts and in the background a forlorn passion-pit bemoans long-lost screenings of Underworld and Matchstick Men (both released in the year the virus hit, 2003. After a fake cry-for-help, they face an ambush by a well-armed group of all-too-human ‘locals,’ Joel and Ellie manage to stop their immediate attackers. Using the hand-gun (that she squirrelled away before leaving Bill’s home last week), Ellie manages to save Joel’s life when he’s momentarily toppled by one of the gang. The man surrenders and pleads for his life but Joel, knowing the consequences of guerilla tactics and dangers well, knows that others will be following and so finishes the man off. It’s all the more effective in that the cold and arguably cruel/pragmatic efficiency is done just off-camera and after Joel has made Ellie turn away. In a later discussion, Ellie reveals it’s not the first time she’s had to kill. Thus begins a game of cat and mouse in a decayed urban warren of tenement buildings and alleys.
We’re also introduced to a character not featured directly in the game, Kathleen, the leader of the city’s ‘free citizens’ who have overthrown the FEDRA forces in recent months and have ruthlessly paid them back in kind, killing anyone who collaborated. That Kathleen is played by Melanie Lynskey – whose diverse career has included Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, over sixty episodes of Two and Half Men, Castle Rock, Drive and, most recently, Yellowjackets – gives more depth to someone who could have been a one-note character in other hands. She’s seemingly merciless but in a way that weighs heavily on her. She’s not a sadist, but she will do horrible things to achieve her aims, taking no joy in their (literal) execution. Interestingly, her right-hand man, Perry, is played by Jeffrey Pierce who played Tommy in the original game.
This is an episode that does much to help Joel and Ellie bond, but it also builds on the idea of survival – from basic campfire etiquette to guerilla-warfare and the sense that these damaged characters are only one mis-step or mistake away from a very bad end.
*NOTE: The next episode of The Last of US will be available to the US audience two days early (Friday) as HBO is avoiding a clash with next Sunday’s Super Bowl and SKY will also be moving its broadcast to match.
- Production Design / VFX9