“They raped and tortured and murdered people for twenty years. And you know what happens when you do that to people? The moment they get a chance, they do it right back to you.”
Following on from last week’s cliffhanger, this week’s Last of Us was again a fairly conventional post-apocalypse tale, nothing we hadn’t seen before. But this story of revolution against oppression and personal grudges unable to be left behind was well told, and had this show’s now trademark thoughtful focus on character rather than action. Not that there wasn’t action – we may have been here before, but Jeremy Webb’s assured direction handled the story well from a well-structured script by Craig Mazin.
Rather than following directly on from last week’s cliffhanger, Mazin’s script flashes back ten days to the uprising against what sounds like a particularly nasty division of the totalitarian FEDRA forces. This is a better way of handling the exposition than just having our characters tell each other about it, but importantly it also sets the tone of moral ambiguity from the outset.
Revolutions – and their aftermaths – are never pretty, and this was no exception. The sheer brutality of the Kansas City Resistance is clear right from the outset; we may have gotten an inkling of it last week with the cold execution of Dr Edelstein, but here we see how they meted out vengeance to their erstwhile oppressors in unflinching detail. The violence onscreen makes the viewer ask how this is any better than the presumed brutality of FEDRA. Particularly the savage joy the rebels take in their vengeance against the federal forces. It’s uncomfortably realised with some very nasty visuals.
Is it justified? Doesn’t it make the rebels every bit as immoral as those they rise up against? The ep asks that question throughout, both implicitly and explicitly. Deliberately mirroring Joel’s confessions of past sins, it shows us that there are no ‘good guys’ and no ‘bad guys’ here. Everyone still alive has done horrible things to stay that way.
As with the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation in 1944, the next ones the Resistance target are those deemed to have collaborated with the enemy. And it turns out, after some while, that that’s why they’re after Henry and his brother Sam (not his son as I thought last week). Again, the script is measured in parcelling out that information, as Henry finally tells Joel the story of his collaboration – turning in the Resistance leader in order to get precious drugs to save Sam’s life.
“I’ve done ‘bad guy’ things,” he confesses, and the knowledge plainly weighs heavily on his conscience. As Henry, Lamar Johnson plays his role with sensitivity, his conscience plainly pricking Joel’s into helping out. Joel, for his part, starts out as the classic taciturn hero from Westerns who wants nothing to do with the town’s troubles, unwillingly and gradually persuaded to help out. It’s well-played by Pedro Pascal, but also nicely lampshaded by Bella Ramsey’s Ellie with an amusing impersonation of Joel’s gruff refusals and her own annoying (and successful) efforts to draw him in.
It’s a laugh-out-loud moment in an ep that, let’s face it, doesn’t have many of them. To its credit, the script shows us as much of Henry and Sam’s pursuers as of the two themselves. Melanie Lynskey’s Kathleen is acting brutally, but in a crucial scene in her childhood bedroom, she outlines to us why – the former Resistance leader that Henry got killed was her brother. And she knows he would have wanted her to forgive Henry, but she just can’t. She’s not as good a person as he was, and she knows it.
It’s also the ultimate, hubristic reason for her ending. She’s doing this for her brother, but she won’t condone why Henry did what he did for his brother. As Sam, Keivonn Montreal Woodard makes a good foil for Ellie, and it’s nice to have a deaf character on the show – though of course inevitable rival The Walking Dead also had a major character who was deaf, and she survived a lot longer than this one.
As so frequently with this kind of story, it’s the human characters’ inability to come to terms with each other that leads to their downfall. If it weren’t for Kathleen’s obsessive pursuit of Henry, there wouldn’t have been that eruption of Infected from below ground to massacre her and her supporters; but it also leads to the tragic and heartbreaking deaths of Henry and Sam themselves.
That Infected attack is thrillingly done, though in truth it’s no surprise to see them show up in the end. The script tricks us earlier on with references to them being in the maintenance tunnels that form Henry’s escape route; I don’t know if you encounter any there in the game, but it seemed like the obvious time for them to show up. That it takes until the story’s climax is a well-played structure.
And they’re terrifying indeed. Far faster than TWD’s shambling Walkers, their eruption from the ground is a shock moment well-directed by Jeremy Webb. Not only are they fast, they’re creepy – witness the strange, spasmodic movement of the Clicker who corners Ellie in that car. It’s also nicely symmetrical that the Clicker, too, is a little girl; like TWD, this uses its child ‘zombies’ sparingly and with purpose.
There’s also that unfeasibly giant one who must surely have been an end of level boss in the original game. Distressingly immune to bullets, his ripping off of the faithful Perry’s head is shown almost as a background detail rather than in our faces. It’s a nice directorial choice to bury it in the melee rather than foreground it.
It’s a measure of how sympathetic Melanie Lynskey made the often-brutal Kathleen that I found myself half-hoping she wouldn’t suffer a similar fate. Lynskey plays it well, the look on her face making it clear that she knows it’s all her decisions that have led them to this point. And Pedro Pascal makes it clear that Joel too is conflicted about leaving her to die – until there’s no alternative.
Bella Ramsey too gets her chance to shine, with her desperate – and doomed – attempt to save the little boy who’s become her friend. In truth, I never really expected Sam, or Henry, to end up travelling with Our Heroes, but their ends are bleak and tragic. It also shows that Ellie’s immunity is not so easily passed on, a fact that surely must be weighing heavily on her as they walk off into the distance. It’s notable that as Joel seems to be thawing, events are making Ellie feel less and less hope as the story progresses.
This was, once again, a tale both familiar but exceedingly well-done. The shades of grey in every character’s morality mark it out from even The Walking Dead, and the hubris involved in the story’s tragic end is bleak. Together with last week’s shorter episode, it feels like a proper two-parter; I wonder if the original plan was to tell this story in just one episode, but a runtime of nearly two hours was considered excessive. That the showrunners chose to take so lo g to tell it, without sacrificing any of that crucial character detail, is another mark of the depth of this show.