Joel and Ellie have been dealing more with humanity recently, but this week the undead reclaimed center stage.
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By Noel Murray
Season 1, Episode 5: ‘Endure and Survive’
Oh yeah, that’s right … “The Last of Us” is a zombie show.
For the past two episodes Joel and Ellie have been dealing with mere humanity, seeing the best and worst possible paths for their kind from Bill and Frank’s romantic optimism to Kathleen’s “kill ‘em all” bitterness.
But in this week’s episode, which premiered Friday night on HBO Max — it will also air on HBO on Sunday night, opposite the Super Bowl — the undead reclaimed center stage. After Kathleen’s army rolls up on Joel, Ellie and their new allies Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), the ground suddenly opens up and a rampaging horde of the infected swarms out, slaughtering scores of rifle-toting goons. It’s an abrupt reminder of a world-ending threat that has never stopped lurking for the past 20 years. Lately, the survivors of the cordyceps plague have been pointing their guns in the wrong direction.
George Romero’s told this same kind of cautionary tale in 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” and then again in the sequels. Romero’s human characters set up barricades against the teeming masses of mindless monsters; but then over and over they would get distracted by their own bickering, let their guards down and then either get shot by outsiders or eaten by ghouls. The TV series “The Walking Dead” ran for 11 seasons with a similar idea. Though the fortresses on that show kept getting bigger — and the people inside them better organized — year after year, some catastrophic disaster would befall the living and the undead would capitalize.
What distinguishes “The Last of Us” from its predecessors is that the series isn’t about the downfall of human society per se. That’s just an imposing, ominous backdrop to what so far has been a more intimate story. The action this week in Kansas City could have filled an entire Romero film or two or three “Walking Dead” seasons. But here these troubles are just something else our heroes have to move past, while hoping to suffer as few lingering injuries as possible.
All of this though does not keep the episode’s director, Jeremy Webb, and the screenwriter Craig Mazin, one of the series’s creators, from leaning into the mayhem in Kansas City. The result was some of the most straight-up thrilling sequences in this show since Episode 2.
Inside the Dystopian World of ‘The Last of Us’
The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired the TV series “The Last of Us” won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.
The episode begins with a flashback to about 10 days ago, when Kathleen’s resistance movement finally overcame the FEDRA troops and dragged their corpses through the street in riotous celebration. On that night, she begins her tireless search for Henry, a former FEDRA informant who she blames for the death of her sainted brother, Michael. She starts by rounding up all the collaborators she can find and saying — or more accurately lying — that if they cooperate they will get the chance to be tried in her court. (“You’re all guilty, so that’s how that’ll go.”) That is how she learns that Henry and his 8-year-old brother Sam are under the protection of Dr. Edelstein — the man Kathleen will later interrogate and then shoot, as we saw in last week’s episode.
But don’t feel too bad for FEDRA, or for their network of Quarantine Zone snitches. As Henry later explains to Joel, the authorities were so abusive to the city’s residents — “Raped and tortured and murdered people for 20 years,” he says — that the town became known far and wide as “Killer City.”
Henry and Sam are, as suspected, the people who sneaked up on Joel and Ellie in their high-rise office building hideaway at the end of last week’s episode. While leaving Edelstein’s secret bunker, Henry saw Joel and Ellie escape an ambush. Sensing these newcomers could aid their own escape, Henry and Sam followed them in order to propose a plan. The four of them are to travel together through the city’s maintenance tunnels — which Henry insists are free of the infected, thanks to a secret FEDRA project that even Kathleen does not know about — and then sneak out through a residential neighborhood near an embankment, next to the bridge out of town.
On the way though, Henry chooses to come clean to Joel, to let him know that Kathleen has reason to be furious. Henry did point FEDRA to Michael, because he needed medication for Sam, who in addition to being deaf, once had leukemia. (“I don’t work with rats,” Joel reflexively says at one point. “Today you do,” Henry replies.)
So that’s what leads to our escapees facing dozens of militia rifles. They get through the tunnels OK, but then a sniper pins them down after they surface and by the time Joel disarms the gunman, Kathleen’s soldiers have bulldozed their way in. Henry offers to sacrifice himself to allow Sam and Ellie to escape, but Kathleen isn’t moved by any sob story about a sick brother. “Kids die, Henry,” she says. As she pulls out her gun, she adds, “It ends the way it ends.”
Cue the monsters. Before Kathleen can shoot, one of her huge armored vehicles falls through a weak spot in the earth, loosing masses of the extra-ferocious underground creatures that Henry calls “clickers” — including one Big Boss mega-zombie who looks absolutely horrifying and also kind of awesome. (The video game includes a whole hierarchy of the infected.) Thanks to Joel covering his allies from the sniper’s nest as they scramble toward the embankment, all four of them are able to get away in the melee. But they are not unscathed: Sam gets infected. Though Ellie tries to save him by smearing some of her blood into his wound, he goes feral anyway, and Henry has to shoot him. With no one to stay alive for, he then shoots himself.
That’s a truly heartbreaking ending, because these brothers would have made great traveling companions. Ellie and Sam had become fast friends, bonding over her collection of puns and a comic book series they both love. (Quoting the comic, Ellie says, “To the edge of the universe, endure and survive!”) Right before the end, they share what frightens them both, with Ellie admitting, “I’m scared of ending up alone.” Then Sam — poor, doomed Sam — asks the question that everyone should have probably been asking while they were trying to kill each other.
“If you turn into a monster, is it still you inside?”
Kathleen doesn’t stick around long enough to become the formidable tragic villain she seemed meant to be; but Mazin does give Melanie Lynskey two terrific scenes that add dimension to the character. The first is the collaborator roundup on the night FEDRA fell, where she berates the assembly for selling out their neighbors for “apples” and then demands they tell her what they know. (“You’re informers! Inform!”) In the second, she walks around an old bedroom and talks about growing up with her beloved brother, a good man who wanted her to forgive Henry. The point of these two scenes is to show that Kathleen had defensible reasons to destroy FEDRA and everyone who helped them — but she knows she took things further than Michael would have.
Sam and Henry hide out for 10 days in Edelstein’s hidden loft, with a small supply of canned food and a big bag of crayons. Later, they take Joel and Ellie to the remnants of an underground settlement, which has books and games. As always, the great dream in nearly all post-apocalyptic stories — and heck, maybe in life itself — is to find a secure space with some food and something to do, and then to stay put for as long as possible.
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