By Benjamin Rose, Editor
After a distinctly underwhelming fourth episode, The Last of Us appeared to be losing its way, leading to speculation in our writers room whether the weakness of “Please Hold My Hand” was the start of a broader decline in the quality of the show or a one-off. The answer, two weeks later, is “a one-off” definitely. Browse coverage of the show here and there and you’ll find arguments, some approving some disapproving, that the show is “skipping to the cut scenes”. There is real truth to this, particularly in the sixth episode. Again and again, the show has eschewed the game’s remarkable violence in favor of character work and brief, uncomplicated action sequences that highlight the brutality of the post-Cordyceps world without drawing attention to themselves. A case in point was the Kansas City ambush in episode 4, whose dramatic effect had little to do with the rote, close-range gunplay between Joel and the bandits and everything to do with the disturbing empathy generated by Brian’s pleas for his mother as Joel executes him.
There are merits to this approach, but also pitfalls. Joel is a hardened survivor but not trained military personnel, just like most of the thugs and revolutionaries he’s offed in the first six episodes. The sort of balletic fight sequences characteristic of films like Extraction or John Wick have no place in The Last of Us because the characters lack the finesse or infinite ammo necessary to enact them. Joel is a late fifties man (canonically ten years older or so than Pedro Pascal), and, as he tearfully confesses to Tommy in episode 6, his best years are behind him. “Five years ago I would’ve destroyed him” he says of Brian, but those five years have passed and more than physical wear and tear is in play. As he begins to accept Ellie as his surrogate daughter, the trauma of Sarah’s death has begun to resurface and the emotional distance he needs to protect Ellie and kill ruthlessly is slipping. Yet barring the conclusion of episode 5, The Last of Us’s combat has started to deeply underwhelm, and while its brief, ponderous fight scenes strike a blow for realism to a degree, we need a bit more of them. No one wants to be the next Rings of Power.
Episode five justly won plaudits from the reddit crowd for its denouement. After teeming up with Sam and Henry to escape “Killer City”, the team got pinned down in a cul-de-sac by an elderly sniper in a nearby building. Flanking the house, Joel dodged bullets (not so hard given the sniper’s “shit aim”) before running up the back stairs and killing him. This immediately alerted Perry and Kathleen, who rushed to their location and prepared to execute the group before one of the Kansans’ trucks collapsed into a sink-hole, unleashing a wave of infected (including a “bloater”) who slaughtered everyone in their path. In a fitting irony, Kathleen was mauled to death by a child infected. Things ended tragically when, after their assumed escape, Sam was revealed to be infected and turned, nearly murdering Ellie before he was shot by his own brother, who immediately committed suicide. Overall, probably the saddest episode since the premiere, and the best since “Long Long Time”. 9/10.
Episode 6 finds Ellie and Joel wandering in the wilderness of Wyoming. After sticking up an elderly Indigenous couple for directions, Joel and Ellie cross the still-unidentified “River of Death” in search of Tommy. They find him. The corpses said to be clogging the river are that of infected and bandits who have attempted to overrun the settlement, Jackson, Tommy has founded with his wife, Maria, a thriving of mix Old West-style frontier democracy and, uh, communism. Tommy’s brief, unsuccessful attempt to deny that he’s now technically a communist is pretty funny. The two brothers have an emotional reunion that quickly turns tense as Joel and Tommy argue about their past and Joel reveals the events of the previous few months. Believing he’s lost his edge, Joel begs Tommy to complete his mission to bring Ellie to the Fireflies, convinced that due to his declining mental and physical health he will only get Ellie killed. This brings up more conflict between Joel and Ellie as the latter learns the truth about Joel’s daughter Sarah and accuses Joel of trying to abandon her. Eventually, they reconcile and set off in search of a Firefly compound at the fictitious University of Eastern Colorado, where they find nothing but a gaggle of escaped lab monkeys and a map indicating the Firefly team made for Salt Lake City, Utah. Just as they’re about to leave, a bandit group arrives, and Joel is gravely wounded in the act of killing one of them. As Ellie and Joel escape by horseback, Joel falls into the snow, his fate uncertain as he clings to life. With episode 7 adapting the prequel DLC to The Last of Us, we’ll have to wait another two weeks before learning Joel’s fate and we begin to see how The Last of Us adapts the original games heartbreaking conclusion. 9/10.