The Last of Us: season 1, episode 4 – Please Hold to My Hand

“If you don’t believe there’s any hope for the world, why bother going on?”


After last week’s hugely acclaimed sidetrip to tell other survivors’ stories, this week The Last of Us was squarely back to its main story, with a far more conventional episode. I’ve said before that, however handsomely produced and earnestly written, this is not a show that’s particularly original. The obvious, and inevitable, comparison is to AMC’s The Walking Dead, which, let’s not forget, predated the Last of Us game by several years. Yet even that relied on tried and trusted post-apocalypse tropes going back decades, ones aficionados will have seen/read in the likes of Day of the Triffids, or 1970s BBC classic Survivors.

This week saw the, again inevitable, appearance of one of those tropes – the hostile, heavily armed and unfriendly community (perhaps, as so frequently, with a Dark Secret) that waylays our heroes on their quest. Until they settled down in TWD’s sixth season, Rick Grimes and co used to encounter at least one of these per year.

So it’s familiar territory as Joel and Ellie find themselves forced to abandon the handy truck they inherited from Bill and Frank last week, when a detour through Kansas City sees them waylaid by men with guns. In an ambush technique familiar to just about everyone, their method is to pretend one of them needs help, then ambush their naively trusting victims and take all their stuff.

Fortunately, Joel is extremely genre-savvy – or at least, as he comments, he’s been on both sides of this transaction before. It’s a handy approach that writer Craig Mazin seems to assume the viewer is familiar with these tropes, and doesn’t waste time exposing the deception. The Last of Us may be formulaic, but it’s formulaic in a knowing way. You’ve seen all this before, the script seems to say, and we know you’ve seen it before. So let’s not waste all our time by going into it in detail.

It helps that, unlike TWD and similar shows, the narrative here is set a full twenty years after the apocalypse. So it’s safe to say that the characters too have seen every permutation of what post-apocalypse life can throw at them. That twenty year interval is interesting in other ways too; I didn’t dwell on Joel or Ellie last week, but it was a nice touch that Ellie had never been in a car before, and from her perspective, it was as fantastical as being in a spaceship.

We see more of that here, as Joel ruminates on the denatured twenty year old fuel that barely gets the truck more than a few dozen miles, forced to siphon more at frequent intervals. That’s the kind of practical detail that rarely gets mentioned in stories set After The End; though at least in Mad Max 2, they’re still refining fresh ‘guzzoline’ to keep all those monster vehicles going. Bill’s truck presumably runs on petroleum, but the Kansas City mob are all running diesel vehicles, which come with their own problems – old diesel thickens and clogs up fuel filters. I wonder where they’re getting it from?

Again, practical details, which is the sort of thing I like in a good post-apocalypse story. But that twenty year timeframe since The End comes with other problems. This week, Ellie spends a good amount of time torturing Joel with terrible dad jokes from a book she’s found; and yet I found myself wondering how a kid not born till six years after the end of civilisation would have a concept of what a scarecrow was, or why it was funny that it could be described as ‘outstanding in its field’.

That’s just quibbling, of course. The point of the joke book was to continue building the bond between sarky teenager Ellie and the taciturn, nihilistic Joel. In amongst the seen-it-all-before detritus of the apocalypse, that’s the heart of this show, and what this episode was really about. The truck yields up more of this in the form of a crumpled gay porn mag – looks like it’s called ‘Bearkin’, porn fans – that Joel really doesn’t want Ellie looking at.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey were once again compelling in their byplay, as he thawed from “you’re just cargo” to reluctantly laughing at her terrible jokes and finding himself fiercely protective of her when she was forced to shoot a man. For someone who claims they aren’t building a mini-family, he’s far from convincing.

That shooting, telegraphed early on by Ellie’s practising with her gun, was well-handled in the way she found herself nonetheless shocked by her actions. In yet another familiar twist, the bandit she has to shoot to save Joel’s life isn’t some Mad Max-esque thug, but a scared young kid crying out to be taken to his mother. And yet Ellie has to close her eyes and ignore that Joel kills him anyway – the only pragmatic thing to do in the circumstances. The ep spends quite a while dwelling on this, as Ellie tells him it’s not the first time she’s had to do this – I found myself wondering if she was referring to the sad Infected she put out of his misery last week, or whether there’s more like this we don’t know about her yet.

No sign of any Infected this week, despite our heroes finding themselves once again in the ruins of a once-thriving city that was presumably full of them. Yet perhaps the hostile group living there cleared them out some time ago – though that cracked, heaving basement floor in one building suggests they still have a major fungus problem.

To its credit, Mazin’s script plunges us right into the group’s machinations without giving us any detail. They look fearsome; yet their leader is an apparently motherly middle-aged woman. She seems to have a sympathetic backstory; yet she shoots that imprisoned doctor in cold blood without us knowing (yet) why.

So we don’t know yet who are the ‘good guys’ and who the ‘bad guys’ – though Joel would doubtlessly treat them all the same way. We know there’s some sort of schism in the group involving a dissident called Henry – what’s the betting it’s him and his son who creep up on Joel and Ellie at the end of the ep?

Very familiar territory here then, albeit done well with a knowing wink at an audience who’ve seen all this before. Those familiar tropes, though, are really just the backdrop for the show’s more interesting character development between its two protagonists, and that’s coming along very nicely. Significantly, this is the shortest episode yet; it’s also the first that doesn’t wrap up its story strand by the conclusion. Formulaic it may be, but I’m interested to see how it plays on next week.

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